Investigation into the relationship between age groups, Dark Triad personality traits, empathy quotient and the susceptibility to, and spreading of health-related misinformation online: A literary review

Social media has provided a low-cost entry to the opportunity to communicate and create relationships with virtually anyone in the world with access to the internet. Just like in the real world, in-groups and out-groups on social media form out of shared passions, interests, ideology and beliefs about the world, with ideas flowing in and out of them. Which personality type is more or less susceptible to misinformation has been the topic of numerous researches, as well as many investigations were carried out into which age demographic is more likely to share misinformation that agrees with existing beliefs. However, not much research exists that specifically looks at susceptibility to, and the spread of health-related misinformation and its relationship to Dark Triad personality traits, or empathy quotient. Therefore, the goal of the proposed research is to measure these factors and assess their relationship to understand which personality traits within different age groups are more likely to contribute to the susceptibility to, and the spreading of health-related misinformation online. In this essay literature review of five papers, three of which are published researches on personality and misinformation, one has a pending peer-review on Dark Triad traits and conspiracy belief, and another summarises findings on the topic of age and health-related misinformation, will be presented to provide a rationale for the proposed research. The findings of these papers will be briefly described, accompanied by a summary of the methodology and an equally brief discussion on the unresolved questions of their research.

Seeking to investigate the role of personality and motivation in the sharing of misinformation on social media, a survey among university students was conducted in Singapore (Chen, 2012). Chen had identified in his research that the content of the message being shared holds less value than the action and outcome of the act of sharing. He noted that open-mindedness is positively related to susceptibility to misinformation and that “users that are aware of the falseness of misinformation, may still share it”. The author suggests that this behaviour might be explained by it being motivated by seeking status and recognition within the person’s in-group. Chen states that “the action of sharing, rather than the perceived accuracy and characteristics of the information being shared, is what matters most”. His research consisted of a survey questionnaire administered to 171 students across two universities. The questionnaire comprised of the Big Five Inventory to measure personality, an ad-hoc questionnaire to measure motivation based on uses and motivation theory, and six examples of inaccurate news rated for accuracy by the participants. The author acknowledged some limitations of his research, such as the use of convenience sampling as well as the arbitrary choices of examples of misinformation. Although he did not expand on the possibility that Dark Triad personality traits, such as narcissism, may play a role in the motivation for intentionally sharing misinformation on social media. Chen did, however, suggest that future research should focus on various categories of misinformation and target a larger sample size of more varied age groups.

A more recent study also sought to investigate the motivation for sharing fake news and linked several factors to the behaviour, such as trust in the content and its source, fear of missing out (bandwagon effect) and social media fatigue where people find themselves lacking mental bandwidth to assess the veracity of what is being shared (Talwar, et al., 2019). This qualitative research was conducted with an open-ended survey of 88 WhatsApp users, 65 of which were females with a median age of about 21 and a half. The answers were analysed, and factors were extracted from the emerging themes. The main limitation of this research is its sample size and, possibly, the age group of the participants, although the data offers a more detailed perspective on the topic. The findings do indeed propose a more nuanced look at the motivation for sharing misinformation that does not require the invocation of personality type as justification. The factors that emerged provided some context as to what underlying motivations may be related to the susceptibility to, and the sharing of misinformation online, but no indication if age is one of them. High trust in the content is, however, linked to no hesitation from people sharing information that has not been verified, thus leaving open the question as to which type of personality is more likely to be both sufficiently open-minded to believe in certain kinds of misinformation as well as more prone to taking risks in sharing it.

Only one recent yet to be peer-reviewed research aimed to address specifically the relationship between Dark Triad personality traits and beliefs in COVID-19 related conspiracy theories (Malesza, 2020). In her paper, the author identified a positive relationship between Dark Triad traits, such as Machiavellianism, narcissism, psychopathy, and the susceptibility to belief in conspiracy theories about the recent pandemic. This research was conducted with a survey of 564 adults, 298 of which were females and between the age of 18 and 64. It included a short Dark Triad questionnaire and a belief in conspiracy theories inventory. The author’s conclusion on her findings indicates a link between manipulative behaviour and hypersensitivity to being manipulated. These factors are then linked to higher susceptibility to a counter-narrative and consequently to the spread of misinformation to justify and reinforce the pre-existing belief, particularly in participants that scored high in narcissism. However, only towards the end of the discussion section does Malesza note how age is a statistically significant factor influencing belief, with younger people being more susceptible to conspiracy theories, without mentioning specifically how other age groups are impacted. Furthermore, her research leaves open the question as to which personality and age group is more likely to spread misinformation that supports existing belief into any particular conspiracy theory.

