Who falls for fake news? The roles of bullshit receptivity, overclaiming, familiarity, and analytic thinking

54 Pages Posted: 23 Aug 2017 Last revised: 10 Jun 2018

Gordon Pennycook

University of Regina

David G. Rand


Date Written: May 23, 2018


Inaccurate beliefs pose a threat to democracy and fake news represents a particularly egregious and direct avenue by which inaccurate beliefs have been propagated via social media. Here we present three studies (MTurk, N = 1,606) investigating the cognitive psychological profile of individuals who fall prey to fake news. We find consistent evidence that the tendency to ascribe profundity to randomly generated sentences – pseudo-profound bullshit receptivity – correlates positively with perceptions of fake news accuracy, and negatively with the ability to differentiate between fake and real news (media truth discernment). Relatedly, individuals who overclaim regarding their level of knowledge (i.e. who produce bullshit) also perceive fake news as more accurate. Conversely, the tendency to ascribe profundity to prototypically profound (non-bullshit) quotations is not associated with media truth discernment; and both profundity measures are positively correlated with willingness to share both fake and real news on social media. We also replicate prior results regarding analytic thinking – which correlates negatively with perceived accuracy of fake news and positively with media truth discernment – and shed further light on this relationship by showing that it is not moderated by the presence versus absence of information about the new headline’s source (which has no effect on perceived accuracy), or by prior familiarity with the news headlines (which correlates positively with perceived accuracy of fake and real news). Our results suggest that belief in fake news has similar cognitive properties to other forms of bullshit receptivity, and reinforce the important role that analytic thinking plays in the recognition of misinformation.

Keywords: fake news, news media, social media, analytic thinking, cognitive reflection test, intuition, dual process theory, bullshit, bullshit receptivity

Suggested Citation

Pennycook, Gordon and Rand, David G., Who falls for fake news? The roles of bullshit receptivity, overclaiming, familiarity, and analytic thinking (May 23, 2018). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3023545 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3023545

Gordon Pennycook (Contact Author)

University of Regina ( email )

3737 Wascana Parkway
Regina, Saskatchewan S4S OA2

David G. Rand

MIT ( email )

77 Massachusetts Avenue
50 Memorial Drive
Cambridge, MA 02139-4307
United States

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