This article is part of the magazine, "The Future of Science In America: The Election Issue," co-published by LeapsMag, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and GOOD.
Whenever you hear something repeated, it feels more true. In other words, repetition makes any statement seem more accurate. So anything you hear again will resonate more each time it's said.
Do you see what I did there? Each of the three sentences above conveyed the same message. Yet each time you read the next sentence, it felt more and more true. Cognitive neuroscientists and behavioral economists like myself call this the "illusory truth effect."
Go back and recall your experience reading the first sentence. It probably felt strange and disconcerting, perhaps with a note of resistance, as in "I don't believe things more if they're repeated!"
Reading the second sentence did not inspire such a strong reaction. Your reaction to the third sentence was tame by comparison.
Why? Because of a phenomenon called "cognitive fluency," meaning how easily we process information. Much of our vulnerability to deception in all areas of life—including to fake news and misinformation—revolves around cognitive fluency in one way or another. And unfortunately, such misinformation can swing major elections.
The Lazy Brain
Our brains are lazy. The more effort it takes to process information, the more uncomfortable we feel about it and the more we dislike and distrust it.
By contrast, the more we like certain data and are comfortable with it, the more we feel that it's accurate. This intuitive feeling in our gut is what we use to judge what's true and false.
Yet no matter how often you heard that you should trust your gut and follow your intuition, that advice is wrong. You should not trust your gut when evaluating information where you don't have expert-level knowledge, at least when you don't want to screw up. Structured information gathering and decision-making processes help us avoid the numerous errors we make when we follow our intuition. And even experts can make serious errors when they don't rely on such decision aids.
These mistakes happen due to mental errors that scholars call "cognitive biases." The illusory truth effect is one of these mental blindspots; there are over 100 altogether. These mental blindspots impact all areas of our life, from health and politics to relationships and even shopping.
We pay the most attention to whatever we find most emotionally salient in our environment, as that's the information easiest for us to process.
The Maladapted Brain
Why do we have so many cognitive biases? It turns out that our intuitive judgments—our gut reactions, our instincts, whatever you call them—aren't adapted for the modern environment. They evolved from the ancestral savanna environment, when we lived in small tribes of 15–150 people and spent our time hunting and foraging.
It's not a surprise, when you think about it. Evolution works on time scales of many thousands of years; our modern informational environment has been around for only a couple of decades, with the rise of the internet and social media.
Unfortunately, that means we're using brains adapted for the primitive conditions of hunting and foraging to judge information and make decisions in a very different world. In the ancestral environment, we had to make quick snap judgments in order to survive, thrive, and reproduce; we're the descendants of those who did so most effectively.
In the modern environment, we can take our time to make much better judgments by using structured evaluation processes to protect yourself from cognitive biases. We have to train our minds to go against our intuitions if we want to figure out the truth and avoid falling for misinformation.
Yet it feels very counterintuitive to do so. Again, not a surprise: by definition, you have to go against your intuitions. It's not easy, but it's truly the only path if you don't want to be vulnerable to fake news.
The Danger of Cognitive Fluency and Illusory Truth
We already make plenty of mistakes by ourselves, without outside intervention. It's especially difficult to protect ourselves against those who know how to manipulate us. Unfortunately, the purveyors of misinformation excel at exploiting our cognitive biases to get us to buy into fake news.
Consider the illusory truth effect. Our vulnerability to it stems from how our brain processes novel stimuli. The first time we hear something new to us, it's difficult to process mentally. It has to integrate with our existing knowledge framework, and we have to build new neural pathways to make that happen. Doing so feels uncomfortable for our lazy brain, so the statement that we heard seems difficult to swallow to us.
The next time we hear that same thing, our mind doesn't have to build new pathways. It just has to go down the same ones it built earlier. Granted, those pathways are little more than trails, newly laid down and barely used. It's hard to travel down that newly established neural path, but much easier than when your brain had to lay down that trail. As a result, the statement is somewhat easier to swallow.
Each repetition widens and deepens the trail. Each time you hear the same thing, it feels more true, comfortable, and intuitive.
Does it work for information that seems very unlikely? Science says yes! Researchers found that the illusory truth effect applies strongly to implausible as well as plausible statements.
