People who share fake news and other questionable content on Twitter tend to display a cognitive style that is characterized by relying on their gut instincts, according to a new study published in Nature Communications. The findings provide evidence that a person’s level of cognitive reflection is related to their online behaviors.

“I have an interdisciplinary background at the intersection of cognitive science and data science. This work is part of my broader area of research where I look at how the way our thinking styles relate to the way we act online on social media,” said study author Mohsen Mosleh (@_mohsen_m), an assistant professor at the University of Exeter Business School and research affiliate at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

The researchers used the online Prolific platform to recruit 1,901 regular Twitter users. The participants completed a Cognitive Reflection Test, which contains questions that tend to generate quick and intuitive — but incorrect — answers. Those who take more time to reflect on the questions tend to perform better on the test.

For example, participants were asked “If you are running a race and you pass the person in second place, what place are you in?” The answer that intuitively comes to mind is “first place.” But “second place” is the correct answer.

After systematically analyzing 1,871,963 tweets from the participants, Mosleh and his colleagues found that those who scored better on the test tended to share higher quality content from more reliable sources. More reflective participants also tended to follow fewer accounts and tweet about weightier subjects. Less reflective participants, on the other hand, were more likely to tweet about “get rich quick” schemes.

“Our study suggests that those who rely on critical thinking share higher quality content and information than those who rely on intuitive gut responses in making decisions,” Mosleh told PsyPost.

The researchers controlled for factors such as age, education, political orientation, and income. But future research could also examine the impact of different national contexts. Most of the Twitter users in the current study were based in the United Kingdom (43%) and the United States (18%).

“One future direction can look into how our findings generalizes to wider range of users and across other countries, as the relationship between cognitive reflection and online behavior could be different across various cultures,” Mosleh said. “Additionally, this relationship could be investigated in other social media platforms in addition to Twitter.”

Mosleh and his colleagues are continuing to study the spread of misinformation on social media. Some of their other research indicates that people who share false news stories online do so unintentionally and that simply reminding people to focus on accuracy can help to remedy the situation.

“This research is part of a broader research agenda that my collaborators and I have been working on,” Mosleh said. “For example, we built on this observation and developed an intervention to make users to think about accuracy before they make the sharing decisions and show that this in fact improves the quality of content users share on Twitter.”

The study, “Cognitive reflection correlates with behavior on Twitter“, was authored by Mohsen Mosleh, Gordon Pennycook, Antonio A. Arechar, and David G. Rand.