Friday, May 26, 2023

Foolproof, by Sander van der Linden: a recommendation, review, and analogy with psychotherapy

I strongly recommend a new book by Cambridge psychologist Sander van der Linden, entitled Foolproof: why misinformation infects our minds and how to build immunity.

I have followed van der Linden's research for several years, alongside other experts who are studying the psychology of persuasion, misinformation, and propaganda.    This area has been an interest of mine for many years, after discovering psychologists such as Cialdini and Kahneman.  

This is a subject that everyone needs to learn about!  Persuasive techniques (for good and for bad) have always been with us through history; the power and influence of these techniques will only continue to escalate, thanks to the internet era, and now the era of artificial intelligence (AI).  

I have discussed these issues in other posts, such as:



Garth Kroeker: "GroupThink" (October 6, 2016) 

Van der Linden reviews the history and scope of misinformation.  Among the many current examples are conspiracy theorists impacting public opinion and policy, political influencers attempting to sway elections, propagandists from other countries defending violent or oppressive policies or sowing discord among their opponents, and of course the anti-vaccine community.  

There are a couple of acronyms he introduces: the word CONSPIRE can help us to recognize some of the common features of conspiracy theories:  

C = contradictory.  Most conspiracy theories feature contradictions.  For example, there could be a belief that some awful event is a hoax, but then also a belief that the awful event is real but was caused by evil conspirators.  

O = over-riding suspicion.    A sense of general distrust that goes beyond the topic of the conspiracy theory, particularly a distrust of official or mainstream explanations.  

N = nefarious plot.  A belief that there is a shadowy group of evildoers, such as government officials, corporations, or (at worst) a particular racial or ethnic group, who behind the scenes have caused some bad thing, perhaps with a motive to advance themselves.  

S = "something's wrong."  The belief that regardless of any acknowledged or corrected fact about an event, there's something going on that isn't right.  

P = persecuted individual.  The belief that someone is being deliberately harmed (most commonly, the believers in the conspiracy theory).  

I = immune to evidence.  Presentations of evidence often have little or no effect to change the opinion of people having conspiracy theory beliefs, in fact evidence could even "backfire" and cause the conspiracy theorist to become even more entrenched, or to believe that you or your sources of evidence are all biased or part of the conspiracy.   Such immunity to evidence is common among people who have limited expertise or knowledge about science, but could also be present in some highly educated people.  A conspiracy theorist who does have more scholarly expertise may understandably deploy statistical or psychological terminology to defend their beliefs; for example, by accusing other scholars of having psychological biases (such as confirmation bias).

Re = reinterpreting randomness.  This is creating a false causal story about random, unrelated events.   Humans in general are prone to doing this.   

It's interesting as a psychiatrist to reflect on the "CONSPIRE" factors above.  They are very often present in frank psychotic states, or in milder variants such as paranoid personality.  The tendency to have paranoid thoughts exists as a trait on a continuum in the population.  This trait has various environmental causes, but also has a high heritability.   It is a typical psychotic symptom to believe that there is a special, often ominous explanation behind pseudorandom events.    

Of course, sometimes there are explanations for events which differ from the mainstream understanding.  Through history there have always been maverick scientists,  who demonstrated something new and important, despite the objections or condemnation of their peers.  One example that has always bothered me was Alfred Wegener, who in 1912 was the first to propose the theory of continental drift; he was ridiculed and dismissed by his peers, who couldn't believe that entire continents could move across the face of the earth; Wegener tragically died before his theory was proved correct.   We have to be open to consider alternative theories.  However, maverick scientists, unlike conspiracy theorists, have clear evidence to support their claims; their reasoning does not contain contradictions; they are not immune to evidence, do not reinterpret randomness, and do not have ominous, over-riding suspicious beliefs about persecution.  

Van der Linden's next acronym is "DEPICT", to help remember features of manipulative communication:
D - discrediting.  The manipulative communicator will portray experts who disagree with them (such as scientific leaders, or even entire communities such as leading scientific journals), as biased, poorly qualified, incompetent, or having some nefarious agenda.  It is frustrating to have a scientific debate with someone who is engaging in such discrediting, since any sound evidence you raise with them will be dismissed as invalid.  

