The Psychological “Vaccine” Against Fake News

In medicine, a flu vaccine makes one resilient when confronted with it in the future: vaccinating against the virus exposes the body to a weakened version of the threat, which is enough to build a tolerance. Psychologists also believe a similar principle may help boost people’s immunity toward fake news.

The social psychologists at Cambridge, Yale and George Mason believe they’ve found a solution.

Misinformation can be sticky, spreading and replicating like a virus, said lead study author Sander van der Linden, a social psychologist at the University of Cambridge in the U.K.

According to a study published in the journal Global Challenges, which is one of the first on ‘inoculation theory’ to try and replicate a ‘real world’ scenario of conflicting information on a highly politicized subject. Authors first presented a nationally representative sample of volunteers with handful of accurate and inaccurate statements about a subject known to be susceptible to misinformation: Climate change.

Researchers believe when two types of information are presented consecutively, the wrong information would completely cancel out what was said before.

We wanted to see if we could find a ‘vaccine’ by pre-emptively exposing people to a small amount of the type of misinformation they might experience. A warning that helps preserve the facts,” van der Linden added.

The idea is to provide a cognitive repertoire that helps build up resistance to misinformation, so the next time people come across it they are less susceptible.

Participants were shown a pie chart accurately illustrating the fact that 97 percent of scientists agree on manmade climate change (a scientifically sound fact). They were also linked to a fake story from the Oregon Global Warming Petition Project, which attests that “over 31,000 American scientists” support the view that there is no singular consensus.

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Those who saw the accurate information (in pie chart form) were later more likely to believe that there was scientific agreement—20% more. But those who saw a screenshot of the Oregon petition website, were 9% likely to believe there were any scientific agreement.

uncomfortable to think that misinformation is so potent in our society, Van der Linden said. A lot of people’s attitudes toward climate change aren’t very firm. They are aware there is a debate going on, but aren’t necessarily sure what to believe. Conflicting messages can leave them feeling back at square one,

The Psychological Inoculation.

After the results were in, individuals were inoculated against misinformation by two statements: first – “some politically-motivated groups [using] misleading tactics to try and convince the public that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists.” and that, most of the signatories of the Oregon petition do not have background in climate science – the detailed inoculation. The inoculation/vaccination worked.

Read: How To Face Hard Truths

Only those inoculated did not fall for the misinformation.

Despite exposure to fake news, researchers saw an average opinion shift of 6.5 percentage points towards acceptance of the climate science consensus, after the first inoculation. While 13 percentage points got added after the detailed inoculation.


Sander ,van der Linden, Anthony Leiserowitz, Seth Rosenthal, Edward Maibach. Inoculating the Public against Misinformation about Climate Change. DOI: 10.1002/gch2.201600008

John Cook et al: Consensus on consensus: a synthesis of consensus estimates on human-caused global warming. Environmental Research Letters, Volume 11, Number 4.

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