Eye-movements reveal the psychology of fake news

A lot of the discussion surrounding global problems, such as climate change or immigration issues, is distorted by fake news and misinformation. Collegium Research Fellow Johanna Kaakinen from the Turku Institute for Advanced Studies (TIAS) thinks that in order for us to find durable solutions to any of these problems, we must first learn to tackle misinformation.   

But why do we believe misinformation so easily? As an expert in reading comprehension research Kaakinen studies how readers process, understand and react to the information they receive. She sees the reader’s emotional reactions at the centre of the equation.  

‘We’ve found that the readers’ focus becomes very sharp, they get sort of a tunnel vision, whenever the text they are reading is relevant to them. As their attentiveness increases, they will be more likely to remember what they have read than when the text is neutral. My working hypothesis is that if the text induces an emotional reaction, this effect is even stronger. And that emotional information sticks, even if it’s misinformation. This could also be why it is so difficult to correct false beliefs afterwards’, Kaakinen explains. 

Kaakinen has done extensive work in the field of eye-movement and reading comprehension research, but says that combining monitoring of the readers’ eye-movements, emotional reactions and body motion is something that has previously been done rarely, if at all.  Now she is keen to study this little-known phenomenon in more depth.  

‘Currently I am visiting a research laboratory in Paris, and here we are among the first to combine eye-movement recordings with motion capture research methods in order to study the role of readers’ affective responses.  This way we can learn to understand more thoroughly how people’s attentiveness and reactions change as the text they read becomes more arousing or more neutral’, she says. 

As part of her research project in TIAS, Kaakinen spends this academic year building international research collaboration and developing new research methods in Paris at the LUTIN laboratory located at the Cité des sciences et l’industrie. She says that she is happy that TIAS has made it possible for her to grasp this opportunity. 

‘It really is about the best thing one can possibly imagine. To know what you truly want to do in terms of research, and then hear you’ve been appointed to somewhere like TIAS, where you are given the chance to do exactly what you always wanted to do professionally. Opportunities like this only come once in your life’, she smiles.  

While currently pioneering these new methods in Paris, Kaakinen is already looking forward to returning to Turku and continuing developing a state-of-the-art laboratory here.  

‘Our Psychology department already has one of the world’s leading laboratories in the field of reading comprehension research, and the work we do in Turku is widely recognized. But in the future we’ll see the rising demand for combining different monitoring methods, so we will be developing our laboratory more into this direction. Also there are plans to build a joint laboratory, Turku Hub, for humanities and social sciences, so I’m very excited to come back and to be a part of all this!’.


Text: Liisa Reunanen


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