During the workday, we are flooded with emails, texts, and other social media. And with the advent of photo shopping and political leaders who don’t divulge the truth, it’s often difficult to know what to believe anymore. Hence, the term fake news has caused many people to become skeptical about what they read or see on television news feeds—even the authentic news.
But a new study says we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Not all news is fake, and even if a story turns out to be fake news, there’s value in it, according to a study in the journal Psychological Science. Thinking back on a time you encountered false information or “fake news” may prime your brain to better recall truthful memories. People who receive reminders of past misinformation may form new factual memories with greater fidelity.
Past research highlights one insidious side of fake news: The more you encounter the same misinformation—for instance, that world governments are covering up the existence of Bigfoot and flying saucers—the more familiar and potentially believable that false information becomes. New research, however, has found that reminders of past misinformation can help protect against remembering misinformation as true while improving recollection of real-world events and information.
Researcher Christopher Wahlheim at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and his research team conducted two experiments with 96 participants, who read factual statements and misinformation statements taken from news websites and then read statements that corrected the misinformation. Reminders of past misinformation appeared before some corrections but not others. Study participants then tried to recall facts, indicated their belief in those recalls and indicated whether they remembered corrections and misinformation.
The researchers examined whether reminders of misinformation could improve memory for and beliefs in corrections. Study results showed that misinformation reminders increased the participants’ recall of facts and belief accuracy. The researchers interpreted the results to indicate that misinformation reminders raise awareness of discrepancies and promote memory updating. These results may be pertinent to individuals who confront misinformation frequently.
“Reminding people of previous encounters with fake news can improve memory and beliefs for facts that correct misinformation,” said Wahlheim. “This suggests that pointing out conflicting information could improve the comprehension of truth in some situations.”
These findings demonstrate that misinformation reminders can diminish the negative effects of fake-news exposure in the short term. According to Walheim, “It suggests that there may be benefits to learning how someone was being misleading. This knowledge may inform strategies that people use to counteract high exposure to misinformation spread for political gain.”
Christopher N. Wahlheim, Timothy R. Alexander, Carson D. Peske. (2020). Reminders of Everyday Misinformation Statements Can Enhance Memory for and Beliefs in Corrections of Those Statements in the Short Term. Psychological Science, 31 (10): 1325 DOI: 10.1177/0956797620952797