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The Psychology of (Dis)information: A Primer on Key Psychological Mechanisms

Heather WoltersKasey StricklinNeil CareyMegan K. McBride
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The rise of disinformation

Disinformation, or the intentional creation and spread of false information, is a growing national security concern. While the use of information operations is not a new phenomenon—various actors have used them throughout history for a range of objectives—the connectivity that characterizes the world today allows both information and disinformation to spread faster and with a much greater reach. It is not surprising that a rapidly increasing number of adversaries and domestic US actors are coming to understand the utility of the information space for achieving their objectives and are seeking to weaponize it. The use of disinformation has led directly to real-world events and violence, can have a demonstrable impact on a recipient’s behavior, and can lead its promulgators to achieve some goals simply through its existence, regardless of its believability. Because disinformation’s primary impact occurs in the mind, technological, political, or military solutions alone cannot sufficiently mitigate the threat.

Psychological principles associated with disinformation spread

This report is the result of an extensive literature review across multiple domains, including disinformation, psychology, military science, foreign affairs, economics, computer science, and marketing. Through the literature review, we identified four key psychological principles related to the absorption and spread of disinformation: initial information processing; cognitive dissonance; the influence of groups, beliefs, and novelty; and the role of emotions and arousal. This report describes each psychological principle, explains how the principle contributes to the absorption and spread of disinformation, and details ways to mitigate the effect of the principle on the spread of disinformation.

A critical takeaway from the identification of these principles is that they are not unique to absorbing and spreading disinformation. These same principles are key to absorbing and spreading true information as well. Thus, at an individual level, it appears that disinformation is absorbed and spread through normal, routine, and adaptive mechanisms, which malign actors can exploit and manipulate for their own objectives. The four psychological principles we identified are:

  • Initial information processing: Our mental “processing capacity” is limited; we simply cannot deeply attend to all new information we encounter. Our brains take mental shortcuts to incorporate new information, and those shortcuts can open us up to mistakes. To the extent that we do not process information as deeply as we should, disinformation can be construed as true information.
  • Cognitive dissonance: Cognitive dissonance describes the discomfort we feel when we are confronted with two competing ideas. We are motivated to reduce the dissonance by changing one attitude, removing (ignoring) the contradictory information, discounting the importance of contradictory information, or increasing the importance of compatible information. If disinformation supports our initial beliefs or creates less dissonance than true information, we are more likely to believe the disinformation.
  • Influence of group membership, beliefs, and novelty (the GBN model): Not all information is equally valuable to individuals. Our group memberships, our beliefs, and the uniqueness of the information influence whether we absorb and share disinformation. We are more likely to share information with people we consider members of our group, when we believe the information is true, and when it is novel or urgent. If disinformation is coming from a group member with whom we identify, is consistent with our beliefs, or is new information for us, we are more likely to share it.
  • Role of emotion and arousal in our sharing of disinformation: Just as not all information is equally valuable, not all information affects us the same way. Research demonstrates that we pay more attention to information that makes us feel positively or that arouses us to act. That means we are more likely to share information if we feel awe, amusement, or anxiety than if we feel sadness or contentment. Given that disinformation is, by definition, created by someone, it is more likely to be absorbed and shared if it is constructed to be emotional and arousing.
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DISTRIBUTION STATEMENT A. Approved for public release: distribution unlimited.

Details

  • Pages: 72
  • Document Number: DRM-2021-U-029337-1Rev
  • Publication Date: 9/27/2021