How Emotion Fuels the Spread of Disinformation
In an era where disinformation and conspiracy theories spread rapidly online, it’s important to understand why we’re susceptible to manipulation. Emerging research suggests a connection between emotion and disinformation. When inflammatory, fear-based content triggers strong visceral reactions, it impairs critical thinking and makes us more likely to engage and share without proper verification.
This article will analyze the psychology of how emotions enable disinformation. We’ll look at how anger and fear short-circuit reason, how social belonging biases make us defer to our “tribe”, and how “dopamine hijacking” pulls our attention toward the sensational. By revealing these emotional vulnerabilities, we can become more self-aware news consumers, policing our own biases and knee-jerk reactions. With care and courage, facts and compassion can prevail over misinformation.
Anger Short-Circuits Reason
Anger is a primal emotion that worked to rally our ancestors against threats. But online it often becomes misdirected against exaggerated or false causes. Here’s how anger-fueled emotion and disinformation spread:
- Motivated Reasoning – When angry, we engage in “motivated reasoning,” latching onto any claims that justify our rage and dismissing inconvenient facts that don’t fit our narrative.
- Loss of Objectivity – Anger reduces abstract thinking and nuance in favor of black-and-white thinking. We overlook inconsistencies and context in stoking our outrage.
- False Empowerment – Anger creates a false sense of agency and righteousness. We feel compelled to “do something” like sharing posts without checking if it’s helpful or accurate.
- Sowing Division – Anger-fueled thinking casts the world in “us vs them” terms. We stop seeing opponents as fellow humans, making toxic polarization worse.
- Addiction – Because anger releases adrenaline and dopamine, becoming outraged can become addictive, leading us to constantly seek our next hit of rhetorical self-righteousness.
By recognizing these tendencies, we can catch ourselves before falling into the anger disinformation trap.
Fear Impairs Discernment
Fear is another primal emotion ripe for exploitation. Scary stories spread rapidly because fear impairs discernment:
- Negativity Bias – We pay more attention to negative than positive news which feels more urgent for survival. False alarms rarely get punished.
- Loss Aversion – The pain of potential loss is greater than pleasure of gain. Exaggerated risks that provoke anxiety spread faster than realistic assessments.
- Oversimplification – Fear drives us toward simplistic explanations and solutions even if inaccurate. Complexity gets undermined.
- Lack of Control – Scary situations make us feel helpless. We latch onto false hopes rather than accept hard realities. Outlandish promises spread.
While preying on fears may work well to capture attention, it often leaves us misinformed and paralyzed from action. Being aware of this empowers discernment.
Social Proof Bias and “The Truth”
We like to think we objectively analyze info to discern truth. But in reality our reasoning gets biased by the view of our “tribe”.
- Safety in Numbers – Social proof provides evolutionary safety. When others in our group believe something, we assume it must be true and avoid questioning.
- Identity Protection – Admitting we’re wrong bruises the ego and threatens social standing. So we rationalize or avoid facts that contradict our group’s views.
- The Illusion of “The Truth” – Within a bubble, any belief can take on the aura of “truth” if it’s sufficiently repeated and unchallenged. Alternatives get dismissed rather than debated.
- Herd Immunity to Facts – Groups build “herd immunity” to disconfirming facts. Each repetition strengthens belief certainty despite contradicting evidence.
- Emotion Over Data – Social groups bond over shared feelings, values and threats. Facts that undermine those unspoken emotional ties get ignored or unspoken.
By understanding this social programming, we can consciously override our default biases and think independently. Whoever controls “the tribe” controls truth, unless we dare to question.
Emotion and Disinformation: Dopamine-Fueled Virality
Finally, let’s examine how our brains’ own chemistry makes us prone to spread sensational content:
- Novelty Bias – Seeking novel stimuli is rewarded with dopamine, our “curiosity chemical”. Unusual and salacious stories provide bigger neurological rewards.
- Negativity Bias – Negative news releases more dopamine than positive news, steering us toward fear-based content.
- Confirmation Bias – We are far more susceptible and liable to return to stimuli that reinforces our preexisting beliefs.
- Social Reward – Our brains are wired to prioritize social acceptance. Controversial takes that get engagement offer bigger social status rewards.
- Variable Reward – Dopamine surges for unpredictable rewards. Outrage and conspiracy thrive on baiting users with loose clues and randomly revealed layers.
- Addiction Loop – Just like gambling, anticipating social feedback on provocative posts becomes addictive. The dopamine hit keeps people coming back.
While good for platform revenue, dopamine-seeking habits spread disinformation at society’s expense. Awareness of this empowers our higher values.
Emotion and Disinformation: Restoring Reason
Despite our emotional vulnerabilities that enable disinformation, the truth remains discoverable with care and courage:
- Slow Down – Pausing to let reactive emotions pass before analyzing information or deciding to share reduces missteps. Time brings perspective.
- Triangulate – Seeking multiple authoritative sources to verify claims before sharing guards against manipulation. Reconcile contradictions thoughtfully.
- Suffer Fools – Be willing to engage respectfully with those promoting questionable info to understand their concerns and offer better solutions or facts if possible.
- Debate Don’t Preach – Avoid lecturing or mocking those misinformed, which just entrenches false beliefs. Ask sincere questions that prompt self-reflection instead of reactive defense.
- Mix It Up – Consciously follow media outlets outside our filter bubbles to train objectivity and adaptability. Make space for nuance and complexity in worldview.
With care and courage, truth and understanding can overcome our baser impulses. But it requires embracing wisdom over convenience. Progress requires patience.
- “Reliance on emotion promotes belief in fake news,” National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information
- “Neurocognitive hacking: A new capability in cyber conflict?,” Cambridge University Press, 16 April 2020