Is Fake News Bad For Your Health? Truth, Trust and the Psychology of Wellbeing

The response to the COVID pandemic has highlighted the importance of trust and truth in healthcare generally. I begin writing The Psychology of Wellbeing just before the first cases of COVID were recorded, and completed the final edit in the middle of the first lockdown. It was not possible to avoid discussing the pandemic but I didn’t want it to dominate the book. As events unfolded, some material from the first draft was made redundant but thankfully parallels emerged between how leaders dealt with the coronavirus crisis and how we all approach ‘everyday’ healthcare. The pandemic response also helped to shine a light on how we evaluate sources of information, against a swell of fake news, conspiracy theories and ‘alternative facts’. The following video distils some of the times from Chapter 2 (Questions of Trust) and Chapter 3 (Storytelling and Sense-making) of the book.

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Trannsciption of the video ‘Is Fake News Bad for Your Health? Truth, Trust and the Psychology of Wellbeing?

In this age of information overload, it gets ever harder to make sense of critical issues of the day, such as, ‘how can we improve our wellbeing?’And to combat this overwhelm, we skim read, scan for keywords and cherry-pick the evidence. And we use trust as a way to filter out the noise.Now we all have our trusty go-to sources of information and ones we reject. But it seems many of us have ‘trust issues.’

In the UK, a major opinion poll about trust found that two-thirds of people worry that new technology will make it impossible to know if what we are seeing, or hearing, is real.
I’m Gary Wood, author of The Psychology of Wellbeing which uses self-reflection & storytelling to explore the relationship between trust, truth, and wellness, and aims to answer the question ‘Is fake news bad for our health?

Early in the COVID crisis, the UK government came under pressure to publish the model used for its approach. And, Dr Richard Horton of The Lancet, argued, ‘This transparency is essential for . . . understanding, co-operation and trust.’ But a lack of trust is not surprising when some politicians openly decry expert knowledge or else denounce anything they disagree with as ‘fake news’. It’s not a good sign when even the definition of fake is fake. And in this ‘post-truth’ age, feelings trump facts. Or rather, the choice of facts to explain the world is led by emotion. So, if it feels right then it is ‘true enough’.And this view of the world has got in the way of tackling the Covid pandemic. A lack of trust has led to conspiracy theories, suspicion and confusion between nations. As Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of the World Health Organization commented ‘We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an “infodemic”. Because conspiracy theories have a viral quality as believing in one makes it more likely that other theories will be accepted. And false news goes viral because people spread it.

Researchers at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) looked at how and why news spreads on Twitter. They found that false news spreads faster and reaches up to ten times more people than does the truth. And the two key drivers are novelty and emotional reaction. As false news is more often novel and surprising, it’s more likely to shared. And it’s more likely to provoke stronger emotions such as fear and disgust. By contrast, true news is met with sadness, joy, anticipation, and trust.
So, when faced with a snippet of information that both surprises you and arouses strong negative emotions, put in some cognitive distance or what we might call ‘social distancing’ for social media’.

  • Don’t react to the emotion trigger.
  • Think. Calm down first, and check the facts.
  • And to limit the cherry-picking to support our biases, use fact check websites to get balance

But is a climate of ‘distrust’ really that bad for our health?

The Psychology of Wellbeing

Being less trusting might seem like a good survival strategy, but research shows that it can harm our psychological and physical health. It’s linked to being cynical, lacking social support, and being less willing to seek medical treatment. In contrast, patients who work in partnership with health providers to share decisions and build trust are better informed. They report greater satisfaction with health care, are more likely to stick to treatment plans and so enjoy better health.

In his 2017 talk to Google, Noam Chomsky, cognitive scientist and social critic, was asked, ‘How do you think Google can and should handle the fake news problem?’ He replied, ‘By not contributing to it’. The Psychology of Wellbeing helps you to do just that. It gives you with the tools to make sense of contradictory information around wellbeing, to empower you to ask better questions.

Useful Fact-checking websites:

To buy the The Psychology of Wellbeing visit Amazon UK or Amazon US.

About the author
Dr Gary Wood
is a Chartered psychologist, solution-focused life coach, advice columnist and broadcaster. He is a fellow of the Higher Education Academy and has more than 20 years’ experience teaching and applying psychology, in universities, in corporate settings and in the media for magazines, radio and television. He is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh, UK.

Get in touch with Gary for your free consulation to discuss coaching for wellbeing, or simply to ask a question: