People with dark personality traits more likely to believe fake news

WÜRZBURG, Germany — People who “bend reality to their own liking” and have dark, Machiavellian personality traits are far more likely to embrace fake news, researchers say.

New findings from the Human Computer Media Institute at Julius-Maximilians-Universität in Würzburg (JMU) suggest that people with “dark factors of personality” often reject concrete facts in favor of narratives which suit their own personal needs. People with dark personality traits, including narcissism or psychopathy, are more likely to assume that politics, science, and media entities “fabricate” facts to their own interests — a characteristic similar to projection.

Overall, the less that participants believed in the existence of facts, the less likely it was they would be able to distinguish true statements from false ones. Moreover, the “dark personality” factor was even stronger. That group of self-interested individuals – even at the expense of others – have even more doubt that a difference between scientific findings and mere personal opinions exists.

“You could call their beliefs post-factual; they only believe what feels true to them,” says psychologist and study co-author Jan Philipp Rudloff in a university release.

Accordingly, they find it difficult to distinguish true statements from false ones, so they often believe fake news to be true.

“People with dark personality traits bend reality to their own liking. For example: I don’t wear a mask because the coronavirus was just invented by the media anyways,” Rudloff explains. “Bending the facts based on selfish motives works especially well when people are convinced that there are no independent scientific facts anyways.”

‘Epistemic beliefs are the decisive factor’

Rudloff and Professor Markus Appel gave 600 individuals various short headlines such as, “Trump’s First 3 Years Created 1.5 Million Fewer Jobs Than Obama’s Last Three,” before assessing them for accuracy. Additionally, the researchers had the participants fill out comprehensive questionnaires with questions about their “gut feelings” and how often they assume others are just making things up. Lastly, the 600 people were tested to see how often they assert their own interests, even at the expense of other humans — a test of so-called “dark factors of personality.”

“Epistemic beliefs are the decisive factor,” adds Rudloff. “People who don’t believe in the power of sound evidence and arguments won’t be swayed by even the most impressive fact-checking – regardless of their other personality traits.”

The largely academic term of “epistemic beliefs” can be used to refer to a person’s beliefs about the nature of human knowledge. Put in other words, it’s how any one person believes that others come to know anything and what their criteria is for knowledge.

“In the best case, at some point we learn to evaluate different positions,” Rudloff concludes. “For example: yes, there are different opinions, but some more by backed by evidence than others.”

However, not everyone seems to take this step. In situations like climate change or COVID-19, where a rational assessment of arguments is crucial, this deficit can have serious consequences.

The study is published in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition.

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