What about if you know better? Surely prior knowledge prevents this illusory truth! Unfortunately not: even if you know better, research shows you're still vulnerable to this cognitive bias, though less than those who don't have prior knowledge.
Sadly, people who are predisposed to more elaborate and sophisticated thinking—likely you, if you're reading the article—are more likely to fall for the illusory truth effect. And guess what: more sophisticated thinkers are also likelier than less sophisticated ones to fall for the cognitive bias known as the bias blind spot, where you ignore your own cognitive biases. So if you think that cognitive biases such as the illusory truth effect don't apply to you, you're likely deluding yourself.
That's why the purveyors of misinformation rely on repeating the same thing over and over and over and over again. They know that despite fact-checking, their repetition will sway people, even some of those who think they're invulnerable. In fact, believing that you're invulnerable will make you more likely to fall for this and other cognitive biases, since you won't be taking the steps necessary to address them.
Other Important Cognitive Biases
What are some other cognitive biases you need to beware? If you've heard of any cognitive biases, you've likely heard of the "confirmation bias." That refers to our tendency to look for and interpret information in ways that conform to our prior beliefs, intuitions, feelings, desires, and preferences, as opposed to the facts.
Again, cognitive fluency deserves blame. It's much easier to build neural pathways to information that we already possess, especially that around which we have strong emotions; it's much more difficult to break well-established neural pathways if we need to change our mind based on new information. Consequently, we instead look for information that's easy to accept, that which fits our prior beliefs. In turn, we ignore and even actively reject information that doesn't fit our beliefs.
Moreover, the more educated we are, the more likely we are to engage in such active rejection. After all, our smarts give us more ways of arguing against new information that counters our beliefs. That's why research demonstrates that the more educated you are, the more polarized your beliefs will be around scientific issues that have religious or political value overtones, such as stem cell research, human evolution, and climate change. Where might you be letting your smarts get in the way of the facts?
Our minds like to interpret the world through stories, meaning explanatory narratives that link cause and effect in a clear and simple manner. Such stories are a balm to our cognitive fluency, as our mind constantly looks for patterns that explain the world around us in an easy-to-process manner. That leads to the "narrative fallacy," where we fall for convincing-sounding narratives regardless of the facts, especially if the story fits our predispositions and our emotions.
You ever wonder why politicians tell so many stories? What about the advertisements you see on TV or video advertisements on websites, which tell very quick visual stories? How about salespeople or fundraisers? Sure, sometimes they cite statistics and scientific reports, but they spend much, much more time telling stories: simple, clear, compelling narratives that seem to make sense and tug at our heartstrings.
Now, here's something that's actually true: the world doesn't make sense. The world is not simple, clear, and compelling. The world is complex, confusing, and contradictory. Beware of simple stories! Look for complex, confusing, and contradictory scientific reports and high-quality statistics: they're much more likely to contain the truth than the easy-to-process stories.
Another big problem that comes from cognitive fluency: the "attentional bias." We pay the most attention to whatever we find most emotionally salient in our environment, as that's the information easiest for us to process. Most often, such stimuli are negative; we feel a lesser but real attentional bias to positive information.
That's why fear, anger, and resentment represent such powerful tools of misinformers. They know that people will focus on and feel more swayed by emotionally salient negative stimuli, so be suspicious of negative, emotionally laden data.
You should be especially wary of such information in the form of stories framed to fit your preconceptions and repeated. That's because cognitive biases build on top of each other. You need to learn about the most dangerous ones for evaluating reality clearly and making wise decisions, and watch out for them when you consume news, and in other life areas where you don't want to make poor choices.
Fixing Our Brains
Unfortunately, knowledge only weakly protects us from cognitive biases; it's important, but far from sufficient, as the study I cited earlier on the illusory truth effect reveals.
What can we do?
The easiest decision aid is a personal commitment to twelve truth-oriented behaviors called the Pro-Truth Pledge, which you can make by signing the pledge at ProTruthPledge.org. All of these behaviors stem from cognitive neuroscience and behavioral economics research in the field called debiasing, which refers to counterintuitive, uncomfortable, but effective strategies to protect yourself from cognitive biases.
