Category: Media

Fake news leaves a lasting impression on the less smart

GettyImages-858229652.jpgBy Alex Fradera

One reason why fake news is dangerous is that we don’t like giving up reassuring certainties, and once we have a take on things, it colours further information – hence the seeming bulletproof nature of conspiracy theories and partisan political hatreds. But new research in Intelligence suggests this is truer for some people than others. For mentally sharp people, the results suggest it’s relatively easy to jettison an outdated perspective, while for those of lower cognitive ability, the dregs remain.

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Accessible science reporting can foster overconfidence in readers

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After reading an accessible science news story, participants were more likely to feel they had no need to consult an expert to find out more

By Alex Fradera

A scientifically informed public is a wonderful thing, and at the Digest we’re happy to be part of cultivating it. But we’d be the first to admit that many scientific issues are too complex for a single article to resolve decisively. When it comes to making consequential life decisions, it’s still important to defer to experts who can draw nuanced conclusions from looking at the big picture. But experts are increasingly denigrated, and a new study in the journal Public Understanding of Science suggests that one cause may be our easy access to information, giving us the impression that we already know all we need. Specifically, science reporting that is accessible, breezy and details-light can discourage readers from consulting experts on that topic.

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Watching box sets with your partner can benefit your relationship, claim researchers

GettyImages-813666252.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

My wife and I were ridiculously excited about watching the recent season finale of Game of Thrones together – we’d watched all the previous 66 episodes together too, and the characters almost feel a part of our lives. Spending our time this way has always seemed like a guilty pleasure, but a team of psychologists led by Sarah Gomillion at the University of Aberdeen say that couples’ shared enjoyment of TV, movies and books can help foster feelings of closeness and a shared social identity.

They add that the benefits of consuming films and TV together may be especially apparent for couples who lack a shared world of real friends and family members, with the fictional characters serving a surrogate role. Writing in the Journal of Personal and Social Relationships, Gomillion and her colleagues said “Humans have created shared social experiences through narrative and performance long before the advent of modern media. Our findings support the growing evidence that like other forms of narrative, contemporary media benefits people by providing a rich, psychologically meaningful social world.”

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Hard-core players of violent video games do not have emotionally blunted brains

By Christian Jarrett

No sooner had the American Psychological Association released their 2015 task force report supposedly confirming that violent video games make players aggressive than the criticisms of the report started pouring in, of bias and bad practice. On the issue of whether violent games breed real-world aggression, there’s not much that you can say for certain except that there’s a lot of disagreement among experts. So of course, one more study is not going to settle this long-running debate.

But what a new paper in Brain Imaging and Behaviour does do is provide a good test of a key argument made by the “violent games cause aggression” camp, namely that over time, excessive violent gameplay desensitises the emotional responsiveness of players. Using brain scanning to look for emotional desensitisation at a neural level, Gregor Szycik at Hannover Medical School and his colleagues in fact found no evidence that excessive players of violent video games are emotionally blunted.

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How much are readers misled by headlines that imply correlational findings are causal?

Close-up of shocked business colleagues reading newspaperBy Alex Fradera

What do you take from this hypothetical headline: “Reading the Research Digest blog is associated with higher intelligence”? How about this one: “Reading this blog might increase your intelligence”? According to science writing guides like HealthNewsReview.org, taking the first correlational finding from a peer-reviewed article and reporting it for the public using the second wording, implying causation, is a sin of exaggeration, making a relationship appear more causal than the evidence suggests.

Yet this happens a lot. A 2014 British Medical Journal (BMJ) article showed these exaggerations to be rife in media coverage of correlational studies, with 81 per cent of news articles committing the sin. Dismayingly, one third of press releases were also guilty. These normally involve editorial input from professionals and often the scientists themselves, who should really know better. Reading about this, we might conclude that science communicators of all stripes need to get more familiar with the best practice of describing causality.

However, the authors of that BMJ analysis started to ponder whether readers interpret these headlines literally, or whether they draw their own conclusions. Now their research group has tested this for a paper in Journal of Experimental Psychology, and their findings suggest that while science writers need to pick up their game, science-writing guides also have some catching up to do.

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