The psychology of identity, policy and fake news

Kate Brennan-Rhodes reports from the Society's Annual Conference.

Wednesday afternoon’s talks were united by a political theme, with speakers exploring research questions about policy, identity and news (both the real and fake varieties).

First up was Younis Tarek from University College London, whose research looked at the impact of PREVENT – the government’s counter-terrorism strategy which aims to halt radicalisation in the early stages. NHS staff are obliged by law to report any signals that someone might becoming radicalised. Tarek argued that in a mental health context, the policy is built on a flawed empirical foundation, breaches the fundamental sanctity of confidentiality, and could further limit access to psychological therapies for a community that is already marginalised. In closing, he called for a space where psychologists can critique policies that could prove harmful.

Next was Sandra Obradovic (London School of Economics), presenting her findings on the politics of recognition. Serbia is currently undergoing the process of becoming part of the EU, providing a rich context in which to explore questions of national and supranational identity. Obradovic found that Serbians rated themselves lowest on European identity, with a dominant perception the EU is a hierarchy with Western countries at the top. Her findings indicate that being part of a group isn’t necessarily the most important factor in feeling that you belong – it’s being recognised as part of that group.

Craig Harper (Nottingham Trent University) shared findings from his research about fake news, a subject so topical that the study had been covered by the Daily Mail that very day. Perhaps unsurprisingly, participants were more likely to believe fake news if it concurred with their own ideological position – but the psychological factors that moderate the belief differ depending on your political views. Liberals who score highly on need for cognition are more likely to believe fake news that’s consistent with their view – which may sound counter-intuitive, but Harper suggested this might be due to a more active search for reasons to support it. Conservatives, however, were more likely to believe the fake news if they scored highly on faith in intuition. The data indicated that both liberals and conservatives are more likely to believe fake news if they’re narcissistic; but the trend was not significant for conservatives. Unsurprisingly, the Daily Mail article reported these findings with a headline focusing on the ‘exaggerated feelings of moral superiority’ against the left-wing; a slant not echoed by Harper in his talk.

The final session turned away from fake news to more traditional media. Celestin Okoroji (London School of Economics) presented findings from his research into media portrayals of the unemployed, looking at thousands of newspaper articles to explore how benefit recipients have been labelled as scroungers or cheats over time. Placing these findings in the context of the Identity Threat Model, Okoroji posed the question: what does this stigma do to us? 

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