Good At Spotting Fake News? You Might Have A Superior Memory

By | August 5, 2016

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In this “post-fact world” we live in, with fake news permeating social media feeds, the ability to sniff out what’s responsible journalism and what’s garbage is its own reward. But according to a small new study, a knack for spotting Macedonian teen fiction masquerading as political news might also be a sign you’ve got a good memory.

Research published by the Association for Psychological Science found that an ability to detect misinformation was associated with an improved ability to recall information later on. In an experiment, people who noticed factual inaccuracies about an event they witnessed were more likely to remember the exact details of the event compared with people who never saw the misinformation in the first place.

How it worked

The study was broken up into two similar experiments. For the first, researchers showed 72 undergraduate volunteers six slideshows. Each slideshow contained 50 photos that detailed a particular event, like a thief discovering $1 bills in a car. After studying the presentations, the participants then completed an unrelated five-minute task designed to distract them. 

After the distraction, they were given descriptions to read with each of the slides they saw in the presentation. They were either shown captions consistent with what actually happened in the photo (”He examined the bills and saw they were all $1 bills”), neutral captions (”He examined the bills and saw they were all U.S. currency”) or incorrect descriptions (”He examined the bills and saw they were all $20 bills”).

The participants were given one more distraction task. Then they took a multiple choice test which measured what they remembered from the original slideshows. This included questions like “What kind of bills were in the car?” The volunteers were also asked to report if they noticed any discrepancies between the original slideshow and the presentation with the descriptions.

People who reported seeing misleading facts in their descriptions were more likely to select correct responses in the multiple choice test. Those who never saw the misinformation ― in other words, read the neutral descriptions ― were less likely to remember the specific details of the event.

What this means in real life

The second experiment used the same process as the first and resulted in a similar outcome, but the researchers also looked more closely at which information was more vulnerable to false statements. They found people were more likely to remember misinformation about insignificant or less memorable details in the photo.

Previous theories about memory interference with false information imply that it could hurt a person’s recall, said lead study author Adam Putnam, a psychological scientist at Carleton College. However, this new research points to the idea that misinformation could actually help in some cases.

Specifically, if people keep an awareness that inaccuracies exist, it may help make their recall about what actually happened sharper. Despite the disheartening and occasionally dangerous trend of fake news (Pizzagate, anyone?), these study results also suggest individuals might be hardwired to not fall into the trap. 

So, perhaps the lesson here is just to keep being vigilant the next time you stumble across an overzealous headline shared by your conspiracy-theorist uncle. If anything, you may be boosting your memory.

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