E - emotional.  Using strong emotional language to induce fear, anger, or disgust as a persuasive tool.  

P - polarization.  Framing issues, and people who have positions on these issues, in a "black or white" fashion, rather than as shades of grey.  This leads to a false sense of dichotomy, and encourages the formation of teams of opponents holding increasingly extreme positions, and increasing disrespect for those who disagree. 

I - impersonation.  Using fake experts to bolster a claim.   A variant of this is using an actual expert, but whose expertise has nothing to do with the issue at hand.  

C - conspiracy theories.  Encouraging conspiracy theory beliefs. 

T - trolling.  Attacking, insulting, or threatening opponents, usually in an online environment, such as on social media.  Such harassment has at times been so intense that scientists or policy experts (including in public health) have been afraid to speak out, fearing for their safety.  

Van der Linden's work focuses on how we can best deal with misinformation.  He concludes with an analogy:  misinformation must be dealt with by "immunizing" ourselves against it.  

In order to build immunity against an infectious disease, it is necessary to be exposed to a weakened version of the pathogen, in order to train the immune system, such that future doses of pathogens would be dealt with quickly.  

Infectious diseases are much easier to manage, with much less risk of harm or spread, by building immunity, rather than by only relying on treatment after infection.   

Similarly, it is much harder to "treat" misinformation after the fact.  Tactics to "treat" misinformation would be debate, education, and careful review of evidence.  But many people who have fallen into a misinformation "rabbit hole" are difficult to reach or persuade using reasoned debate.  Such debate may even cause the misinformed person to become even more angry or stubbornly adherent to their ideas.    

It is better to prevent people from falling into the rabbit hole in the first place--not by eliminating rabbit holes (which is impossible) but by teaching people how to identify and manage rabbit holes if they encounter them.  

The idea of "vaccination" is presented as an analogy throughout the book.  But beliefs and persuasion are not exactly like the body's immune system.  It's a very good analogy, but not perfect.  Much of the phenomenon van der Linden is talking about is explainable through learning theory:   we learn much better if we actually practice "hands on" with things, rather than just passively absorbing theory.  If you want to learn mathematics, you actually have to work through a lot of problems, not just read about how to do them.  If you want to learn how to ride a bike or drive a car, you have to practice cycling and driving, not just read about those things in a book!  As part of the practice, it is best to face challenging situations, and learn through experience how to overcome them.  

Similarly, to deal with emergencies, it is imperative to do behavioural practice many times as a preparation.  We have to do fire drills to prepare for a potential fire.  Pilots need to practice many times in a simulator how to manage engine failure.  If you only read about something, or learn about something, without practicing, you can't possibly become proficient, especially under pressure.  

To deal with misinformation, we have to practice, hands-on, dealing with misinformation, at first with "easy" examples, then more and more difficult ones.  

Applying these ideas to psychotherapy: CBT (cognitive-behavioural therapy) is very important and useful, but at worst it can be too passive.  Many people engaging in CBT do a lot of passive learning, they do written exercises in a workbook, but do not really practice deliberate exposure to uncomfortable stimuli.  The "vaccine" analogy could be useful to incorporate into CBT for treating depression or anxiety.   This is something that I have advocated for many years, mainly an emphasis on the "B" part of CBT.  To deal with panic attacks, it is most helpful to actually practice having panic attacks, in safe, controlled conditions!   To deal with depressive thoughts, it could be a useful exercise to invent simulated depressive thoughts, at first mild ones, then more challenging ones, to understand the mechanism by which they are created, and to practice facing them without being negatively affected.   This exposure therapy is like van der Linden's "vaccine."  But most therapists don't emphasize this enough, they only try to teach people to relax or cope with symptoms after they have occurred.  One of the purposes of talking about past emotional trauma is to recreate the painful events in the mind, but in a limited, controlled, "virtual" form, within the safe context of a therapy office.  In this way talking therapy has a vaccine-like effect.  

Linden's book is a must-read, not only for those interested in propaganda or misinformation, but also for anyone wanting a better understanding of the mind itself, with ideas that touch upon managing almost any life adversity, including mental illnesses.  


Linden, S. V. D. (2023). Foolproof: Why Misinformation Infects Our Minds and How to Build Immunity. WW Norton.

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