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Credibility in fake news is influenced by elicited interest and surprise

A study conducted at the Centre for Psychological Research and Social Intervention (CIS-Iscte) explored the complex interplay of emotions, credibility perceptions, and prior beliefs in shaping individuals' susceptibility to fake news. The study sheds light on the psychological processes that underlie how people engage with news content in the digital age.

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Angela Rijo, currently a PhD student in Psychology at Iscte, and Sven Waldzus, researcher at CIS-Iscte, wanted to understand how people believe and share false and true news. In this study, they examined the extent to which individuals’ prior political beliefs influence their judgments on how interesting and surprising the news are, as well as their judgments on the news’ credibility. Additionally, they analyzed how such emotional responses and perceptions of credibility influence believability and likelihood of sharing that news.

Why interest and surprise? According to the research team, “epistemic emotions differ from general emotions because they are linked to cognitive processes related to information evaluation and belief formation. They shape how individuals respond to new information by assessing its relevance, novelty, and significance”. Angela Rijo explains that according to research “interest and surprise are usually involved in fostering knowledge exploration and the pursue of epistemic goals”. She adds that interest, while not always considered an emotion, relates to attentional efforts when processing information and may play a role in the tendency to believe and share a certain news item. Surprise consists in a feeling of astonishment and wonder toward the unexpected, being linked to how people make predictions, and may increase an added value of a news piece that justifies its sharing.

Another important concept of this study is credibility, a multidimensional attribute that encompasses trustworthiness (perceived reliability and honesty of the information source), impartiality (the neutrality and lack of bias in presenting information), and rigor (thoroughness and accuracy of the information provided). Perceived credibility plays a significant role in shaping how information is processed, believed, and shared. The research team highlights the importance of this concept for the study, stating “credibility perceptions can be influenced by factors such as prior beliefs or whether the information aligns with individuals’ views”.

People participating in the study were presented Facebook posts sharing fake news and true news, in a randomized order. After each news post, participants were asked to indicate whether they believed it to be true or false, rate their level of interest and surprise, assess the credibility of the news source in terms of trustworthiness, impartiality, and rigor, and indicate the likelihood of sharing the news item.

Although true news-posts were seen as slightly more accurate, and more likely to be shared than fake news, participants were not good in detecting the fakes. The researchers attribute that to an emotional process.

“Fake news were, paradoxically, perceived as more credible, which could be explained by the fact that the emotional response to fake news was stronger." explains Angela Rijo.

The results showed that stronger epistemic emotions, specifically interest and surprise, were associated with increased perceptions of credibility in news posts. “Participants tended to trust news items more if they elicited higher levels of surprise and interest, regardless of whether the news was true or fake.”, she adds. The more credible news were then more likely to be seen as true and to be shared.

Participants with more negative views about the political democratic system considered the presented news as more credible and were more likely to share them, particularly fake news, which is not surprising as they were all about imperfections of the political system (e.g., corruption). According to Sven Waldzus, “this behavior may be driven by motivations related to ideology or identity protection.” What surprised the researchers was that they also found these news-posts more surprising and interesting, and that their increased credibility perceptions were fully explained by these epistemic emotions.

The findings also showed that considering news as being inaccurate did not necessarily prevent participants from sharing them, which seems to contradict common sense but supports previous research. According to the research team, interventions aimed at increasing awareness to fake news may result in a decrease in overall belief, but not necessarily in decreasing the intentions of sharing them.

“While our study offers valuable insights into the psychological processes underlying belief in fake news, it is essential to acknowledge some limitations.”, alerts Angela. None of the predictors was experimentally manipulated, which allows for several alternative explanations of the data pattern. The research was conducted using a specific sample of Portuguese participants, focused on political news content extracted from Facebook and only looked at surprise and interest as epistemic emotions. “Generalizing the findings to broader populations and news sources and exploring other emotional factors requires further research.”, the researcher explains.

“Regardless, our findings highlight the importance of considering emotional responses and credibility assessments in combating the spread of misinformation and promoting media literacy among society.”, Sven Waldzus concludes.



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