What's Happening in Character?

What’s the Real Problem with Fake News? We Are Wired to Believe It

Posted by Jason Ohler on Thu, Aug 24, 2017 @ 09:08 AM

jason 0.pngThe issue of fake news speaks to the core of any character education agenda because it threatens our ability to be informed, civil contributors to social discourse. Unfortunately, fake news is not as straightforward an issue as we would like it to be. An example will help us understand the challenge we face in this area.

 A football game in 1951 inspired what would become a landmark study in psychology. Dartmouth and Princeton squared off in an end of season match that turned ugly, resulting in a broken nose, a broken leg and a flurry of penalties. The game’s lack of sportsmanship became the topic of much public debate, with each side blaming the other for the lack of civility on the field.

Psychologists Drs. Hadley and Cantril, from Dartmouth and Princeton respectively, decided to study the differing responses to the game as a perceptual problem. They administered a questionnaire to a sample of students from each of their universities. They also showed a recording of the game to separate samples of their students. In both cases the question the researchers essentially wanted the participants to answer was, “So, being as objective as you can possibly be, what did you see?”

The results? Participants overwhelmingly “saw” a version of the game that was not aligned with reality. Further, participants “saw” the game’s nastiness as the other team’s fault. The researchers’ conclusion, which appeared in their report titled They Saw a Game: A Case Study, reads as follows: “It seems clear that the "game" actually was many different games and that each version of the events that transpired was just as "real" to a particular person as other versions were to other people.”

Confirmation Bias - Fake News’ Best Friend

This is just one of many studies over the years that has rediscovered the following essential truth about human nature: we see what we want to see. More importantly, we look for evidence that supports the belief systems we already have in place using perceptual myopia as a means of limiting our input. The psychology community has given this phenomenon a name: confirmation bias. Without confirmation bias we have to continually test our beliefs and hope we can survive the emotional chaos that results as we reshuffle our worlds. The reality is that we will do just about anything to avoid the confusion and powerlessness that comes with chaos. Advertisers know this only too well. In their quest to get us to feel rather than think, they craft simple, powerful emotional messages that confirm biases that we already hold dear.

Test Your Own Bias

To drive home the reality of confirmation bias to my Media Psychology PhD students at Fielding Graduate University, I ask them to observe their media input for a few days: TV programs they watch, newspapers and magazines that they read (paper and otherwise), email listservs they hear from, people they talk to, social media sites they frequent, YouTube videos they watch, newscasts they listen to…everything. Then, I ask them to use the power of objective inquiry they have hopefully developed as social scientists to infer the confirmation bias they use to build their worldview based on their choice of media sources. Every one of my intelligent, self-aware, well read students is surprised, often shocked, at the constraints of the filter bubbles they live within, all of which confirm rather than challenge their biases.

We are all in the same boat. We gravitate toward information that supports our worldview; whether the information is real or fake often isn't even on our radar. Then we go about our business convinced that our worldviews are informed and complete, and that we are responsible and balanced in our decision making. But we are blinded by what McLuhan called “ground” – the environment of our perceptions that we can’t see to question. These limitations seem to form the bedrock of the human condition.

What’s Our Response?

When it comes to helping our children, we should insist our schools teach media literacy and digital citizenship as a matter of course. Whether our children are consuming or producing media, they should be able to distinguish entertainment from journalism, and opinion from factual presentation. They should be able to effectively inquire about a news source’s agenda and means of presentation. Developing this skill set needs to become a staple of education’s curriculum, not an add-on when convenient.

And we should teach character education from day one as a way to help students live media-based lifestyles that are informed, inspired and responsible. From the Talmud comes a saying made famous by Anais Nin which seems to explain so much: "We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are." The message for us is clear: we need to teach our children not only how to think, but also how to be. After all, the quality of our news is determined by the quality of the people who create it.


Dr. Jason Ohler has been writing, researching, teaching and speaking about the application of character education to digital lifestyles for three decades. More at jasonOhlerIdeas.com, where you can subscribe to his newsletter, Big Ideas, and read about his latest book, 4Four Big Ideas for the future.

The Spanish version of this article can be found here: What's the real problem with fake news? We're wired to believe it.