Overconfidence in News Judgment is Associated with False News Susceptibility

Jun 01 2021
By Jana Cunningham, University of Utah

People who falsely believe they are able to identify false news are more likely to fall victim to it, according to a study published in Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences (PNAS).

Researchers from Princeton University, the University of Utah, and other institutions examined whether the public’s susceptibility to false news was due to their inability to recognize their own limitations in identifying such information.

“Though Americans believe confusion caused by false news is extensive, relatively few indicate having seen or shared it,” said study lead author Ben Lyons, assistant professor of communication at the University of Utah. “If people incorrectly see themselves as highly skilled at identifying false news, they may unwittingly be more likely to consume, believe and share it, especially if it conforms to their worldview.”

"In our previous research, we focused on literacy skills related to people’s awareness of basic indicators of information quality on social media. What this new study shows is that self-awareness of these kinds of abilities — or lack of it — may be just as important," said co-author Andy Guess, assistant professor of politics and public affairs at the the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.

Lyons, Guess, and others used two large nationally representative surveys with a total of 8,285 respondents. Individuals were asked to evaluate the accuracy of a series of Facebook headlines and then rate their own abilities to discern false news content. They used these two measures to assess overconfidence among respondents and how it is related to beliefs and behaviors.

“Our results paint a worrying picture. Many people are simply unaware of their own vulnerability to misinformation,” Lyons said.

overconfidence FB
People who falsely believe they are able to identify false news are more likely to fall victim to it, according to a study by Andy Guess and his collaborators. (Photo credit: Egan Jimenez, Princeton University)

The vast majority of respondents — about 90% — reported they are above average in their ability to discern false and legitimate news headlines. Three in four individuals overestimated their ability to distinguish between legitimate and false news headlines and respondents placed themselves 22 percentiles higher than their score warranted, on average. About 20% of respondents rated themselves 50 or more percentiles higher than their score warranted.

“Using data measuring respondents' online behavior, we show that those who overrate their ability more frequently visit websites known to spread false or misleading news. These overconfident respondents are also less able to distinguish between true and false claims about current events and report higher willingness to share false content, especially when it aligns with their political leanings,” Lyons said.

Prior research suggests it may be individuals’ lack of skill itself that drives engagement with false news and that people who are worse at discerning between legitimate and false news are worse at doing so in their browsing habits. However, the PNAS analysis also shows that inflated perceptions of ability are independently associated with engaging with misinformation, suggesting the perceptual gaps are an additional source of vulnerability.

These results provide new evidence of an important potential mechanism by which people may fall victim to misinformation and disseminate it online. Although the design does not identify the causal effect of overconfidence, these findings suggest that the mismatch between one's perceived ability to spot false stories and people's actual abilities may play an important and previously unrecognized role in the spread of false information online.

The paper, “Overconfidence in news judgments is associated with false news susceptibility,” was published May 31 in PNAS. In addition to Lyons and Guess, co-authors include Jacob M. Montgomery of Washington University in St. Louis, Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College, and Jason Reifler of University of Exeter.