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People who see meaning in random patterns often fall for fake news based on hollow statements

Posted April 28, 2019

It is really easy to trick people into believing false statements. Pepper in some fancy words, throw in some long sentences and be confident saying whatever you’re saying – someone is going to believe you. These kind of hollow statements do not affect all people. Scientists from the University of Waterloo found that people who see meaningful patterns where none exist are more likely to buy into hollow statements.

A lot of fake news nowadays are not really false – they are just not news-worthy. Image credit: Diego Grez via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Fake news are not necessarily lies – they may simply be non-news. Who really cares about what someone tweets or eats for dinner? How does it affect you if someone who you don’t know is rude? What if he gives a stupid advice to someone who is not going to follow it anyway? This sort of thing doesn’t matter and is extremely common. However, some media outlets, driven by ideological biases and the need to force people to read their articles publish complicated articles about all tiny bits of behaviour of public people they don’t like. Fancy words and long sentences make people believe that it is actually a big deal that is being discussed, when in reality it is really nothing.

Scientists conducted experiments with 627 participants. They had to take a look into illusory patterns and then were exposed to various hollow statements. Those who were seeing meaningful patterns where none existed were more likely to endorse statements that sound profound but are actually meaningless.

Scientists say that these kind of traits influence people’s political ideologies and the choice of candidates. People make connections between unrelated stimuli and find pseudo-profound statements convincing enough to be followed. This is, of course, a problem, because hollow statements are often used to communicate no meaningful message at all.

Hollow statements can be used to make someone sound smart or to describe another person as bad without any evidence or weight in these arguments. Martin Harry Turpin, co-author of the study, said: “Across several different pattern-finding tasks, we found a strong relationship between seeing patterns where there are none and endorsing profoundness in pseudo-profound bullshit. This might mean that bullshit works when people are too uncritical in connecting random, fancy-sounding tidbits to events in their own lives, perhaps not unlike how horoscopes work”.

Critical thinking is very important. Nowadays we are bombarded by all kinds of information, but selecting actually valuable pieces of it is not easy. Recognizing arguments based factual statements and separating them from the ones based on subjective morals or emotions is very important. By learning this skill you will soon realize that one side in an argument is often covered with fancy words, opinions disguised as facts and meaningless concepts.


Source: University of Waterloo

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