This Is Your Brain On Fake News: How Biology Determines Belief

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This Is Your Brain On Fake News: How Biology Determines Belief

This weekend a friend told me he’d shared one of my articles with a friend of his who’s a “massive” Trump supporter. Let’s call him Danny. “Danny started reading everything you write,” my friend said. He laughed. “He loves you.”

A miracle, right? I’ve broken through the reality barrier, engaged a Trump supporter intellectually, and persuaded him there are other stories that make sense, that actually make more sense, and that things often aren’t what the Trump camp says they are. And I did it through journalism of all things. Unreal.

And yes, it is unreal. Danny obviously doesn’t love me. He doesn’t like my writing or agree with one word of it. It’s the complete opposite: Danny hates my articles and in a sense probably hates me. Yet my friend wasn’t lying to me. Danny really has been reading a lot of my stuff, and he loves it. More accurately, he loves to hate it.

There’s a troubling phenomenon at the center of the still-raging “fake news” debate. Well, there are a lot of them, because there are an awful lot of reasons the war on the media has had such staying power. Xenophobia, populism, need for control, Trump’s cult of personality, and genuine frustration with what seems like eagerly biased reporting. I don’t want to discount those things here, because there’s a lot to be said on this topic, but I want to keep a sharp focus: the core appeal of calling The New York Times “fake news!” isn’t political or societal or tribal. It starts on an individual level, with biology and cognitive psychology, and it ripples out from there. This same phenomenon applies to religion and sports fanaticism. It applies to everyone, to you and to me. And it’s pretty fucking frightening to think about, whoever you are, whichever side of the national divide you’re on.

The essential thing is that we’re addicts, and the war on media gives us a fix. This is why my friend chose the odd way of phrasing Danny’s seething dislike for me as “love.” He’s addicted. This is also why Trump can’t seem to stop watching or reading about himself, even when it’s critical. (Especially when it’s critical, but more on that in a bit.) Trump’s narcissism plays a big part, but more fundamentally he’s an addict.

In this article I’ll show you exactly what we’re up against, both in our political opponents and in ourselves. Fake news is biology: it lives in the subconscious, beyond the reach of reason. It goes literally beyond belief, because belief isn’t possible without choice, and in this information era we’re constantly being offered instant gratification in the form of choice. Fake news is deeply, universally, anciently human, and it’s deeply troubling. So let’s start with a war.


Right now America is at its most tribal. We’re in a war with ourselves, one unlike any we’ve fought before: it’s psychological. We don’t see it, but we can feel it. So maybe an analogy will help.

Okay: it’s 5:39 in the morning in the White House. Donald Trump, the President of the United States, has just rolled out of bed in his white bathrobe, his hair something out of a David Lynch film, and lumbered across the floor towards the terrifying bar of yellow light under the bedroom door that reminds him he’s got yet another day ahead of him as President of the United States of America. Through that bar of light Jared Kushner has dutifully slipped the morning edition of The Failing New York Times. Mr. Trump lifts it up and bam, a bullet whizzes by his head: Trump Is China’s Chump.

He goes straight to his bedside table for his trusty Android device and takes to Twitter to fire back:


It’s a joke! Ah, that feels better. Feels better to his supporters too: yeah, the liberal media is attacking Trump, as per usual, but Trump is calling their bullshit. And so the cognitive conflict is resolved, and we’re rewarded for it. There’s a biological explanation for this mechanism.

When you get shot at in a war, your body kicks into high gear, sends out surges of adrenaline and other chemicals as a way to cope with the threat, to boost your energy, courage, and acuity to survive. Many people describe this rush as so yuge and gratifying they can’t replicate it in civilian life, and many are drawn back again and again to the front lines.

Not all soldiers do this, of course, because the threat of being killed in a war is physical and very real. But in a psychological war we’re not aware of the threat. It’s invisible and doesn’t seem as real. But it is. And so we go back to the front lines.

But why?

Biology, that’s why

Simply put: whenever Trump says “fake news!” he’s basically giving his supporters a drug. A fix. Here’s the research that informs my take, from an On the Media interview that aired after the 2016 election.

Drew Westen, professor of psychology at Emory University, conducted a study in 2006 where he used fMRI brain scans to watch what happens to voters’ brains when presented with information that challenges their convictions about candidates they support. The results on the surface are unsurprising: voters were just fine using their reasoning abilities to criticize the opposing candidate, but their reasoning froze up when confronted with evidence that undermined their own candidate. They got terrified. Deer in the headlights.

Here’s what happens in your brain when you hear that Russia helped Trump win the election, or alternatively, that it was Obama’s fault:

WESTEN: They saw danger. They saw a threat, and you could see it all over their brain. Then what you saw was activation in the part of the brain called the anterior cingulate. It monitors and deals with conflict.

