July 13, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

By Olivia Jani
18th February 2022

Throwing yourself into things for which you lack skill can often be an extremely amusing pass time, both for yourself and for any lucky onlookers…

Just think of Anne Widdicombe being dragged around the Strictly dance floor, or Kanye’s presidential bid! These are two examples of commitment-expertise mismatches – and yet they are entertaining nonetheless! This fun isn’t just for the politicians and rappers of the world either. We all enjoy an overconfident commentary on the footy a few pints in at the pub, don’t we?

All harmless and a bit of fun you may say, and likely you are right. However, overconfidence during the pandemic, especially online and especially on twitter, has led to the rise of the ‘armchair scientist’ (an unflattering term used to describe those with an abundance of opinions and not much credential). This may seem a little harsh to science lovers who perhaps merely lack the necessary qualifications to match their enthusiasm. You would be right to challenge the notion that having lots of degrees, or a job title which no one understands always makes you right, because unsurprisingly it doesn’t! However, in today’s digital world, antivaxxers, your slightly unhinged uncle and world-leading scientists alike are all being distinguished on our feeds by a blue tick. Can we really expect ourselves to navigate this messy stream of facts and fiction?  Here are some insights from behavioural science and psychology which consider the notion of ‘vaccinating’ the population against fake news.

‘Prevention is better than cure’ is a common phrase you may hear from the mouths of policy makers or healthcare professionals. It transpires that this notion could not only be true for medical ailments, but also for misinformation. Indeed, psychological vaccination promises to have dual protective power to stop misinformation transmission and reduce its influence.

Just to be clear, before you panic about having to endlessly refresh the NHS website to get yet another vaccine appointment, it is metaphorical vaccination we are talking about here!

So, how does this psychological vaccination work? Just as a medical vaccine operates by training your immune system to respond better to a potential future infection, psychological inoculation aims to trigger protective responses to allow for a stronger resistance to persuasion in the face of fake news concerning an infection.

This protection manifests itself as enhanced critical thinking, strong factual knowledge and in forewarning about the potential threat which misinformers pose. Games such as award-winning Bad News have been devised, where players act as fake news creators. This game is one potential method of psychological vaccine delivery, training the players in their fake news defences. Bad News has been shown to successfully decrease susceptibility to misinformation through demonstrating to players the warning signs to look out for. It also uncovers the techniques used in the production of misinformation and exposes players to fake news. The results so far seem good! But if you are thinking that this all sounds a bit like brainwashing, I would forgive you! For a start, the term ‘psychological inoculation’ couldn’t sound more suspicious if it tried.

Leaving semantics aside, from my understanding, this approach essentially boils down to providing people with a toolkit to engage more critically with what they see online, which sounds far less pernicious than brainwashing – in fact quite the opposite! With misinformation set to become an increasingly prevalent issue, maybe it is time for a new kind of vaccine rollout.

Olivia Jani is a contributing writer for I,Science. She comes from an interdisciplinary background having studied Human Sciences at UCL. Olivia is a current student on the MSc Science Communication course and particularly enjoys exploring the complex relationship between science and society. In addition to her studies Olivia thoroughly enjoys her role as a science communicator in residence at Imperial’s Institute of Infection.