To offer different perspectives on who would be more susceptible to health-related misinformation online, a recent editorial brought together the findings of various researches (Scherer & Pennycook, 2020). In the article, the authors surmise concisely several results, for example, those from Brashier and Schacter’s research suggesting that older people may be more prone to share fake news online not because of mental decline but rather due to lack of digital literacy (2020), or, as per Lewandowsky et.al.’s paper (2012), that people are more likely to believe and share misinformation that is consistent with pre-existing belief or worldview. This article is in no way a comprehensive review on the existing literature on the subject but proposes some relevant points for future research, such as that other individual characteristics have not yet been adequately researched concerning susceptibility to health-related misinformation, as well as whether if it is a generalised trait or if it is context-dependent.

The role of empathy in relation to misinformation of any kind and susceptibility to it has not been explored very much in the context of it being a predictive factor to determine their relationship. Tomes and Katz (1997) sought to identify personality traits that would lead to habitual susceptibility to post-event misinformation in eyewitnesses. The authors carried out an experiment focused on a memory recollection task with 183 participants ranging from 17 to 43 years old, by exposing half of them to video clips and questionnaires with misinformation, whilst the other half also watched the same clips but was not exposed to misinformation. The goal was to assess the influence of post-event information. Among their findings, it emerged that highly empathetic individuals might place more importance on, or be more affected by, irrelevant information and thus, be more susceptible to misinformation. The paper does not, however, explain how the empathy of the participants was measured, but only reports that females scored higher than men and clarified that sex is not a predictive factor, but only that cognitive correlates of sex are related to habitual suggestibility. It must be noted that this research only offers a tenuous link to the relationship between empathy and susceptibility to misinformation.  

In conclusion, the papers presented offer an interesting starting point for the research into the relationship between age groups, Dark Triad personality traits, empathy quotient and the susceptibility to, and the spreading of health-related misinformation online. Chen’s research put forward the idea that young people care more about the act of sharing rather than preoccupying themselves with the veracity of the content, motivated by seeking clout in their social groups thus suggesting that narcissism and lack of empathy may be predictive factors. At the same time, however, Talwar et.al’s research points to fear of missing out and social media fatigue as a motivator for taking risks in sharing information that has not been confirmed as true. Tomes and Katz’s findings tenuously suggest that empathy is positively related to being more affected by irrelevant information. Indeed, health-related misinformation goes viral when attached to a story to elicit an emotional reaction on the reader rather than a factual account of medical progress (Xu, 2019). Other research has also looked at the demographics being a predictive factor without exploring common personality traits, whilst only a recent unpublished paper sought to explore Dark Triad traits in relation to belief in specific conspiracy theories. Therefore, the proposed research aims to fill this gap in the current body of work to get a better understanding of the intersection of age groups, personality types and empathy to the susceptibility to, and the spreading of health-related misinformation online.

References

Brashier, N. M. & Schacter, D. L., 2020. Ageing in an Era of Fake News. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 29(3), pp. 316-323.

Chen, X., 2012. The Influences of Personality and Motivation on the Sharing of Misinformation on Social Media. s.l., iSchools.

Lewandowsky, S. et al., 2012. Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 13(3), pp. 106-131.

Malesza, M., 2020. The Dark Triad and Beliefs in Conspiracy Theories About the COVID-19, Warsaw: The University of Economics and Human Sciences in Warsaw.

Scherer, L. D. & Pennycook, G., 2020. Who Is Susceptible to Online Health Misinformation?. American Journal of Public Health, 110(S3), pp. S276-S277.

Talwar, S. et al., 2019. Why do people share fake news? Associations between the dark side of social media use and fake news sharing behaviour. Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, Volume 51, pp. 72-82.

Tomes, J. L. & Katz, A. N., 1997. Habitual Susceptibility to Misinformation and Individual Differences in Eyewitness Memory. Applied Cognitive Psychology, Volume 11, pp. 233-251.

Xu, Z., 2019. Personal stories matter: topic evolution and popularity among pro- and anti-vaccine online articles. Journal of Computational Social Science, Volume 2, pp. 207-220.

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