So you could see that they were in conflict; they were trying to figure out a way out of that conflict. And then you saw, after they had come to their conclusion that there was really no problem for their guy, what you saw was activation in parts of the brain that are very rich in the neurotransmitters that are involved in reward. These are the circuits in the brain that get activated when junkies get their fix.

OTM: You mean once they figured out how best to lie to themselves, they got a blast of oxytocin or something?

WESTEN: [Laughs] Very, very close, that’s right. So they got this huge blast of dopamine, which is involved in reward.

OTM: In other words, the same thing you get when you take coke.

WESTEN: That’s exactly right. There was no reasoning at all going on.

Basically, if you can convince yourself you were right, you get high. This is why Danny “loves” to read my stuff. Danny loves feeling good, and he feels good when he convinces himself I’m wrong. The more intense and regular it is, he gets that hit more often and can get it more quickly. He’s not hooked on love. He’s hooked on hate.

Pause and consider that sentence again. It should frighten you.

This helps explain the rise in “whataboutism.” It’s stimulating precisely because it’s purely divisive, purely tribal. The evolutionary explanation is that when our beliefs are reinforced, this simultaneously reinforces or strengthens our bonds with others like us. That is, we bond more with our tribe, and those bonds lead to good things for your chances of reproducing: when our tribe’s bonds get stronger we engender more trust and cooperation, then become more powerful, and live longer, and have a better chance of reproducing.

And so that’s one reason we return for the fix, blissfully unaware that Sean Hannity is a drug dealer.

Sean Hannity is a drug dealer

I sure as shit don’t watch Fox News. But think about this: the news I consume lines up pretty reliably with my reality, but that news also happens to be the big names, the historically culturally dominant media: NBC, The Times, The Post, BBC, CNN (#FNN!), etc.

The alternative media, though, is insurgent. Think about that name: “alternative.” Alternative to what? They have to frame themselves against something, in opposition to the mainstream media and the prevailing narratives. You don’t see The New York Times attacking Fox News, but you’ll see Fox News attack the NYT. This isn’t simply because a lot of the people running the NYT have higher scruples or because a lot of the people at Fox News are petulant assholes. No, it’s also because Fox News anchors and viewers literally get high when they knock down information that challenges their convictions.

That’s right: Sean Hannity is a drug dealer. So are Alex Jones and Rush and Brit Hume and all those other bloviating gasbags.

This age of information is really just a huge drug market. When you get your fix from the same information as someone else, you’ll connect and reinforce your beliefs and start giving each other fixes too. You build trust, dependability. Eventually, you build a tribe. And considering Donald Trump’s reach, the President of the United States is one of the biggest drug dealers on the planet. He hits his supporters with the drug of conviction, and his critics hang on his every word because they’ll send them in search of the facts that reaffirm their conviction that the President is a lying, vindictive, mentally unstable blowhard.

And I acknowledge it felt good, dopamine-wise, to type that.

This also, you’ll see, applies to conspiracy theories, which are elaborate and often unprovable stories that offer an alternative to an inescapable prevailing narrative. If this mainstream narrative threatens your beliefs or your belief system, you might find these stories appealing. They offer control through creativity: creativity is a type of control. Hell, I think conspiracy theories are pretty entertaining. #Pizzagate is completely bonkers. I love it, and perhaps because it reaffirms my belief that I’m sane. Is dopamine involved there on some level? Maybe.

For instance, when I first heard the Seth Rich conspiracy theory, I was floored. It was insane and desperate and above all an unconscionably inhumane thing to do to a grieving family. But there it was on Fox Fucking News, gaining cultural traction. So I hit the internet and about three seconds later felt okay again. Better than okay, really. I actually felt good, superior to Sean Hannity. As everyone should. I got my fix.

But many people, real humans presumably with brains, are doing mental and moral gymnastics in order to believe this Seth Rich horseshit. It’s because this is the perfect fake news story: you can’t prove Hannity is wrong. He’s built a palace of doubt, totally empty, and he’s furnishing it with imagination.

The scientific word for this is “unfalsifiable.” That means you can’t prove it wrong. After all, if we haven’t learned anything over the past year it’s that evidence doesn’t lead to belief. To believe something you need one more step: you need to choose.

And wouldn’t you want to choose the thing that makes you feel good? Just ask the Pope. The Dalai Lama. Monks. There’s a reason people keep going to church. Deeply religious people are some of the happiest people on the planet.

