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9 May 2019

'Why does this happen?’ Abstract thinking makes distant online news more believable

The Internet has become our most relied information source for many important topics such as health and news. Because people use mental shortcuts to decide if they can trust online information and the internet is full of misinformation, it is important to understand how people believe online messages. A study in Frontiers in Psychology examines if believability of news depends on how close the news event is and how we think about it - concrete or abstract.

Take aways

  • If you think abstract about a news event in a far away place, the news will become more believable to you.
  • This is because we cannot think about distant events in detail. When there is a match between the distance of an event and our mindset’s abstractness, it feels truer to us.
  • To increase believability of distant news events, journalists can encourage people to think abstract, for example by using abstract language or asking people to focus on the bigger picture.

Study information

  • Who?

    143 participants (mean age: 39, 67% female)

  • Where?

    United States

  • How?

    In an online task, participants thought about how they would achieve a goal (to achieve a ‘concrete mindset’) or why they would achieve a goal (to achieve an ‘abstract mindset’). Then participants read about a news event taking place either in the US (close to the participant) or in Suriname (far from the participant). Afterwards, participants reported how much they believed the news.

Facts and findings

  • Participants who read about the news event taking place in the US, perceived the event indeed as more close to them than participants who read about the event taking place in Suriname.
  • Participants found the news about the event in Suriname more believable when they had an abstract mindset, rather than a concrete mindset.
  • Although participants who read the news about the event in the US reported higher believability when they had a concrete mindset rather than an abstract mindset, the analyses showed that this finding was not meaningful. So, there was no difference in believability of this news report between participants with an abstract or a concrete mindset.