Sahana Shankar

Thesis title:

Overcoming the Era of #FakeNews: A Contingency Learning Approach


In the age of the Internet, the increased prevalence of fake news is supporting an increase in beliefs that are not founded on evidence. Algorithms used by social media and search engines exacerbate the impact of false beliefs by favouring information that echoes people’s cherished ideas and beliefs. The resulting myths become increasingly difficult to eradicate. Research indicates that showing people facts is not enough to eradicate false beliefs (Yarritu & Matute, 2015). Clearly, a systematic, fundamental understanding of belief in fake news is essential to develop effective counter-measures.At the root of false beliefs, such as those propagated by fake news, lies the phenomenon of contingency learning: the process by which people learn to associate one variable with another. Sahana’s objective is to understand this process in context of false beliefs. By doing so, she will develop a strategy to prevent false beliefs from forming and, consequently, prevent people from sharing these fake stories with others. Research into false beliefs by examining their roots in contingency learning may provide crucial insight into understanding and preventing the negative impact of fake news. To date, most work has been focused on either scenarios where participants make judgements of their control over events or they passively observed the relationship between two events.Sahana will test if and how contingency learning shapes belief in fake news, by examining how people evaluate the truthfulness of a ‘news headline’ that claims a statistical relationship between two events (e.g. “cannabis oil cures cancer”) on basis of information presented to them. Similar headlines on different topics will be used to assess the universality of effects. This approach places the contingency learning paradigm in a context directly relevant to understanding belief in fake news. Based on these results a second pair of experiments will test how well and long effect of training to identify fake news will last.

First supervisor:

Wijnand van_Tilburg


2 – Life Course, Psychology, & Health