There’s a time and a place to “trust your gut,” as the saying goes, and scrolling through your social feeds might not be it. Relying only on intuition might make you more likely to defend things that aren’t based in evidence like conspiracy theories or fake news, according to a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE.
Researchers from the Ohio State University and the University of Michigan looked at three nationally representative surveys that included between 500 and roughly 1,000 respondents to evaluate two things. First, how people form beliefs, and second, whether the way they form beliefs made them more or less likely to trust non-fact-based information, according to the study’s press release.
To do this, the researchers looked at how participants responded to 12 questions including “evidence is more important than whether something feels true” and “I trust my gut to tell me what’s true and what’s not.” The idea was to see how much stock respondents put in that “gut feeling” versus hard evidence to shape what they thought was true, according to the press release.
They analyzed the questions responses to “assess people’s faith in intuition, their need for evidence, and their belief that ‘truth’ is political,” according to the press release. (Believing that truth is political essentially means that people view facts as a political construction, the researchers write in the study.)
The researchers then compared how participants decided what “truth” meant to them and where they fell on topical issues like the “debunked link between vaccines and autism,” according to the press release, or the science linking human influence to climate change. They also looked at how respondents viewed what the press release describes as “seven well-known conspiracy theories,” including theories surroundings the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King.
They found that people who felt truth is shaped by “politics and power” were more likely to “embrace falsehoods” compared to people who veered towards an evidence-backed approach, according to the press release. Additionally, they found that people who relied on their gut or intuition to determine truth were more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. Believing that “truth is political was the strongest predictor of whether someone would buy into conspiracy theories,” according to the press release.
“Scientific and political misperceptions are dangerously common in the U.S. today,” lead researcher Kelly Garrett, PhD, an associate professor at the Ohio State University’s school of communication, said in the press release. “The willingness of large minorities of Americans to embrace falsehoods and conspiracy theories poses a threat to society’s ability to make well-informed decisions about pressing matters,” he continued.
Garrett also noted that the research is important to underscore the fact that our biases aren’t only based on which way we vote: “misperceptions don’t always arise because people are blinded by what their party or favorite news outlet is telling them,” Garrett said.
Trusting your gut “may be beneficial in some situations,” Brian Weeks, PhD, an assistant professor at Michigan University who worked on the research while a graduate student at Ohio State, said in the press release. But he aded, “it turns out that putting faith in intuition over evidence leaves us susceptible to misinformation.”
While this study doesn’t offer concrete solutions to our current post-truth era problem, Garrett suggests in the press release that people pay close attention to evidence. “Making an effort to base your beliefs on evidence is an easy way to help avoid being misled.” You can use this to help inform people around you, too. For instance if you see someone make a claim on Facebook without evidence, you can post a link to a trusted source and still be calm and respectful in the process, Garrett said in the press release. “This isn’t a panacea—there will always be people who believe conspiracies and unsubstantiated claims—but it can make a difference.”
Read the whole press release here.