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Susceptible to Misinformation: Why Do We Believe What We Believe?

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What are some reasons we believe things that may or may not be true? Why is it that misinformation about vaccines is flourishing?

by Nurse Beth Nurse Beth, MSN (Columnist)

Specializes in Med Surg, Tele, ICU, Ortho. Has 30 years experience.

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble it’s what you know for sure that just ain't so - Humorist Josh Billings

Information and Misinformation are Circulated at a Very Fast Pace

How do we decide what to believe and what not to believe? And once we form an opinion, how likely is it that we’ll change our minds?

We’re all subject to emotionally based reasoning, biases and faulty reasoning. When we make a decision, such as whether or not to vaccinate, we evaluate a barrage of information through our individual filters.  

Misinformation Manipulates

There's a great cost to misinformation- a cost to society and therefore a cost to each of us. Manipulation amplifies our fears and stories that intentionally provoke an emotional response make misinformation hard to correct. Misinformation creates doubt and suspicion. 'What if it does change my genes/cause infertility/cause cancer?’

Fred lives in a small town in a mountain area, drives 50 miles every day to work in a hospital, and is choosing not to get vaccinated. He attends a local  church of like-minded people who believe serious effects and deaths of healthcare workers caused by the vaccine are being concealed as part of a larger vaccine-injury cover-up. They believe everyone is being fooled by mainstream media except for themselves and others who share their beliefs. They see themselves as a brave minority, almost counter-culture heroes, standing up for truth and right.

Fred and his friends have lots of “facts”, stories, and examples to maintain their beliefs. 

Recently several members of the church contracted COVID after an indoor concert but vaccinations have not increased. 

Conspiracy Theories

Headlines containing the words “cover-up” grab interest and appeal to the conspiracy theorist in all of us. The most compelling stories evoke fear and outrage. These stories have always been with us and have enduring appeal. Who has not heard that the government is hiding info about aliens, using aborted fetuses, stealing human organs, and lying about foreign policy?  

Conspiracists believe they possess secret important knowledge about world events unknown to others, even experts. People who believe in one conspiracy are more likely to believe in multiple conspiracies.

Conspiracies are hard to combat. Even providing factual information does not dispel conspiracy beliefs. The person presenting facts may be seen as in on the conspiracy. The conspiracist simply digs in and strengthens their convictions. 

Confirmation Bias and Selective Exposure

Our worldviews affect what we are likely to believe and what we are likely to reject. There’s a tendency to give greater credence to information that aligns with our beliefs and to ignore information that doesn't fit with our beliefs, say, around civil liberties and social responsibilities.

Selective exposure allows us to:

  • avoid information contrary to what we believe
  • perceive information selectively
  • forget information we disagree with (selective retention)

Religious Misinformation

Religious misinformation is propagated by influential religious leaders sharing false rumors and even lies. Some of this misinformation worldwide is tragic, such as urging parents not to vaccinate their children against polio. These leaders have influence, a ready platform, and cultural competence with their followers, often using strategically-chosen, emotive language. Some people will believe a religious leader over a healthcare professional. They adhere to a type of groupthink, which promotes loyalty, cohesion, and harmony of the group over individual disagreement.

Identifiable Victim Bias

Anecdotes and stories that cause emotional arousal spread faster and are “sticky”. We connect with stories we can relate to, like a nurse who fainted after receiving a shot, or an anti-vaxxer radio personality who died from COVID. We’re more likely to respond strongly to a single, personable example than to broad statistics. 

Faulty Reasoning

Let’s say a 56 yr old doctor in Florida dies 2 weeks after getting the vaccine. This may be used by some to confirm that vaccines are dangerous, even if there’s no causal relationship. Headlines may spin the story either way, for example, “Doctor dies from vaccine” which is more causal than  “Doctor dies after receiving vaccine” (still implied).

Risk Perception 

People can underestimate or overestimate their risk.

Vaccine skeptics believe they won’t get sick, that COVID is “just the flu” and the risk of getting the vaccine is greater than the risk of getting COVID. Over-estimaters may mask while walking alone outside.

Misinformation Superspreaders

Social media is perfect for spreading fake news . A small group called the “dirty dozen” are labelled superspreaders by the Center for Countering Digital Hate.

They’re said to spread 65% of misinformation, lies, and propaganda about vaccines.

Some are motivated by profit, and some include disgraced doctors. Many have innocuous sounding names, such as “Physicians for Informed Consent” and “Freedom Angels”, deliberately leaving the word “vaccine” out of their names so as not to flag social media rules.

Strategies for Evaluating News

FACT: Be well read and read from a variety of sources. Foster a healthy skepticism, a critical eye, and actively question what you see. Click on the sources and follow to the end. If you’re unsure if it’s valid, then don’t share it.

FACT: Be aware of cognitive fluency, which is when we tend to read articles that are considered cognitively easy-to-read, including even spending more time on an article with a pleasing font.

FACT: Read more than the headlines, and don’t share just because one sentence or a headline is attention-grabbing or clever. Watch out for overly emotional language, excessive explanation points, misspellings, tabloid style, and sensationalism.

FACT: Don’t be fooled by look-alike sources- for example, Abcnews.com is not really the URL for ABC news but it looks official and sounds like legitimate a news site.

FACT: Think before you share. Hold people you hear news from accountable. Let's all ask each other “What is your source?” Fact-check at Snopes.com, Factcheck.org, and other fact check sites.

How do you recognize fake news, and what biases are you aware of?

SmilingBluEyes

Specializes in Specializes in L/D, newborn, GYN, LTC, Dialysis. Has 24 years experience.

We’re all subject to emotionally based reasoning, biases and faulty reasoning. When we make a decision, such as whether or not to vaccinate, we evaluate a barrage of information through our individual filters.  

 

And this says pretty much where we are at. We as humans tend to believe what we want to. The problem is, the disease does not care what we believe or even if we believe in it. It believes in US.

toomuchbaloney

Has 43 years experience.

1 hour ago, Nurse Beth said:

Selective exposure allows us to:

  • avoid information contrary to what we believe
  • perceive information selectively
  • forget information we disagree with (selective retention)

We've seen examples of this in AN threads...

Charlcie, BSN, RN

Specializes in Travel Nurse, All ICU specialties and ED. Has 10 years experience.

thank you for this ! 

toomuchbaloney

Has 43 years experience.

@10GaugeNeedles

Please review this content and apply to the concept of valid reasons versus strongly held beliefs. 

10GaugeNeedles, BSN

Specializes in Acute Dialysis. Has 12 years experience.

On 9/1/2021 at 9:34 AM, toomuchbaloney said:
  • avoid information contrary to what we believe
  • perceive information selectively
  • forget information we disagree with (selective retention

 

1 minute ago, toomuchbaloney said:

@10GaugeNeedles

Please review this content and apply to the concept of valid reasons versus strongly held beliefs. 

Your missing the point. Again and again. You are delving into the concepts of what might behind flawed reasoning. Of course people have flawed reasoning. The question was "what is a valid reason to refuse?" The pt. Can refuse. For any. Reason they choose. That is a valid reason to refuse. Your job as a nurse is not too validate it. Your job is to inform. Period.

Their job is to make the decision. If they make a decision, they think they have a valid reason. It is a valid reason TO THEM. You can inform all day. If they don't trust you because you dismiss their concerns by saying " science science safe and effective" you are only telling them not to trust you.

Tell me the sky is blue, but I have color blindness. I won't believe you. Because what I see is a different color. Waving charts in my face rather than asking me why specifically I don't believe you is not going to help. You are so dismissive. You've thrown compassion and empathy out the door. You are why people are running to disinformation, you and your side. Your "I don't care about your feeling" B ESS is completely missing the point. Well guess who DOES care about those people's concerns? The misinformation people. And THAT is who these people are going to listen to. And guess what. When they refuse, it will be you and your sides fault. 

toomuchbaloney

Has 43 years experience.

6 minutes ago, 10GaugeNeedles said:

 

Your missing the point. Again and again. You are delving into the concepts of what might behind flawed reasoning. Of course people have flawed reasoning. The question was "what is a valid reason to refuse?" The pt. Can refuse. For any. Reason they choose. That is a valid reason to refuse. Your job as a nurse is not too validate it. Your job is to inform. Period.

Their job is to make the decision. If they make a decision, they think they have a valid reason. It is a valid reason TO THEM. You can inform all day. If they don't trust you because you dismiss their concerns by saying " science science safe and effective" you are only telling them not to trust you.

Tell me the sky is blue, but I have color blindness. I won't believe you. Because what I see is a different color. Waving charts in my face rather than asking me why specifically I don't believe you is not going to help. You are so dismissive. You've thrown compassion and empathy out the door. You are why people are running to disinformation, you and your side. Your "I don't care about your feeling" B ESS is completely missing the point. Well guess who DOES care about those people's concerns? The misinformation people. And THAT is who these people are going to listen to. And guess what. When they refuse, it will be you and your sides fault. 

This isn't a discussion that we have with patients.  I don't tell the patient their reason is invalid.  I identify the flawed reasoning and knowledge deficit, I attempt to correct that with accurate information  and they get to choose. 

Their reason doesn't have to be valid for an RN to honor it. 

They get to own their own choices, not blame them on me. 

This comes across as though the use of fetal cells is somehow a conspiracy... its the most factual reason out there to object... And what in the world is religious misinformation? Is that my doctrine is "righter" then yours? 

Nurse Beth, MSN

Specializes in Med Surg, Tele, ICU, Ortho. Has 30 years experience.

3 hours ago, Soloist said:

 And what in the world is religious misinformation? Is that my doctrine is "righter" then yours? 

Religious misinformation is spreading fake news and COVID misinformation. It's contributing to the infodemic. It spreads very fast and can go viral.

It feeds on fear and emotions, and persuades based on religious credibility. It can be harder to debunk.

anewsns

Specializes in Neurosciences, stepdown, acute rehab, LTC. Has 8 years experience.

Thanks Nurse Beth! I am soon going to read a book about how belief systems are formed in light of events in recent years. I am curious about all beliefs that are foreign to mine. I do feel that a persons surroundings influence their beliefs the most. Misinformation is very prevalent in certain pockets of the population. I am always trying to assess my own biases and find all kinds of them. It has helped me create a more coherent belief system over the years. It is a lot of work. 

Closed Account 12345

Has 16 years experience.

I think it's pretty clear that the public education system has failed this nation by turning out poorly educated graduates for at least the past two decades. 

According to the Nation's Report Card, published by the US government, 78% of high school seniors are not proficient for grade level in science, 76% of high school seniors are not proficient for grade level in civics, 88% of high school seniors are not proficient in history, and 63% of high school seniors can't read at grade level. Guess what; they still get the diploma. This was not an isolated fluke of a year (2019 data) but an ongoing trend. It is no wonder that these same adults can't think critically or evaluate evidence. Our society considers reading internet memes, forums, and news comments "research." Health literacy statistics are shameful. Culturally, we have promoted the lie that feelings and opinions are as valid as objective truths. 

Dumb people down enough and they'll believe what the loudest voices tell them. The loudest voices tend to come from those with extremist beliefs (both ends of the spectrum) and plenty of time on their hands. Voila! Sitting ducks for misinformation!

 

The best answers I have ever seen to this question can be found at Nick Carmody JD, MS Psych (@Nick_Carmody)