What Works to Build Mental Immunity

A Research-Based Toolbox for Educators and Learners

Research points to dozens of things we can do to cultivate mental immunity, browse to learn more below!
Modules are released weekly on Substack – mentalimmunityproject.substack.com – before being added here.

This is the use of the “mental immune system” analogy to help us understand and improve our thinking.

Mental Immunity Framing

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The mental immunity framework encourages students to grapple with their susceptibility to bad ideas and false information. It employs the analogy of minds functioning like informational immune systems(1). Just as immune systems protect bodily integrity by identifying and neutralizing pathogens, the mind’s immune system safeguards cognitive integrity by protecting us from “mind bugs.” This analogy can galvanize interest in better thinking–because everyone benefits when we “debug” our minds! 

Applications

  • Ask students if they think minds can be infected with “mind bugs.” If computers can be infected with bugs, can’t minds be, too? If so, how do we protect our minds? What would a healthy mental “immune system” look like? What would it do?
  • Ask students to reflect on a time that their mind’s immune system failed them (i.e. when they fell for a false claim).
  • Invite students to suggest ways to “build up” mental immunity. Invite them to discuss the 10 principles of mental immunity laid out on our website. (2)

Notes

When new information is presented to us, questions and doubts typically arise, especially if the new information doesn’t align with what we already know. In this way, questions and doubts function like antibodies and immune cells to check ideas before incorporating them into one’s understanding. Just like the immune system screens foreign materials and neutralizes threats like viruses, the mind does the same for ideas. And just as our bodily immune system can be compromised, leading us to get sick as a result of a pathogen overcoming our immune defenses, so too can our mental immune systems sometimes fail to detect and reject bad ideas. Given its foundations are laid upon many of the evidence-based concepts we cover in this series, we believe this analogy offers a pragmatic model for learners to reflect on.

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For a deeper understanding, read our Declaration on Mental Immunity (3)

Reference List

1. https://mentalimmunityproject.org/why-mental-immunity/

2. https://mentalimmunityproject.org/how-to-build-mental-immunity/

3. https://cognitiveimmunology.net/declaration

Using prebunking to counteract the spread of disinformation.
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Prebunking

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A prebunk is a preemptive refutation of a false claim. (1) Prebunks essentially warn people that a false narrative is circulating. They might mention the false narrative, explain why it’s wrong, and urge people not to fall for it. Ideally, a prebunk arrives before the problematic misinformation itself arrives, preparing the mind to produce cognitive “antibodies”– the kinds of questions and doubts that can prevent misinformation from becoming (mis)belief.

Applications

  • Introduce students to games designed to prebunk common manipulation techniques. (2)
  • Inoculate students against common manipulative techniques. (3)
  • Learn how to prebunk and/or teach your students how to prebunk. (4)

Notes

There are many different approaches to pre-bunking. What’s important is that you expose a falsehood to a person or group before they’ve come to believe in it, making sure to expose the manipulative tactics that people are using to spread the information. Unfortunately, you can’t always get ahead of viral information using prebunks. Sometimes the falsehoods have already spread. This is when debunking and other techniques come in handy.

Learn More
“Can you outsmart a troll by thinking like one?” 5-min video from TED-Ed (5)

Reference List

1. Here’s a good definition: https://thecyberwire.com/glossary/prebunking also explained more extensively on here:  https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/misinformation-desk/202108/what-is-prebunking 

2. https://inoculation.science/inoculation-games/

3.
https://inoculation.science/

4. https://prebunking.withgoogle.com/how-to-prebunk/

5. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iu4OdhjnN4I

Accuracy nudges (a.k.a. accuracy prompts) are reminders to focus on accuracy.
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Accuracy Nudges

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Also called “accuracy prompts,” accuracy nudges are simple remarks encouraging people to seek accuracy rather than settle for merely appealing or convenient judgments.(1) It is easy to mistake the usefulness of an idea for truth. When we come to rely on ideas that are useful but false, though, our thinking can go badly astray. “But is it true?” is a great way to remind students that usefulness does not guarantee truth. It’s also a reminder that, to think clearly and well, we need to check our claims for accuracy. 