What are these behaviors? The first four relate to you being truthful yourself, under the category "share truth." They're the most important for avoiding falling for cognitive biases when you share information:
- Verify: fact-check information to confirm it is true before accepting and sharing it
- Balance: share the whole truth, even if some aspects do not support my opinion
- Cite: share my sources so that others can verify my information
- Clarify: distinguish between my opinion and the facts
The second set of four are about how you can best "honor truth" to protect yourself from cognitive biases in discussions with others:
- Acknowledge: when others share true information, even when we disagree otherwise
- Reevaluate: if my information is challenged, retract it if I cannot verify it
- Defend: defend others when they come under attack for sharing true information, even when we disagree otherwise
- Align: align my opinions and my actions with true information
The last four, under the category "encourage truth," promote broader patterns of truth-telling in our society by providing incentives for truth-telling and disincentives for deception:
- Fix: ask people to retract information that reliable sources have disproved even if they are my allies
- Educate: compassionately inform those around me to stop using unreliable sources even if these sources support my opinion
- Defer: recognize the opinions of experts as more likely to be accurate when the facts are disputed
- Celebrate: those who retract incorrect statements and update their beliefs toward the truth
Peer-reviewed research has shown that taking the Pro-Truth Pledge is effective for changing people's behavior to be more truthful, both in their own statements and in interactions with others. I hope you choose to join the many thousands of ordinary citizens—and over 1,000 politicians and officials—who committed to this decision aid, as opposed to going with their gut.
[Adapted from: Dr. Gleb Tsipursky and Tim Ward, Pro Truth: A Practical Plan for Putting Truth Back Into Politics (Changemakers Books, 2020).]
[Editor's Note: To read other articles in this special magazine issue, visit the beautifully designed e-reader version.]
Every year, one in seven people in America comes down with a foodborne illness, typically caused by a bacterial pathogen, including E.Coli, listeria, salmonella, or campylobacter. That adds up to 48 million people, of which 120,000 are hospitalized and 3000 die, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And the variety of foods that can be contaminated with bacterial pathogens is growing too. In the 20th century, E.Coli and listeria lurked primarily within meat. Now they find their way into lettuce, spinach, and other leafy greens, causing periodic consumer scares and product recalls. Onions are the most recent suspected culprit of a nationwide salmonella outbreak.
Some of these incidents are almost inevitable because of how Mother Nature works, explains Divya Jaroni, associate professor of animal and food sciences at Oklahoma State University. These common foodborne pathogens come from the cattle's intestines when the animals shed them in their manure—and then they get washed into rivers and lakes, especially in heavy rains. When this water is later used to irrigate produce farms, the bugs end up on salad greens. Plus, many small farms do both—herd cattle and grow produce.
"Unfortunately for us, these pathogens are part of the microflora of the cows' intestinal tract," Jaroni says. "Some farmers may have an acre or two of cattle pastures, and an acre of a produce farm nearby, so it's easy for this water to contaminate the crops."
Food producers and packagers fight bacteria by potent chemicals, with chlorine being the go-to disinfectant. Cattle carcasses, for example, are typically washed by chlorine solutions as the animals' intestines are removed. Leafy greens are bathed in water with added chlorine solutions. However, because the same "bath" can be used for multiple veggie batches and chlorine evaporates over time, the later rounds may not kill all of the bacteria, sparing some. The natural and organic producers avoid chlorine, substituting it with lactic acid, a more holistic sanitizer, but even with all these efforts, some pathogens survive, sickening consumers and causing food recalls. As we farm more animals and grow more produce, while also striving to use fewer chemicals and more organic growing methods, it will be harder to control bacteria's spread.
"It took us a long time to convince the FDA phages were safe and efficient alternatives. But we had worked with them to gather all the data they needed, and the FDA was very supportive in the end."
Luckily, bacteria have their own killers. Called bacteriophages, or phages for short, they are viruses that prey on bacteria only. Under the electron microscope, they look like fantasy spaceships, with oblong bodies, spider-like legs and long tails. Much smaller than a bacterium, phages pierce the microbes' cells with their tails, sneak in and begin multiplying inside, eventually bursting the microbes open—and then proceed to infect more of them. The best part is that these phages are harmless to humans. Moreover, recent research finds that millions of phages dwell on us and in us—in our nose, throat, skin and gut, protecting us from bacterial infections as part of our healthy microbiome. A recent study suggested that we absorb about 30 billion phages into our bodies on a daily basis. Now, ingeniously, they are starting to be deployed as anti-microbial agents in the food industry.
