Does Thinking Style Dictate How We Use Social Media and Engage with Fake News?

Our thinking style can have a huge impact on the way we use social media, including on whether we engage with fake news, a new study has shown. Whether you are an analytical thinker or more inclined to make judgements based on intuition is reflected in your behaviour on Twitter, according to a research team including Dr Mohsen Mosleh, a Lecturer in Business Analytics at the University of Exeter Business School.

In a peer-reviewed study published in Nature Communications, the research team found that reflective thinkers are more discerning in their social media use: they follow other users more selectively, are less likely to share low quality content and misinformation and tweet about weightier subjects such as politics.

The researchers measured the cognitive style of 1,901 regular Twitter users from US and UK using the Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT), a set of questions with intuitively compelling but incorrect answers. Their hybrid approach combined the survey data with digital tracing on Twitter, looking at which accounts participants followed and content shared.

People in the sample who engaged in more critical thinking were found to be more discerning on social media, following fewer accounts, sharing higher quality content from more reliable sources such as mainstream news outlets and tweeting about weightier subjects, particularly politics.

In contrast, less reflective thinkers were more likely to tweet about hyper-partisan content, sales promotions and “get rich quick” schemes.

The study found evidence for what they term “cognitive echo chambers” as more intuition-driven Twitter users tended to follow similar types of accounts, including Argos, Magic Freebies and TopCashback, all of which were avoided by more analytical users. They also tended to share content related to scams and sales promotions. The study aims to address the debate between the merits of analytical thought and intuition in how we respond to certain triggers in our everyday lives.

Dr Mohsen Mosleh said: “There is a great deal of disagreement about the relative roles of intuition and reflection in people’s everyday lives. It has been famously argued that humans are like an ‘emotional dog with a rational tail,’ that our capacity to reflect is underused in such a way that its primary function is merely to justify our intuitive judgements. But our study shows reflective thinkers are better able to use social media in meaningful ways, which has become an important part of modern life.

“These results reinforce the claim that the human capacity to reason is hugely consequential and something that should be cultivated and improved rather than ignored. Research findings that highlight surprising impacts of intuitions, emotions, gut feelings, or implicit biases should be interpreted in light of our findings that explicit reasoning remains central to the human condition.”

The study sheds light on how misinformation (including ‘fake news’) and scams are able to spread on social media, suggesting that a lack of careful thinking plays a key role in driving undesirable behaviour online. It also highlights the type of users susceptible to falling for low quality content.

Dr Mosleh is the lead author of Cognitive Reflection Correlates with Behaviour on Twitter, co-authored with MIT Professor David G Rand, MIT Research Associate Antonio Arechar and University of Regina Assistant Professor Gordon Pennycook.

—The study is published in Nature Communications—