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We hear what we want to hear, new study confirms

People lend greater credence to sources of information that tell them what they want to hear, while ignoring the rest, new research confirms. File Photo by Stacey Newman/Shutterstock
People lend greater credence to sources of information that tell them what they want to hear, while ignoring the rest, new research confirms. File Photo by Stacey Newman/Shutterstock

Sept. 14 (UPI) -- Politicians and social critics complain that social media and cable news have created an echo chamber: People hear what they want to hear and ignore the rest.

They're not far off.

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New research confirms that people lend greater credence to sources of information confirming what they already believe to be true -- or at least what they hope to be true.

Previous studies have shown decision makers are influenced by what researchers call "motivated beliefs." People believe things they wish to be true.

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Some researchers suggest motivated beliefs can explain the spread of misinformation online.

To test whether motivated beliefs and information exchange can produce or exaggerate biases, the authors of a new study -- published Tuesday in the Journal of the European Economic Association -- paired people based on their scores on an IQ test.

Researchers paired below-average performers with other below-average performers and above-average scorers with other above-average scorers.

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Naturally, participants wanted to believe they had been paired with above-average performers, and they exchanged beliefs concerning this wishful hypothesis. Some participants were more optimistic about their pairing, while others were more pessimistic.

Researchers found participants who were pessimistic about their chances of having scored above average became more optimistic when they were paired with a more optimistic participant.

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However, study results showed optimistic participants were unlikely to adjust their outlook, even when paired with a pessimistic participant.

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Stubbornly optimistic test takers were especially unlikely to waiver from their motivated beliefs if they were in the below-average IQ group. In other words, those who scored lowest on the IQ test were most likely to accept only information that reinforced their biases.

"Overall, our results suggest that bias amplification is likely driven by 'motivated assignment of accuracy' to others' beliefs: subjects selectively attribute higher informational value to social signals that reinforce their motivation," researchers wrote.

Researchers found they could pop misinformation bubbles and reverse bias simply by providing unbiased information about which IQ group the subjects were in.

"This experiment supports a lot of popular suspicions about why biased beliefs might be getting worse in the age of the Internet," study co-author Ryan Oprea said in a press release.

"We now get a lot of information from social media and we don't know much about the quality of the information we're getting. As a result, we're often forced to decide for ourselves how accurate various opinions and sources of information are and how much stock to put in them," said Oprea, a researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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"Our results suggest that people resolve this quandary by assigning credibility to sources that are telling us what we'd like to hear and this can make biases due to motivated reasoning a lot worse over time," Oprea said.

To combat bias, whether among like-minded voters or investors in financial markets, people need access to unbiased, reliable sources of information.

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