Recent research suggests that the more religious you are, the more likely you are to favor unfalsifiable evidence to explain your faith (“the lord works in mysterious ways”), as opposed to using falsifiable (that is, empirical or scientific) evidence (“man walked the earth with the dinosaurs”).

Further, when people with high religiosity feel their beliefs are threatened, this preference for unfalsifiable evidence—for the unprovable—intensifies.

In the light of the study I mentioned above, this is pretty easy to explain: people are afraid of being wrong and they’re incentivized to be right. When someone gives them a way to rationalize their original belief, they identify with that person and with likeminded others, form tribes, have social success, achieve power and control, etc.

Even more interestingly, when the testability of a claim wasn’t mentioned—when people don’t know if the evidence if falsifiable or not—highly religious people show no preference between the two types of evidence. It’s only when they know they’re using unfalsifiable information that they prefer to use it—and especially when threatened.

Isn’t that bizarre?

If you’ve ever called someone out on Facebook you know what I’m talking about: that person will either cling tighter to the lie, or they will lie more, or about more things (“whataboutism”). The fact that they’ve been called out is sort of a badge of honor or rite of passage into supporting Trump. Don’t we understand their choice has nothing at all to do with what people on the left believe or tell them is true?

Further, this absolves conservatives of being the ones to draw the line—the person challenging their belief is the one who’s being divisive. (Remember our example with 5:39 in the morning Trump.) When your belief is challenged and you defeat that challenge you’re rewarded with dopamine and, in an evolutionary biology sense, with solidarity with your tribe. The wilder, more unfalsifiable your claims, the more you’re proving your faith. This digs you in deeper to a common identity—an identity that could be religious, but in our case happens to be political.

Note that this doesn’t have anything to do with being correct, or with using the system of logic to reach sound conclusions. This has everything to do with getting a fix from your dealer.

But what exactly does this have to do with Trump? These authors don’t believe their results only apply to religion:

“Political and religious ideologies are relatively substitutable for one another because they are rooted in the same psychological needs. Therefore it seems plausible that unfalsifiability might also bolster other types of worldviews or self-views that fulfill deeply held existential psychological needs.”

In other words, cognitive research explains the popularity of fake news as an existential phenomenon, be it religious or political. This phenomenon is driven not by Facebook ads or Twitter bots or Google’s algorithm, and not simply by people believing what they want to believe—people want to believe what others like them believe.

This is why your brain is designed to give you the reward: it’s about deeper issues, such as identity, belonging to a tribe, faith, and agency. And those things get you places in life. You’re more likely to survive, and more likely to have kids. After all, it’s not Facebook’s fault you believe the crap it feeds you. It’s your own fault. It’s your fault you share it. Facebook can’t change beliefs, and evidence shows that taking steps to do so will probably just strengthen beliefs, uniting the true believers against another perceived liberal, elitist platform.

Believing in the miracles of Jesus Christ and that he is the son of God gets you exclusive access into Club Heaven. You can’t prove either of those things, but any Christian will tell you proof is not the point. In fact, proof is the very thing you are asked to deny: plus, it makes you feel good! Ultimately it’s about exclusiveness (being sanctified among other sanctified people, and going to heaven) and belonging.

Beyond Belief

Can we link religious belief back to conservatism? Sure.

If we consider, just for an example, the fact that Republicans (as Trump did at the RNC) call themselves, without detectable irony, “the party of Lincoln,” we can maybe also draw another parallel: among some conservatives, there is a necessary strain of self-delusion, or “fake old news.” Of course Jeff Sessions isn’t racist, even though mountains of historical evidence show otherwise.

The political role conservatives play in any culture is to serve as a check on wanton change happening too quickly. This also means that to be conservative is to always be losing (bit by bit) but to pretend you never lost. It necessitates some level of self-delusion. Not that the other side of the spectrum doesn’t have delusions of its own. The left wing often seems so in love with its own ideas it often dismisses valid critical arguments as being wrongheaded, old-fashioned, backwoods, etc. That kind of arrogance can be its own form of insanity, and it’s probably one of the things about me that drives Danny nuts.

In the end, all true believers, no matter the belief, aren’t particularly concerned with truth. It’s about what you can choose to be true. Choice: that’s the rub. And in an information age with infinite options for belief available, this becomes a really big problem: what role can morality play in this new world, when it feels good to be right and it feels bad to be wrong?

Maybe we should look to a great moral text. There’s one last passage from that research that links the conservative movement in the United States to religious belief: “Political ideologies, too, are driven by motives such as needs for meaning, symbolic immortality, control, justice identity, or some combination thereof.”

Symbolic immortality.

“I alone,” said Trump, perhaps the most un-Christlike presidential candidate we’ve ever seen.

“All this I will give you,” the devil said to Jesus in the desert, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

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