When identity trumps accuracy

Print edition : March 16, 2018

Jay Van Bavel.

WE see fake news all around partly because of the sudden spurt in social media. But why do we believe it? Drawing from recent understandings emerging from neuroeconomics research, psychologists say the clues may be found in how we ascribe value to information.

In a study that appeared in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences on February 20, they suggest that valuing identity over accuracy is what leads people to accept incorrect information that aligns their beliefs with that of the political party they feel ideologically closer to.

This value discrepancy, they say, can explain why high-quality news sources are not relied up on often enough. “Neuroeconomics has started to converge on this understanding of how we calculate value. We’re choosing what matters to us and how to engage with the world, whether that’s which newspaper we pick up in the morning or what we have for breakfast,” said Jay Van Bavel, a psychologist at New York University, in a piece written in the journal.

This is what he calls his identity-based model of belief. The model says that people assign values to different ideas on the basis of what matters to them most at the moment and then compare those values to decide which idea they believe is true. Because political parties can provide people with a sense of belonging and help them define themselves, agreeing with the parties can bolster people’s sense of self. And that can sometimes matter more to people than accuracy about an issue even if accuracy is something they normally do care about. When that happens, they will likely believe the ideas that align with their party’s views, no matter how implausible.

This can mean that the sources of information people normally rely on to shape their views have less of an impact. “Having a really high-quality news source doesn’t matter that much if we think the people producing it belong to a different group than us,” Van Bavel said. “They might have the best writers, the best investigative journalists, the best editorial standards, all the stuff that we would normally care about.” But people stop valuing those things, which would normally lead to a high likelihood of accuracy, and instead focus on the group they think the news is aligned with.

T.V. Jayan