We congratulate Julia Baum to her successful defence of her doctoral thesis! In her thesis entitled “Emotional content in social misinformation affects mind, brain, and judgments”, Julia revealed the powerful extend to which social-emotional information affects how we see and judge people, even against our better knowledge of lacking credibility.

In her dissertation, Julia investigated the cognitive and brain mechanisms underlying the processing of social, person-related misinformation or “gossip”. In three studies, participants were exposed to trustworthy or untrustworthy news about other persons and the information was either negative, positive, or relatively neutral. She examined different indicators of trustworthiness and veracity. In study 1, the information was verbally marked as untrustworthy by adding e.g., “allegedly”, “supposedly” or “some claim” (in German: “angeblich”, “vermutlich” or “manche behaupten”). In study 2, news stemmed from well-known media sources perceived as trustworthy or untrustworthy. Results across both studies showed that social person judgments strongly relied on the emotional content independent of the trustworthiness, showing how social misinformation affects person evaluation even when it is perceived as untrustworthy. Electrophysiological indexes of early emotional and arousal-related processes, as well as correlates of later evaluative processing were enhanced for persons associated with emotional news regardless of the trustworthiness of the information. This shows the pronounced influence of emotional contents not only on the initial and early response to news, but even on processes that were expected to evaluate the information on merit of its credibility. In a first attempt to intervene, Julia asked participants to explicitly evaluated the credibility of the source before reading the headlines in study 3. This helped to overcome the bias for positive news and process its credibility to some degree, as reflected in reduced emotional responses in the brain. However, the insight into the lack of credibility had no influence on the effects of negative news on brain responses and social judgments. 

Julia’s dissertation has shown the powerful impact misinformation can have at the level of the brain and individual judgments. Emotional messages and gossip do not simply bounce off if we find the information untrustworthy. The strong influence of emotions on our thoughts and actions against our better judgment also explains why “fake news” is so “successful”. These findings reveal central keys that are crucial to now develop strategies that protect us from the harmful effects of misinformation.