At TDL, our role is to translate science. This article is part of a series on cutting edge research that has the potential to create positive social impact. While the research is inherently specific, we believe that the insights gleaned from each piece in this series are relevant to behavioral science practitioners in many different fields. As a socially conscious applied research firm, we are always looking for ways to translate science into impact. If you would like to chat with us about a potential collaboration, feel free to contact us.
Fake news is a pernicious and pervasive phenomenon that has damaged many democracies globally. Take for example social media users in Michigan, who shared nearly as many fake news pieces as professional news pieces in the lead up to the 2016 US presidential election, according to researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute. As a socially-conscious applied research firm, TDL is interested in using technology, design-thinking, and the leading insights from the field of applied behavioral science to promote not just stronger democracies, but better outcomes in a wide variety of public sectors.
To further this interest, The Decision Lab reached out to Dr. Gleb Tsipursky to learn more about his work on a study involving pro-truth pledges as a means of fighting fake news, and the future direction of similar areas of research in applied behavioral science.
Dr. Tsipursky is a behavioral economist, cognitive neuroscientist, and a bestselling author of several books on decision-making and cognitive biases in business leadership.
In this study, Dr. Tsipursky and his colleagues examined the impacts of a pro-truth pledge on 12 behaviors that correlate with an orientation toward truthfulness. The purpose of this research was to evaluate if the pledge is an effective way of limiting the spread of misinformation, and if it enables citizens to exert pressure on politicians, media, and other public figures by creating new incentives for telling the truth.
A full version of the study is available here: https://link.springer.com/article/10.5210%2Fbsi.v27i0.9127
Julian: How would you describe the focus of your research?
Dr. Tsipursky: We have witnessed an alarming deterioration of truth in democratic political systems and public discourse around the globe that gravely damages democracies.
My research focuses on pragmatic and immediately-applicable tools we can use to reverse the tide of misinformation and post-truth politics. These tools do so in three ways: First, they empower citizens to recognize and resist political deceptions. Second, they give citizens effective techniques to fight digital misinformation on social media and elsewhere. Third, they enable citizens to exert pressure on politicians, media, and other public figures by coordinating together to create new incentives for telling the truth and penalties for lying.
Julian: How would you explain your research question to the general public?
Dr. Tsipursky: In this paper, my colleagues and I evaluated a specific tool, the Pro-Truth Pledge (PTP), which combines behavioral science research with crowd-sourcing to help fight misinformation. The PTP asks signers – private citizens and public figures alike – to commit to 12 behaviors that have been shown to be correlated with an orientation toward truthfulness.
For public figures, the PTP offers rewards in the form of positive reputation and accountability through crowd-sourced evaluation. For private citizens, it offers the reward of joining a community and helping launch a movement to uphold truth, fight deception, and hold both private citizens and especially public figures accountable. The paper specifically evaluated whether those who took the pledge actually changed their behavior to be more truthful on social media.
Julian: What did you think you would find with this study?
Dr. Tsipursky: We know from extensive previous research that pledge mechanisms — especially those with voluntary buy-in by pledgers — have been successful in changing behavior. For example, whether you approve of them or not, chastity pledges have changed people’s behavior. So do college honor codes.
We also know that whether someone deceives or not is dependent on a number of factors, such as:
- Defining clear parameters of what constitutes truth-oriented behavior;
- Belonging to a community of truth-oriented individuals;
- Getting positive reputational and social status rewards from truth-oriented behaviors that bear costs and/or feel uncomfortable, such as admitting one’s mistakes;
- Associating positive emotions and values with truthfulness.
Finally, we know that politicians who are warned that they will be held accountable for truthfulness are less likely to lie.
The PTP addresses all of these elements, as it is a pledge mechanism that involves a commitment to clearly defined truth-oriented behaviors. Those who pledge have the opportunity to join a community of fellow pledgers on social media and in real-world meetups, which provides positive reputational and social status rewards from truth-oriented behaviors, and helps associate positive emotions and values with truthfulness.
Thus, we thought we would find that those who took the pledge indeed changed their behaviors.
Julian: What process did you follow with this study?
Dr. Tsipursky: In the peer-reviewed article in Behavior and Social Issues cited above, we focused on evaluating the sharing of pledge-takers on Facebook by researchers who observed the behavior of study participants.