False information continues to grow in our “post-truth” society not only because people believe lies, but also because we often give lying a moral pass. A study reveals people are more prone to believe lies and spread false information they feel might turn true in the future.
A recent study showed that people might be willing to accept false statements and even spread them on social media platforms if they think those statements could be true in the future. The report was published in the American Psychological Association’ (APA) Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Whether the issue involves a job seeker lying about their key expertise on a CV, a business stretching the truth in an ad, or a politician making a provocative claim, people who consider how a lie could become true believe it is less unethical to tell since they evaluate the lie’s message as being true.
Lies or misinformation are gradually becoming a major issue in society. It fuels political polarization and weakens public trust in politics, government, and industry. “False information thrives partly since some individuals believe it, ” said the lead author, Beth Anne Helgason. He continued, “”Some folks are even aware of its untruthfulness,” he stated, “but are willing to accept it if it accords with their beliefs.”
How disinformation spreads?
The Internet is one of the ways that misleading information spreads. After its creators have seeded disinformation online, it can spread through the acts of other social media platform users. Human action is responsible for much of the propagation of misinformation. People who come across misleading material on social media may actively disseminate it by sharing it or engaging with it in other ways. Other activities with content, such as ‘liking,’ cause social media platforms’ algorithms to display it to other users.
The research was motivated by instances where leaders in politics and business have used claims that “it might become true in the future” to verifiably justify wrong information in the present.
The study investigates how people’s moral judgments about lying are influenced not only by what they know to be true, but also by what they believe might become true.
Researchers performed six different studies involving over 3,600 people to see why people might be inclined to accept false information. They presented a variety of misinformation to the subjects in each study, and some were asked to consider how the assertions might come to pass in the future.
Researchers asked 447 MBA students from 59 countries enrolled in a UK business school to imagine a friend lying on their résumé, for instance, by listing financial modeling as a competence without any prior experience. The subjects were then asked to explore the likelihood of the falsehood becoming real (e.g., “What if the same friend enrolls in a summer financial modeling course offered by the school? Then he’ll gain experience in financial modeling”). When students considered whether their friend would develop this ability in the future, they concluded that lying was less unethical for a friend.
Six false political claims designed for liberals or conservatives were presented to 599 American participants. These claims, among many others, include “The average top CEO generates 500 times more profit than the average worker” and “In the last general election, millions of people voted illegally.” We instructed the participants to make predictions on how and if the statements would come to pass in the near future.
The research subjects on both sides of the political spectrum who anticipated how false claims could ultimately become real were less likely to appraise the statement as unethical than those who did not since they were more inclined to perceive the statement’s broader meaning to be true. This was particularly true when the wrong statement coincided with their political beliefs.
After being randomly allocated to evaluate how focusing on different ideas might become true in the future, the participants described lying as less unethical in the present. “We found that encouraging the participants isn’t even effective on their perceptions about the ethicality of the claims,” said study co-author Daniel Effron, Ph.D.
The outcome of our research was alarming,” Effron said, “considering the fact that urging people to review the ethicality of claims was ineffective in lessening the impact of picturing a future where it might be true. He explains further, “It is a clear indication of the implications that arise from giving media slots or airtime to politicians and business owners who might want to use the medium to spread misleading information or lies.”
Moreover, thinking pre-factually about how a falsehood might become true made people more inclined to share the falsehood on social media. The scientists also discovered that when individuals imagined how misinformation might become true, they were more likely to spread it on social media. But that’s only if it aligned with their political beliefs.
“Even if it’s a false information,”Helgason argues, “the fact that it aligns with your ideology will make you want to share it without any hesitation.”
“We discovered from our findings that our capability for imagination influences our readiness to overlook disinformation and political disagreement,” Helgason added. Unlike true statements, it’s impossible to verify or ascertain statements about what might be true. Hence, advocates who are sure that a lie will ultimately become truth may be difficult to convince otherwise.”
We show that prefactual thinking provides people with a degree of flexibility that they can use to justify lying. We also address the significance for mental simulation and moral judgment theories.