New research provides evidence that media headlines with emotional content influence our social judgments irrespective of whether we consider the news source to be trustworthy or untrustworthy. The study has been published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.
“Rumors, half-truths and misinformation can be consumed and shared non-stop online and have an enormous reach. Although their truthfulness is questionable, they can have a significant impact on personal opinions and public discourse,” said study authors Julia Baum and Rasha Abdel Rahman of Humboldt University of Berlin and Berlin School of Mind and Brain.
“Until now, however, little was known about the consequences of confrontation with such information on how it is processed in our brains and to what extent this neural process influences our judgments. The findings of our new neurocognitive study show that emotionally charged headlines exert a major influence on the way we process information and form judgments of others, even when we do not consider the news source credible.”
In the study, 30 participants were shown fake headlines that contained neutral, negative or positive content about fictitious persons. The headlines, although fake, were placed into screenshots of well-known German news websites and accompanied by a photo of the persons. “Thus, we maintained the distinctive layout of the media sources while experimentally manipulating the content, since the layout and visual design of websites play an important role in assessing the credibility of a source,” the researchers explained.
In one fake news headline, for example, a person was reported to have embezzled tax revenues. Another headline, in contrast, featured a person who had demonstrated outstanding civil courage. After a 15-minute break, the participants provided social judgments of each fictitious person featured in the headlines.
The researchers found that persons associated with negative headlines tended to be judged as more negative compared to persons associated with neutral headlines. Similarly, persons associated with positive headlines tended to be judged as more positive compared to persons associated with neutral headlines.
The participants were also shown logos from the German news websites and were asked if they were familiar with the sources. They also rated how trustworthy they considered each source. Although the participants rated the media sources as having different levels of credibility, these ratings did not appear to influence their social judgments.
“These new findings show that news content that triggers emotions such as excitement or outrage does not simply bounce off us, even when the trustworthiness of the source is judged to be low,” Baum and Rahman explained. “Rather, reservations about the reliability of a source have no effect when emotional content dominates our judgment. Recognizing these consequences of emotionally charged news is an essential first step in protecting ourselves against rumors, half-truths, and misinformation biasing our judgments.”
The brain activity of each participant was recorded using an electroencephalogram (EEG) while they made judgments about the fictitious persons.
Compared to emotionally neutral headlines, the researchers found that negative headlines from distrusted sources elicited an enhanced early posterior negativity, a pattern of brain activity associated with arousal and early cognitive processing. Negative headlines also elicited an enhanced late positive potential, a pattern of brain activity associated with reflective cognitive processing, among both trusted and distrusted sources.
Positive headlines, on the other hand, only elicited an enhanced late positive potential.
“We speculate that this influence specifically of negative (but not positive) social-emotional information from distrusted sources may explain in part the popularity and success of (media) sources of questionable credibility: Untrustworthy negative social information may induce even positive states of enhanced arousal or excitation, increasing the impact of negative information,” the researchers wrote in their study.
“Taken together, we conclude that low levels of perceived credibility may, if anything, even enhance the early reception of negative headlines,” they added. “This may be due to pleasant states of arousal associated with untrustworthy negative information (gossip) or due to a form of evaluative learning resulting in negative affect.”
“We used well-known media sources and participants had clear opinions about their perceived credibility or lack thereof,” Baum and Rahman told PsyPost. “Similar to being confronted with news in real life, we did not explicitly instruct participants to actively suppress the emotional content or to contemplate about the trustworthiness of the source. Instead, they were free to consider source credibility to put their judgments into perspective. Future studies are now investigating the circumstances under which the influence of source credibility can be strengthened.”
The study, “Emotional news affects social judgments independent of perceived media credibility“, was published December 4, 2020.