Why do people not trust the official media?
People could be willing to forgive, spread misinformation they
think might become true in the future, study says
People may be willing to condone statements they know to be
false and even spread misinformation on social media if they
believe those statements could become true in the future,
according to research published by the American Psychological
Whether the situation involves a politician making a controversial
statement, a business stretching the truth in an advertisement or
a job seeker lying about their professional skills on a resume,
people who consider how a lie might become true subsequently
think it is less unethical to tell because they judge the lies
broader message (or gist) as truer. The study was published
in APAs Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
The rise in misinformation is a pressing societal problem, stoking
political polarization and eroding trust in business and politics.
Misinformation in part persists because some people believe it.
But thats only part of the story, said lead author Beth Anne
Helgason, a doctoral student at the London Business School.
Misinformation also persists because sometimes people know
it is false but are still willing to excuse it.
This study was sparked by cases in which leaders in business and
politics have used claims that it might become true in the future
to justify statements that are verifiably false in the present.
To explore why people might be willing to condone this
misinformation, researchers conducted six experiments involving
more than 3,600 participants. The researchers showed participants
in each study a variety of statements, clearly identified as false,
and then asked some participants to reflect on predictions about
how the statements might become true in the future.
In one experiment, researchers asked 447 MBA students from 59
different countries who were taking a course at a UK business
school to imagine that a friend lied on their resume, for example
by listing financial modeling as a skill despite having no prior
experience. The researchers then asked some participants to
consider the possibility of the lie becoming true (e.g., Consider
that if the same friend enrolls in a financial modeling course that
the school offers in the summer, then he could develop experience
with financial modeling). They found that students thought it was
less unethical for a friend to lie when they imagined whether their
friend might develop this skill in the future.
In another experiment, 599 American participants viewed six
markedly false political statements designed to appeal to either
conservatives or liberals, including, Millions of people voted
illegally in the last presidential election and, The average top
CEO makes 500 times more than the average worker. Each statement
was clearly labeled as false by reputable, non-partisan fact-checkers.
Participants were then asked to generate their own predictions about
how each statement might become true in the future. For instance,
they were told that Its a proven fact that the average top CEO
currently makes 265 times more money than the average American
worker, then asked to respond to the open-ended prompt, The
average top CEO will soon make 500 times more money than the
average American worker if
The researchers found that participants on both sides of the
political aisle who imagined how false statements could eventually
become true were less likely to rate the statement as unethical
than those who did not because they were more likely to believe
its broader meaning was true. This was especially the case when
the false statement fit with their political views. Importantly,
participants knew these statements were false, yet imagining how
they might become true made people find them more excusable.
Even prompting the participants to think carefully before judging
the falsehoods did not change how ethical the participants found
the statements, said study co-author Daniel Effron, PhD, a
professor of organizational behavior at the London Business School.
Our findings are concerning, particularly given that we find that
encouraging people to think carefully about the ethicality of
statements was insufficient to reduce the effects of imagining
a future where it might be true, Effron said. This highlights
the negative consequences of giving airtime to leaders in business
and politics who spout falsehoods.
The researchers also found that participants were more inclined to
share misinformation on social media when they imagined how
it might become true, but only if it aligned with their political
views. This suggests that when misinformation supports ones
politics, people may be willing to spread it because they believe
the statement to be essentially, if not literally, true, according to
Our findings reveal how our capacity for imagination affects
political disagreement and our willingness to excuse misinformation,
Helgason said. Unlike claims about what is true, propositions about
what might become true are impossible to fact-check. Thus, partisans
who are certain that a lie will become true eventually may be
difficult to convince otherwise.
Reference: It Might Become True: How Prefactual Thinking Licenses
Dishonesty by Beth Anne Helgason and Daniel Effron, PhD, London
Business School, 14 April 2022, Journal of Personality and Social