Everything Is Just Dandy!

How Reasoning and Cognitive Biases Affect the Ability to Resist Truth Decay

RAND: Featured Research
Luke J. Matthews; Andrew M. Parker; Katherine Grace Carman; Rose Kerber; Jennifer Kavanagh
2022 03 29

In this report, the authors address one of Truth Decay’s proposed drivers: characteristics of human cognitive processing, such as cognitive biases. The authors describe development of a survey measure that they used to examine characteristics of human cognitive processing (such as cognitive biases) and assess the results for individuals’ resistance or susceptibility to Truth Decay. The authors focused on six Truth Decay measures: endorsement of scientific consensus, endorsement of verifiable facts, rejection of false conspiracy theories, distinguishing fact from opinion, willingness to accept expert recommendations, and philosophical positivism versus skepticism. The survey used six measures of cognitive biases and reasoning: numeracy, scientific reasoning, magical reasoning, availability bias, unjustified confidence, and ingroup bias.

Generally speaking, greater resistance to Truth Decay on each of the six scales was predicted by greater numeracy, greater scientific reasoning, and less magical reasoning. Among the cognitive biases, greater availability bias was associated with greater susceptibility to false conspiracy theories but also greater trust in experts. Greater unjustified confidence by individuals in their own knowledge was associated with greater trust in experts. Ingroup bias was at times associated with greater susceptibility to Truth Decay (lower endorsement of scientific consensus and verifiable fact, lower philosophical positivism) and at other times associated with greater resistance to Truth Decay (rejecting false conspiracy theories, distinguishing fact from opinion). In terms of demographics, resistance to Truth Decay was most consistently associated with those who had a higher income, those who were White, and those who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Funding for this research was provided by gifts from RAND supporters and income from operations.

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