• Behaviour

The Spreading of Nuanced Truth

LBS and ESMT study identifies the danger of citing information based on the ‘gist’ of the truth rather than the ‘literal’ truth


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It is not only AI that enables the spread of false information. People, particularly in positions of authority, are just as much a source. Saying “It's not literally true, but you get the gist” can encourage others to condone and spread misinformation.

With elections looming in Europe and the U.S., nuanced versions of truth are all around us. To some extent, listening to politicians we make allowances for the truth being ‘spun.’ However, in the workplace, especially in large organizations where communication is dispersed, it is important that the originator of the message sticks to the precise facts and avoids general observations. If the messenger is a leader or person in authority this is imperative.

People have a more nuanced view of misinformation than the binary distinction between ‘fake news’ and ‘real news’ implies. In a recent study, Prof. Daniel A. Effron, Beth Anne Helgason and Judy Qiu from London Business School, and ESMT’s Assist. Prof. Julia A. Langdon, explain the difference between the truth of a statement's verbatim details (i.e., the specific, literal information) and its gist (i.e., the general, overarching meaning), and suggest that people tolerate and intentionally spread misinformation in part because they place too much faith in its gist. Because they believe in the gist, even when they recognize a claim as literally false, they may judge it to be morally acceptable to spread because they consider it to be true ‘in spirit’—although not specifically true it is expressing a ‘broader truth.’

Pointing out that belief in the gist is often fueled by prior judgements, imagination, and partisanship, the researchers contend that partisan conflict about the morality of spreading misinformation hinges on disagreements not only about facts but also about gists. People will tolerate and spread misinformation, based on gists rather than facts, when it aligns with their views—in one survey 21% of active Facebook users agreed that they had “shared a political news story online that [they] thought AT THE TIME was made up,” and it is likely others did the same but did not admit it.

With many mainstream news channels—let alone social media—less concerned with unbiased journalism than with reinforcing our prejudices, it is more important than ever to base our statements on proven facts. One person’s unproven claim, based on gist rather literal proof, will be cited by another as proof, then cited again by others, until the chain of citations is taken to be fact, and while the conscientious will check their sources, few check their sources’ sources. From the UK Post Office outrage to the false belief in puberty blockers being safe, many disasters have stemmed from misinformation being circularly cited by previously trusted institutions. Other scandals, such as the COVID anti-vax scare, have been based on false information that is accepted due to the public’s lack of trust in institutions.

A key reason that people are taken in by misinformation and are prepared to spread it is because, regardless of the weakness of the evidence or the ethics involved in misinforming others, they perceive its gist to be true whether its verbatim details are true or not. In fact, they are likely to think it unethical to communicate a gist they perceive as false, whereas communicating a true gist using false evidence may seem morally acceptable. It can also be the case that people, knowingly hearing verbatim falsehoods from a person with whom they are politically aligned, will forgive the untruth because they already believe in the gist and assume the gist is what the fabricator intended to convey.

The implications of this research—obviously relevant at election time—are troubling at any time and something to be ultra-aware of in an organizational or business context. It is hard enough to reach agreement about whether a claim is literally and precisely true. It is much harder to resolve disagreements about whether a claim's gist is true, because general claims are harder to falsify than specific ones. As it is also hard to know how literally a claim based on gist was intended to be taken, something said flippantly is easily be taken seriously and cited as fact. For team leaders the message must be to avoid nuanced truths, stick to the literal truth, and if the facts are unknown acknowledge the uncertainty clearly.


Read the research paper: ‘“It's Not Literally True, But You Get the Gist:” How nuanced understandings of truth encourage people to condone and spread misinformation,’ Assist. Prof. Julia A. Langdon (ESMT), Prof. Daniel A. Effron (London Business School), Beth Anne Helgason and Judy Qiu (LBS PhD Candidates)

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