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Saturday, August 13, 2022

The moral psychology of misinformation: Why we excuse dishonesty in a post-truth world

Effron, D.A., & Helgason, B. A.
Current Opinion in Psychology
Volume 47, October 2022, 101375


Commentators say we have entered a “post-truth” era. As political lies and “fake news” flourish, citizens appear not only to believe misinformation, but also to condone misinformation they do not believe. The present article reviews recent research on three psychological factors that encourage people to condone misinformation: partisanship, imagination, and repetition. Each factor relates to a hallmark of “post-truth” society: political polarization, leaders who push “alterative facts,” and technology that amplifies disinformation. By lowering moral standards, convincing people that a lie's “gist” is true, or dulling affective reactions, these factors not only reduce moral condemnation of misinformation, but can also amplify partisan disagreement. We discuss implications for reducing the spread of misinformation.

Repeated exposure to misinformation reduces moral condemnation

A third hallmark of a post-truth society is the existence of technologies, such as social media platforms, that amplify misinformation. Such technologies allow fake news – “articles that are intentionally and verifiably false and that could mislead readers” – to spread fast and far, sometimes in multiple periods of intense “contagion” across time. When fake news does “go viral,” the same person is likely to encounter the same piece of misinformation multiple times. Research suggests that these multiple encounters may make the misinformation seem less unethical to spread.


In a post-truth world, purveyors of misinformation need not convince the public that their lies are true. Instead, they can reduce the moral condemnation they receive by appealing to our politics (partisanship), convincing us a falsehood could have been true or might become true in the future (imagination), or simply exposing us to the same misinformation multiple times (repetition). Partisanship may lower moral standards, partisanship and imagination can both make the broader meaning of the falsehood seem true, and repetition can blunt people's negative affective reaction to falsehoods (see Figure 1). Moreover, because partisan alignment strengthens the effects of imagination and facilitates repeated contact with falsehoods, each of these processes can exacerbate partisan divisions in the moral condemnation of falsehoods. Understanding these effects and their pathways informs interventions aimed at reducing the spread of misinformation.

Ultimately, the line of research we have reviewed offers a new perspective on our post-truth world. Our society is not just post-truth in that people can lie and be believed. We are post-truth in that it is concerningly easy to get a moral pass for dishonesty – even when people know you are lying.