A Maryland-based phage research company called Intralytix is doing just that. Founded by Alexander Sulakvelidze, a microbiologist and epidemiologist who came to the United States from Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, Intralytix makes and sells five different FDA-approved phage cocktails that work against some of the most notorious food pathogens: ListShield for Listeria, SalmoFresh for Salmonella, ShigaShield for Shigella, another foodborne bug, and EcoShield for E.coli, including the infamous strain that caused the Jack in the Box outbreak in 1993 that killed four children and sickened 732 people across four states. Earlier this month, the FDA granted its approval to yet another Intralytix phage for managing Campylobacter contamination, named CampyShield. "We call it safety by nature," Sulakvelidze says.
Intralytix grows phages inside massive 1500-liter fermenters, feeding them bacterial "fodder."
Photo credit: Living Radiant Photography
Phage preparations are relatively straightforward to make. In nature, phages thrive in any body of water where bacteria live too, including rivers, lakes and bays. "I can dip a bucket into the Chesapeake Bay, and it will be full of all kinds of phages," Sulakvelidze says. "Sewage is another great place to look for specific phages of interest, because it's teeming with all sorts of bacteria—and therefore the viruses that prey on them." In lab settings, Intralytix grows phages inside massive 1500-liter fermenters, feeding them bacterial "fodder." Once phages multiply enough, they are harvested, dispensed into containers and shipped to food producers who have adopted this disinfecting practice into their preparation process. Typically, it's done by computer-controlled sprayer systems that disperse mist-like phage preparations onto the food.
Unlike chemicals like chlorine or antibiotics, which kill a wide spectrum of bacteria, phages are more specialized, each feeding on specific microbial species. A phage that targets salmonella will not prey on listeria and vice versa. So food producers may sometimes use a combo of different phage preparations. Intralytix is continuously researching and testing new phages. With a contract from the National Institutes of Health, Intralytix is expanding its automated high-throughput robot that tests which phages work best against which bacteria, speeding up the development of the new phage cocktails.
Phages have other "talents." In her recent study, Jaroni found that phages have the ability to destroy bacterial biofilms—colonies of microorganisms that tend to grow on surfaces of the food processing equipment, surrounding themselves with protective coating that even very harsh chemicals can't crack. "Phages are very clever," Jaroni says. "They produce enzymes that target the biofilms, and once they break through, they can reach the bacteria."
Convincing the FDA that phages were safe to use on food products was no easy feat, Sulakvelidze says. In his home country of Georgia, phages have been used as antimicrobial remedies for over a century, but the FDA was leery of using viruses as food safety agents. "It took us a long time to convince the FDA phages were safe and efficient alternatives," Sulakvelidze says. "But we had worked with them to gather all the data they needed, and the FDA was very supportive in the end." The agency had granted Intralytix its first approval in 2006, and over the past 10 years, the company's sales increased by over 15-fold. "We currently sell to about 40 companies and are in discussions with several other large food producers," Sulakvelidze says. One indicator that the industry now understands and appreciates the science of phages was that his company was ranked as Top Food Safety Provider in 2021 by Food and Beverage Technology Review, he adds. Notably, phage sprays are kosher, halal and organic-certified.
Intralytix's phage cocktails to safeguard food from bacteria are approved for consumers in addition to food producers, but currently the company sells to food producers only. Selling retail requires different packaging like easy-to-use spray bottles and different marketing that would inform people about phages' antimicrobial qualities. But ultimately, giving people the ability to remove pathogens from their food with probiotic phage sprays is the goal, Sulakvelidze says.
It's not the company's only goal. Now Intralytix is going a step further, investigating phages' probiotic and therapeutic abilities. Because phages are highly specialized in the bacteria they target, they can be used to treat infections caused by specific pathogens while leaving the beneficial species of our microbiome intact. In an ongoing clinical trial with Mount Sinai, Intralytix is now investigating a potential phage treatment against a certain type of E. coli for patients with Crohn's disease, and is about to start another clinical trial for treating bacterial dysentery.
"Now that we have proved that phages are safe and effective against foodborne bacteria," Sulakvelidze says, "we are going to demonstrate their potential in therapeutic applications."