Applications

  • Point out that usefulness and truth are different things, and illustrate why it’s often a mistake to settle for convenient fiction. Going the extra mile for true beliefs often works out better in the long run. 
  • Prompt students to raise their hand if they think such-and-such claim is true. After students respond, ask “But is it really true?” and “How can we find out?” Then find out together. 
  • When a student makes a questionable claim, invite them to share their reasons or evidence. “Help us understand why we should rely on that claim as true.” “Is there an experiment or study that shows this?” When you nudge students to check the accuracy of their statements, it fosters a classroom culture of curiosity and accountability.

Notes

The concept of an accuracy nudge comes from research on how to improve (online) social networks.(2) Given that the classroom functions as a unique social network, we believe accuracy nudges will prove useful to educators. Encouraging students to seek accuracy should help improve their evidence-based reasoning skills and cultivate a shared drive to seek truth. This shared interest in truth-seeking is characteristic of communities of inquiry, which will be a topic of focus in a future post!

Learn More

On the Efficacy of Accuracy Prompts Across Partisan Lines: An Adversarial Collaboration (3)

Reference List

1. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-022-30073-5

2. https://misinforeview.hks.harvard.edu/article/developing-an-accuracy-prompt-toolkit-to-reduce-covid-19-misinformation-online/

3. https://doi.org/10.1177/09567976241232905

Raise awareness of the prevalence of disinformation online.
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Disinformation Awareness

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Kids need to be aware that disinformation and manipulative content await them online. They need to think about why people post things. Who is behind the information? Why are they sharing it? Are they trying to influence me? When we don’t ask such questions, we remain vulnerable; when we do, we grow more independent and resilient.
Teachers can help students develop “disinformation awareness” – a healthy level of skepticism about online content. 

Applications

  • Use questions to cultivate disinformation awareness. For example: Do people put things online to get us to do stuff? Like what? Are they trying to help you or fool you? How can you tell when someone is trying to fool you?
  • Have students find and discuss online examples. Would you trust this source? Why?
  • Teach students to recognize the Tactics of Disinformation. (1)

Notes

It’s important to understand the motive(s) behind the message. Signs of manipulative intent can be subtle, but resilient people pick up on them. Monitoring for underlying intent should become second nature. It’s important, though, that kids not become cynical or indiscriminately skeptical; there are many genuinely honest and helpful sources out there.

Many find these categories useful: “Misinformation misleads. It is false, but not created or shared with the intention of causing harm. Disinformation deceives. It is deliberately created to mislead, harm, or manipulate… Malinformation sabotages. It is based on fact, but used out of context to mislead, harm, or manipulate.” – CISA (2)

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“Finland is winning the war on fake news. What it’s learned may be crucial to Western democracy” (3)

Reference List

1. https://www.cisa.gov/sites/default/files/publications/tactics-of-disinformation_508.pdf

2. These are the definitions from the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s Information Manipulation infographic – https://www.cisa.gov/sites/default/files/publications/information_manipulation_infographic_508.pdf

3. https://edition.cnn.com/interactive/2019/05/europe/finland-fake-news-intl/

A form of psychological inoculation whereby the techniques used to misinform are directly taught. to help people recognize them in the future.

Technique-Based Inoculation

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Technique-based inoculations empower students to identify persuasion strategies that are commonly used to mislead. Learning about emotional manipulation, for example, can confer a degree of immunity to it. Learning to recognize logical fallacies (the focus of a future post) can make you less susceptible to being fooled by them. Extensive research in psychological inoculation underscores the effectiveness of this approach. (1)(see also Prebunking)

Applications

  • Teach students to recognize common techniques used in misinformation. (2) Start with humorous or non-triggering examples, then use real-world examples to illustrate how these techniques can distort truth. 
  • Have students create their own misinformation using known misleading techniques. This active inoculation (3) process reinforces their ability to recognize and resist such techniques in real situations.
  • Have a classroom discussion in which students identify the techniques used by their classmates. Encourage students to name the techniques and explain why they can be effective at misleading people.

