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Why Trusting Your Gut Instinct Isn't Always The Best Move, According to Science

CLARE WATSON
3 SEPTEMBER 2021

Trusting your gut instinct might lead some people astray – new research suggests that so-called intuitive thinkers are more likely to believe and share misinformation about COVID-19.

 

The team behind this new study, which suggests analytical thinking can safeguard against the spread of misinformation, says it isn't to do with intellect, but more with a conscious effort to override snap decisions.

"Knowing that a reliance on intuition might be at least partly responsible for the spread of COVID-19 misinformation gives science communicators important clues about how to respond to this challenge," says social scientist Matthew Nurse from the Australian National University (ANU), who led the study.

"Encouraging people to think twice before sharing might slow down the spread of false claims too."

Embarking on this new study, he and colleagues at ANU predicted that analytical thinking skills would help people see misinformation for what it is: inaccurate, misleading, and even harmful. Intuitive thinking, on the other hand, could spell trouble.

"Better understanding these predictors of beliefs about COVID-19 is important because people who believe misinformation about COVID-19 are less likely to follow public health advice designed to mitigate this disease's spread," the team writes in their paper.

But analytical thinking is hard work. Slow and deliberate, it calls upon our working memory to evaluate claims with a critical eye, whereas intuitive thinking – or going with your gut instinct – tends to be fast and automatic.

 

Overriding default decisions takes a lot of effort, so people might fall back into intuitive thinking when their brains are fatigued, Nurse said on Twitter while explaining the study results.

People might also "cling to simplistic explanations rather than deciphering complex information in a chaotic environment," according to a 2020 article in The Conversation by Laval University digital media researcher Nadia Naffi.

But previous research from Nurse and colleagues on attitudes towards climate science, suggests that some people actually use analytical skills to rationalize dubious information so that it fits with their attitudes.

And yet, given time to reflect and rethink their gut response, another study found people can correct their intuitive mistakes.

So the microseconds between reading a headline and deciding to share it are a crucial window in which to intervene. Even subtle reminders prompting readers to simply think about accuracy before judging headlines can improve people's ability to discern between facts and falsehoods, research shows.

In this new study, which took place in May 2020, roughly 740 Australians were presented with ten statements and asked to either rate each for accuracy or report if they would share the information, as an indicator of how they would act online.

 

Five statements were debunked claims about the origins of COVID-19 or vaccines, which research has shown are seeded by a few doubtful conspirators. The other half were public health messages about how to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and protect vulnerable people.

People with higher analytical skills – measured using some curly questions of a standard cognitive reflection test (try it here) – were far less likely to rate debunked COVID-19 claims as accurate or worth sharing.

Analytical thinkers could also better discern true COVID-19 statements from debunked misinformation, compared to people who provided intuitive yet false answers on the thinking style test.   

These findings fit with many other studies, from the US and UK to Italy and Slovakia, so it seems Australians are no different.

The study also parallels earlier research suggesting that the most likely spreaders of misinformation are people who think the content is probably true, helped by the fact it affirms their existing attitudes and values.

"Now that we know that analytic thinking plays a significant role," in assessing accuracy, "science communicators should prompt people to reflect on claims they've heard about COVID-19 and not just go with gut instinct," Nurse says.

The trouble is, people in conspiracy communities think that they are doing what they should: being critical consumers of media, communication scholar Scott Brennen at the Oxford Internet Institute told Nature in May 2020.

However, 18 months into the pandemic scientists have provided buckets of evidence to debunk misinformation about COVID-19, and yet the same conspiracy theories keep circling and harming people.

What matters is where we place our trust, along with being open to challenging our beliefs and biases with new evidence as it emerges.

The research was published in Memory & Cognition.