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Security Crime and Intelligence Innovation InstituteUniversity Innovation and Research Institutes

Why do we fall for fake news? A brief insight into personality traits, government trust, and conspiracy mentality

7 December 2023


What makes someone susceptible to disinformation? In this blog, Andrew Wainwright, an undergraduate student studying Human and Social Sciences at Cardiff University, discusses his research project into this area.

As we navigate the labyrinth of the digital age, disinformation stands as a colossal challenge, making its understanding a timely and pertinent issue. During my placement at the Security, Crime, and Intelligence Innovation Institute, I dived into an extensive dataset to uncover the dynamics of susceptibility to disinformation, focusing on personality traits, trust in government, and conspiracy mentality. This investigation held up a mirror to our society, revealing intriguing patterns and trends within the populations of England and Italy.

The power of personality traits and trust in government

Personality traits have a substantial impact on attitudes towards politics and society. Studies suggest that individuals with lower education, less political knowledge, and lower cognitive abilities are more susceptible to fake news. However, those individuals who display more agreeable and empathetic personality traits may engage more in prosocial behaviours, potentially acting as a barricade against disinformation.

Trust, particularly in the government, plays a pivotal role in society. It underpins social cohesion and democratic participation. A nuanced understanding of how personality traits, susceptibility to disinformation, and trust in government all interplay can illuminate strategies to promote critical thinking, and media literacy, and fortify trust in democratic institutions.

A tale of two countries: England and Italy

My findings demonstrated that personality traits are significantly associated with a conspiracy mentality. Italy exhibited higher extroversion, consciousness, and neuroticism, while the UK topped the charts in agreeableness and openness. Interestingly, agreeableness in the UK surfaced as the most significant predictor of conspiracy mentality.

When I shifted the lens to trust in government, Italy reported lower trust scores compared to the UK. I discovered that trust in government was positively linked with conscientious individuals, suggesting these individuals may hold a higher sense of duty, responsibility, and respect for authority. A strong negative correlation was observed between conspiracy mentality and trust in government, with Italy exhibiting a higher tendency for this relationship.

Interpreting the complex interplay

The findings underscore a complex interplay between personality, conspiracy mentality, and trust. The observed correlations and the cross-cultural variations between England and Italy offer a fascinating insight into the susceptibility to disinformation.

As we grapple with the aftermath of COVID-19, perhaps we are experiencing a loss of social and cognitive structures, further exacerbating the prevalence of disinformation. This speculation underlines the critical need for interdisciplinary research in addressing this pervasive issue.

The research journey I undertook at the Security, Crime, and Intelligence Innovation Institute was a captivating exploration into the intricate tapestry of disinformation susceptibility. It not only enriched my understanding but also highlighted the importance of a collective effort to demystify and tackle disinformation in our society.