Notes

Two experiments with hundreds of participants (4) demonstrate the power of technique-based inoculation. Participants who were informed about misleading techniques before being presented with misinformation were less likely to adopt the misinformation than participants who were not informed of the misleading techniques. The techniques used and inoculated against were false balance and fake experts. (5)

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The “Bad News” game teaches us to recognize deceptive techniques in a fun way.(6)

Reference List

1.  Foolproof: Why Misinformation Infects Our Minds and How to Build Immunity, by Sander van der Linden.

2.  https://inoculation.science/inoculation-videos/ & https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/  

3. https://skepticalinquirer.org/2023/10/inoculating-students-against-misinformation-by-having-them-create-it/

4. Cook J, Lewandowsky S, Ecker UKH (2017) https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0175799

5.   Ibid 4, false balance: “media coverage that evenly balances contrarian voices and expert views”; fake experts, example: “political operatives and lobbyists who dissent from the consensus in public discourse.”

6. https://www.getbadnews.com/en

Raise awareness of the existence and influence of cognitive biases so as to counteract them.
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Bias Awareness

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If you’re human, biases distort your thinking. In fact, there are over 200 documented cognitive biases! (1) Fortunately, this doesn’t mean that our thinking is hopelessly corrupt. The take-away is that we need to guard against some all-too-human tendencies. If we’re humble and careful, we can compensate for our biases and become clearer, more capable thinkers. For example, knowing that we’re prone to confirmation bias can make us less certain and more attentive to disconfirming evidence. We’re also prone to imagine causal connections that don’t really exist. Knowing this, you can make a habit of asking “Do we really know that this thing causes that thing?”

Applications

  • Focus on teaching students a few of the most common biases, like confirmation bias, negativity bias,  motivated reasoning, and the availability heuristic, along with examples. Yourbias.is is a fantastic resource. (2) The Lowdown also has a good lesson plan for this. (3)
  • Ask students the questions, “Could biases be coloring our views about this? Which one(s) might be at work here, and how might they be distorting our judgment?” Encourage them to raise such questions themselves.
  • Try a Mad Lib-like word game to help students explore the subject of unconscious bias. (4)

Notes

It’s important to learn about biases in an active way. Simply having students memorize lists of biases won’t help them understand or apply that knowledge. We want students to be aware that biases creep into everyone’s thinking. There’s no shame in this: it just means we need to practice spotting it, then making allowances. Often, this means dialing down the conviction influenced by the bias.

Reference List

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases

2. https://yourbias.is/

3. https://cdn.kqed.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/26/2017/05/Can-You-Beat-Cognitive-Bias-lesson-plan.pdf

4. https://www.edutopia.org/article/engaging-word-game-helps-students-grasp-implicit-bias/

A form of psychological inoculation whereby factual information is taught so as to preempt specific disinformation.

Fact-Based Inoculations

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Fact-based inoculations directly address the factual inaccuracies at the heart of misinformation, explaining what is incorrect, and providing accurate information to counter falsehoods. By preemptively clarifying misconceptions, individuals are equipped with factual knowledge that can resist future encounters with similar misinformation. Fact-based inoculations in the classroom can help students understand the characteristics of good science. Students hold a variety of science misconceptions, and addressing them directly can increase their engagement and teach them how to recognize other misinformation.1

Applications

  • Identify misconceptions in a subject area and use them as the basis for a lesson where each is addressed with a factual correction, supported by evidence and research.
  • Have students compare fact-based inoculation and technique-based inoculation. Which do they think is more effective, and why?
  • Ask students to make fact-based inoculations. This could be for misinformation of their choosing or pre-assigned misinformation.

Notes

Fact-based inoculations naturally occur in education as it’s common to reference a debunked explanation for something when presenting the factual explanation, especially in science classes. For example, when teaching about the solar system, the disproven geocentric model is often referenced. In any given subject, referencing a disproven model or false information and explaining why it is incorrect in light of what is understood to be true can deepen a student’s understanding of a topic and help them become a more critical thinker. It’s important, however, to avoid “backfire” and “continued influence” effects by emphasizing the correct information.2

Learn More
NewsGuard’s Reality Check on Substack and the New Literacy Project’s RumorGuard are two fantastic sources of fact-based inoculations to the latest misinformation.

Reference List

1. Journal of College Science Teaching, Combining Different Inoculation Types to Increase Student Engagement and Build Resilience Against Science Misinformation

2. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing

A form of psychological inoculation focused on teaching people how to use the tactics of misinformers so they can better recognize them.