In 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan switched the residents' water supply to the Flint river, citing cheaper costs. However, due to improper filtering, lead contaminated this water, and according to the Associated Press, many of the city's residents soon reported health issues like hair loss and rashes. In 2015, a report found that children there had high levels of lead in their blood. The National Resource Defense Council recently discovered there could still be as many as twelve million lead pipes carrying water to homes across the U.S.
What if Flint residents and others in afflicted areas could simply flick water onto their phone screens and an app would tell them if they were about to drink contaminated water? This is what researchers at the University of Cambridge are working on to prevent catastrophes like what occurred in Flint, and to prepare for an uncertain future of scarcer resources.
Underneath the tough glass of our phone screen lies a transparent layer of electrodes. Because our bodies hold an electric charge, when our finger touches the screen, it disrupts the electric field created among the electrodes. This is how the screen can sense where a touch occurs. Cambridge scientists used this same idea to explore whether the screen could detect charges in water, too. Metals like arsenic and lead can appear in water in the form of ions, which are charged particles. When the ionic solution is placed on the screen's surface, the electrodes sense that charge like how they sense our finger.
Imagine a new generation of smartphones with a designated area of the screen responsible for detecting contamination—this is one of the possible futures the researchers propose.
The experiment measured charges in various electrolyte solutions on a touchscreen. The researchers found that a thin polymer layer between the electrodes and the sample solution helped pick up the charges.
"How can we get really close to the touch electrodes, and be better than a phone screen?" Horstmann, the lead scientist on the study, asked himself while designing the protective coating. "We found that when we put electrolytes directly on the electrodes, they were too close, even short-circuiting," he said. When they placed the polymer layer on top the electrodes, however, this short-circuiting did not occur. Horstmann speaks of the polymer layer as one of the key findings of the paper, as it allowed for optimum conductivity. The coating they designed was much thinner than what you'd see with a typical smartphone touchscreen, but because it's already so similar, he feels optimistic about the technology's practical applications in the real world.
While the Cambridge scientists were using touchscreens to measure water contamination, Dr. Baojun Wang, a synthetic biologist at the University of Edinburgh, along with his team, created a way to measure arsenic contamination in Bangladesh groundwater samples using what is called a cell-based biosensor. These biosensors use cornerstones of cellular activity like transcription and promoter sequences to detect the presence of metal ions in water. A promoter can be thought of as a "flag" that tells certain molecules where to begin copying genetic code. By hijacking this aspect of the cell's machinery and increasing the cell's sensing and signal processing ability, they were able to amplify the signal to detect tiny amounts of arsenic in the groundwater samples. All this was conducted in a 384-well plate, each well smaller than a pencil eraser.
They placed arsenic sensors with different sensitivities across part of the plate so it resembled a volume bar of increasing levels of arsenic, similar to diagnostics on a Fitbit or glucose monitor. The whole device is about the size of an iPhone, and can be scaled down to a much smaller size.
Dr. Wang says cell-based biosensors are bringing sensing technology closer to field applications, because their machinery uses inherent cellular activity. This makes them ideal for low-resource communities, and he expects his device to be affordable, portable, and easily stored for widespread use in households.
"It hasn't worked on actual phones yet, but I don't see any reason why it can't be an app," says Horstmann of their technology. Imagine a new generation of smartphones with a designated area of the screen responsible for detecting contamination—this is one of the possible futures the researchers propose. But industry collaborations will be crucial to making their advancements practical. The scientists anticipate that without collaborative efforts from the business sector, the public might have to wait ten years until this becomes something all our smartphones are capable of—but with the right partners, "it could go really quickly," says Dr. Elizabeth Hall, one of the authors on the touchscreen water contamination study.
"That's where the science ends and the business begins," Dr. Hall says. "There is a lot of interest coming through as a result of this paper. I think the people who make the investments and decisions are seeing that there might be something useful here."
As for Flint, according to The Detroit News, the city has entered the final stages in removing lead pipe infrastructure. It's difficult to imagine how many residents might fare better today if they'd had the technology that scientists are now creating.
Of all its tragedy, COVID-19 has increased demand for at-home testing methods, which has carried over to non-COVID-19-related devices. Various testing efforts are now in the public eye.
"I like that the public is watching these directions," says Horstmann. "I think there's a long way to go still, but it's exciting."