Micro-Actions, Mistakes, and Misinformation: Papers We’re Reading: Week 7

March 1, 2021  |  By: Celia Fidalgo

Helping Others Forget Bad Experiences

Mistakes are an inevitable part of life. Despite making every effort to keep our word and fulfill our obligations, every once in a while we hit an unexpected roadblock and find there’s no way to avoid letting someone down.

What’s the best way to handle these scenarios? How do we minimize hurt feelings and ensure that our slip-up is readily forgotten? It’s easy to downplay the severity of our mistake. For example, if you know an important deliverable will be over a week late, it’s tempting to tell your client it’ll be “a few days behind schedule.” However, it turns out that downplaying the consequence can have the opposite effect that we want.

This is because emotional or surprising events carry disproportionate weight in our memory. If you expect that a movie will be of award-winning quality and the meal accompanying it gourmet, then find the movie boring and a hair in the food, your unmet expectations will linger in your memory for weeks.

But it turns out the memory boost for negative events can be attenuated if you pre-warn individuals that the negative event is going to happen. A recent study showed this: Participants were put through the stressful experience of engaging in a job interview that required them to give a public speech about why they were the ideal candidate — to an audience of disinterested scientists. Half of participants were warned beforehand about the nature of the interview. The other half were not informed about the interview at all, and instead warned of a memory test that would follow the interview. Physiological stress was measured via cortisol levels and brain activity.

Intuitively, you might think that being told in advance about a stressful experience would be more nerve-wracking than ignorance, thus generating more negative emotions overall and enhancing memory of the event. However, researchers found the exact opposite. Forewarning reduced subjective feelings of stress and physiological indicators of stress, and reduced participants’ memory of the event later. This study has broader implications on expectation-setting as a way of dealing with anxiety and PTSD. And in everyday life, it suggests that accurately conveying bad news before it happens is a winning strategy.

Kalbe, F., Bange, S., Lutz, A., & Schwabe, L. (2020). Expectancy Violation Drives Memory Boost for Stressful Events. Psychological science, 31(11), 1409-1421.

Micro-Actions Can Change Preferences

It’s natural to assume you make choices based on your preferences. You choose to eat food or watch shows based on your likes and dislikes. Interestingly, decades of research in behavioral economics shows that preferences are unstable. One example is that your current choices have a reinforcing effect on future preferences. This means, for example, that the one time you chose to watch “Stranger Things” instead of “Black Mirror” makes you less likely to watch “Black Mirror” in the future (and you should — it’s great!).

This effect is called choice-induced preference change, and has been shown for a range of choice-types and contexts. The key insight is that when you make an arbitrary choice between equal-value items, you will later avoid the item you didn’t choose, even though its value is unchanged. This isn’t a short-lived effect, either; avoidance of the unchosen item can last for years.

Since making an initial choice has such a large consequence on future decisions, it’s important to know which factors can influence the initial choice between equal-value items. In a series of experiments outlined in a Nature Neuroscience article, researchers exposed one of the more obscure factors that can influence an initial choice: whether you’re forced to make any movement in a positive direction toward one of the items.

The effect is very unintuitive. In the experiment, participants were shown a series of candy bars, one at a time. On occasion, while a candy bar was on screen, a bell would ring, at which point participants were to press a button as quickly as possible. In pressing a button while a bar was present, participants “acted” (i.e. executed a motor movement) towards the bar.

Participants did this for a few minutes, randomly pressing a button while some candy bars were presented with a bell and passively watching others that were not. Experimenters measured eye movements to ensure participants were paying attention to all the bars equally. Later, participants chose which bars they wanted to take home. They found that participants were more likely to choose bars that had been randomly paired with the bell. This effect was only true when participants had to press a button during the bell — the bell alone was not enough. The shifted preference for acted-on bars lasted, in some cases, for months.

This suggests that arbitrary actions towards items in the world (e.g. hovering your mouse over an item, picking up an item in the grocery store and putting it down again) all work to influence your future preferences. How malleable is the human psyche!

Schonberg, T., Bakkour, A., Hover, A. M., Mumford, J. A., Nagar, L., Perez, J., & Poldrack, R. A. (2014). Changing value through cued approach: an automatic mechanism of behavior change. Nature neuroscience, 17(4), 625-630.

Increasing the Accuracy of COVID-19 Information Shared Online

Both this year and last, inaccurate information about the COVID-19 pandemic spread widely online. This was, in part, to be expected. The virus’s effects needed to be observed and studied, given its novelty. But even as research was conducted, inaccurate headlines caught on seemingly as quickly as accurate ones. Some of the most dramatic proliferation of false information happened on social media, where individuals actively shared inaccurate articles with their networks.

Interestingly, people do not share misinformation because they don’t care about accuracy. Most people report that they generally wish to avoid reading or sharing inaccurate information online (a value that should be especially strong during a global health crisis). So what leads to the discrepancy? Why does misinformation spread if most people wish to avoid spreading it?

There are two potential answers: one, people can’t discern what is accurate versus inaccurate. The other is that even though individuals value accuracy, they value other aspects of the article more highly. To tease apart these explanations, a recent study showed 800 individuals a mix of true and false statements about COVID-19. Half were asked about the accuracy of each statement, and were quite good at discerning which headlines were accurate. This suggests that, on average, the public is relatively knowledgeable about the facts of the pandemic.

The other half were simply asked whether they should share each article online. Crucially, the second group’s responses did not align with the first group’s accuracy judgements. The second group was more willing to share false stories and less willing to share true stories, relative to the accuracy endorsements from the first group. This suggests that even though individuals know certain stories are false, the false stories have significantly stronger appeal, and individuals de-prioritize accuracy. 

As an intervention, researchers made accuracy more salient by having a new group of participants first rate the accuracy of non-COVID related statements. Next, participants were asked to indicate whether they would share the same set of true and false COVID-19 articles. Researchers found that this simple tactic raised willingness to share true articles, and lowered willingness to share false articles. Asking participants to think about accuracy right before they share a post is a novel, subtle way to reduce the spread of misinformation.

Pennycook, G., McPhetres, J., Zhang, Y., Lu, J. G., & Rand, D. G. (2020). Fighting COVID-19 misinformation on social media: Experimental evidence for a scalable accuracy-nudge intervention. Psychological Science, 31(7), 770-780.

See week 6 here. 


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