Active Inoculation

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Having students create disinformation is an effective way to inoculate them against it. This is called active inoculation (1). For example, pupils can make up silly conspiracy theories and deceptive ad campaigns. Such exercises invite them to playfully deceive, which gets them thinking about the techniques bad actors use to fool people. A conversational debrief can help them draw the right conclusions.

Applications

  • Teach students to look for clues that something might be manipulative (2,3,4). For example, “angertainment” is sensationalized news that deliberately stokes outrage. Have students create fake angertainment (5) newscasts, then discuss them. What works, and why? (6)
  • Have teams of students develop pseudoscientific advertisements (7).
  • Have them invent and defend wacky conspiracy stories. Explain that a true believer can always dismiss falsifying evidence by claiming it was planted by the conspirators.

Notes

Make it clear that you’re not encouraging deceptive messaging. Understanding tricky information is a powerful skill, and with great power comes great responsibility. We must all be guardians and seekers of the truth: we should call out misleading techniques, and never use them to mislead others.

Learn More
“Inoculating Students against Misinformation by Having Them Create It”7

Reference List

1. Journal of College Science Teaching, Combining Different Inoculation Types to Increase Student Engagement and Build Resilience Against Science Misinformation

2.  Psychology Today, Disinformation Techniques: How to Spot Them

3. NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, Inoculation Theory and Misinformation 

4.  Inoculation Science – Video Resources 

5. Fearless Future on LinkedIn, Rise of the Angertainment Economy 

6. Skeptical Inquirer, Inoculating Students against Misinformation by Having Them Create It 

7. Thinking Is Power, How to Sell Pseudoscience in 9 Easy Steps 

A form of psychological inoculation whereby someone is fooled then debriefed on the methods used to fool them.

Use the Socratic method to empower the innate cognitive capacity to seek truth.
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Raise awareness of the existence and influence of logical fallacies so as to counteract them.
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Logical Fallacies Awareness

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Understanding how people often advance illogical arguments, and knowing how to spot such arguments, can help confer disinformation immunity. It’s crucial to learn how to identify fallacies and refrain from using them. Students should know to be on the lookout for the use of fallacies in the news media, and in their own work. Some of the most common logical fallacies include emotional appeal, ad hominem attacks, strawman argumentation, cherry-picking, and the tendency to confuse correlation with causation (a.k.a. post hoc ergo propter hoc).

Applications

  • Teach the most common logical fallacies alongside examples. Yourlogicalfallacyis.com(1) and the Purdue OWL(2) are both great sources of explanations & examples. 
  • Train students to avoid using logical fallacies by calling out when they are used in essays, assignments, and discussions. When doing this, have the student reformulate their ideas so as to avoid using any fallacies they did. This might lead to them changing their mind about something and that is critical thinking in action!
  • Present real-world examples of fallacies: Use news articles, advertisements, or social media posts to demonstrate how fallacies are used in real-life situations. Encourage students to analyze and debunk them. Snopes(3), RumorGuard(4), and NewGuard’s Reality Check(5) may be good sources for finding examples.

Notes

Logical fallacies can be tricky. Sometimes arguments combine multiple fallacies or have some valid reasoning alongside the fallacy. Identifying a fallacy doesn’t automatically mean the whole argument is wrong.  The key is to develop critical thinking skills to analyze arguments, spot weaknesses (including fallacies), and evaluate the evidence presented.

Reference List

1. yourlogicalfallacyis.com, Thou shalt not commit logical fallacies 

2. Purdue OWL, Logical Fallacies

3. Snopes, Fact Check Ratings

4. RumorGuard

5. NewsGuard, Reality Check

Critical Ignoring involves strategically disregarding misleading and low-quality information whilst choosing information to focus on.

To debunk something is to prove it false or misleading by highlighting specific factual inaccuracies and/or deceptive techniques.

Coming Soon

Communities of inquiry are communities united by a shared interest in seeking the truth together.
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Coming Soon

Lateral reading is a technique for checking the credibility of information you find online by fact-checking between various sources.

Coming Soon

The ‘What Works’ series is part of the Mental Immunity to Manipulative Information Campaign (MIMIC).

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