A brief guide to mental shortcuts

We all use mental shortcuts to process information. But they make a major contribution to the disinformation crisis. Recognizing these shortcuts is part of the solution. 


Cognitive biases are like a runner who cheats to finish a race faster. They make us share articles we haven’t read. Or give credibility to a singing star who expresses an opinion on a scientific subject. Or comment while we’re influenced by emotion. Or minimize the consequences of COVID-19... 

In the early 1990s, psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues provided our tendency to make irrational economic decisions. Since then, researchers in cognitive and social psychology have identified many mental shortcuts, called cognitive biases. This concept is directly linked to the “science of fake news”.  

Like it or not, because of the way the human brain is wired, it constantly resorts to mental shortcuts. These shortcuts make us susceptible to share disinformation, when it strikes a sensitive chord. Here’s a brief guide to help you recognize these shortcuts, and avoid them.  


Confirmation bias 

Confirmation bias pushes us to favour information that confirms our beliefs. Our brain uses it as a filter to simplify our task and sort information faster.  

That’s why we may have a blurred perception of reality, if we only believe the information that suits us (and ignore what we don’t like). We look for information that confirms our beliefs and surround ourselves with people who think like us.  

Social media reflect this. Algorithms sort the content to make it over in our image. This reinforces our confirmation bias by only showing us what we want to see. Let’s suppose an individual was already part of anti-vaccination groups before the pandemic. Social media like Facebook, YouTube and Instagram will expose him to information that confirms his beliefs. 



The halo effect 

We tend to draw conclusions about a person based on just one characteristic or quality. That’s called the halo effect.  

For example, if we find that a person is beautiful or successful, we’ll tend to think this is a good person. Or we’ll give his or her opinion more weight. This is also called the “false fame effect” or “contamination effect”. 

In a pandemic period, the halo effect may induce us to give credibility to erroneous information, just because it’s conveyed by celebrities.  

The halo effect also applies to specialists who express an opinion outside their field of expertise. In Psychology Today, psychologist Terri Apter warns against “the halo error” in the time of COVID-19. That’s when we tend to believe that an expert is a specialist in everything. ““Expert” has become part of his or her identity,” the psychologist writes.  



Popularity bias 

Popularity bias occurs when we believe a claim because many people consider it true. That’s when we believe the majority is always right.  

So people subscribe to a Facebook group, even when the subject seems doubtful, because it has a lot of subscribers. This makes its content seem more credible. The same principle applies to information that seems suspicious. If we see it’s been shared or “liked” many times, we’ll share it more quickly, without checking it out. 

In a time of physical distancing, seeing a large group of people ignoring health and safety measures may induce us to follow their example.  



Normality bias 

Normality bias reflexively pushes us to believe that life will go on like it always has. So we ignore the possibility that a disaster or an unexpected event will turn everything upside down. That’s when people so often tell themselves “it can’t happen to me” when they think of cancer or car accidents. That’s even if they know the statistics and that it can happen to anyone.  

In part, this explains why some people resist adopting the sanitary measures recommended in a pandemic. Sometimes called “negative panic”, this causes us to ignore the warning signs of a disaster and want to continue “life as usual”. It may even cause us to adopt dangerous behaviour.  



Emotional bias  

Emotional bias is an emotional reaction to a situation or information that may disrupt decision-making. A person will be inclined to believe something that produces a pleasant feeling, or to reject unpleasant realities. That’s even if there is rational proof to the contrary.  

Some emotions tend to short-circuit our logical reasoning, especially on social media. In 2018, MIT researchers analyzed 126,000 Twitter shares of news – true or false. They proved that fake news triggering strong emotions, such as surprise, fear or disgust, is more likely to be shared quickly and go viral. More so than true news that generates more neutral emotions, like hope and sadness. Content that triggers strong emotions can put our critical faculties on hold. So creators of fake articles play on our emotions to make us fall into their trap.  


Everyone takes mental shortcuts. It’s important to recognize that our brain plays tricks on us and distorts our perception of information. There’s no need to feel guilty: this is the first step in learning how to recognize disinformation.  



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