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Too good to be true? U of R expert on disinformation honoured with membership into the Royal Society of Canada

By University Advancement and Communications Posted: September 8, 2020 10:00 a.m.

Dr. Gordon Pennycook honoured with membership into the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists
Dr. Gordon Pennycook honoured with membership into the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists Photo: U of R Photography

We can barely look at our phones, turn on our TVs, or listen to our radios without hearing about fake news. It would seem that disinformation is everywhere, all the time. 

Thankfully, the University of Regina’s Dr. Gordon Pennycook, a leading researcher in the psychology of disinformation, reasoning, and decision-making, is helping us get a handle on what’s true and what’s false. 

In fact, his research has helped reveal the underlying mechanisms of human reasoning, which has changed the way that many psychologists think about thinking, and has showed the many ways that analytic thinking impacts our everyday lives. His most recent work leverages these insights to help people to both understand and combat disinformation. 

An assistant professor of behavioural science in the University of Regina's Hill and Levene Schools of Business, some of Pennycook’s earliest research focused on understanding a key component of human reasoning: what are the factors that trigger people to think in a more analytic and reflective way, as opposed to relying on intuitions and gut feelings? 

A common assumption in the field was that when people felt “internal conflict” it was often between their intuitive gut feelings and more reflective and reasoned thoughts. Pennycook challenged this, arguing instead that conflict between intuitions is what actually triggers reflective thinking. This work culminated in a 2015 paper in the journal Cognitive Psychology in which Pennycook and his co-authors proposed a new model of analytic thinking. Pennycook’s theoretical approach has now been widely adopted in the field.

For this timely and important work, Pennycook has been named a Member of the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists. The College was established in 2014 to recognize individuals demonstrating leading scholarly, research, or artistic excellence within 15 years of having completed their post-doctoral program or its equivalent. Members of the College are elected for a seven-year period.

Pennycook says it’s a remarkable honour to be a part of the College, which he will both greatly benefit from and contribute to. 

“Although my base discipline is psychology, I have been increasingly engaging with researchers from other disciplines, such as political science, communications, journalism, computer science, and sociology. This type of multidisciplinary work is in-line with the College’s goal of overcoming disciplinary and academic boundaries in the common pursuit of knowledge, and, as a Member, I aim to contribute to this goal,” says Pennycook, who adds that his primary motivation to be part of the College is to engage in collaborative research with recognized and emerging researchers in other fields. 

Pennycook, who held a SSHRC Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship at Yale University, has also published extensively on topics that pertain to how people form their beliefs, and the role thinking and reasoning have on forming those beliefs. In this area, he’s published on topics as diverse as religious belief, morality, creativity, smartphone use, health beliefs, sleep paralysis, language use among climate change deniers to political ideology. His research indicates that the mere disposition to think in an analytic and reflective way (as opposed to relying on one’s intuitions) has relevance for a broad range of beliefs and behaviours. One of his most influential studies found that people who are more reflective tend to be less religious. 

Most recently, Pennycook has been working to understand disinformation. His basic research on the topic illustrates that more analytic people are better able to accurately discern between real and fake news, regardless of whether the headlines are consistent or inconsistent with their political ideology. 

In fact, if anything, Pennycook has found that individuals are better able to discern between real and fake news that is consistent with their political ideology, indicating that people fall for fake news less because of partisanship than because of mere cognitive laziness. 

For example, Pennycook demonstrated that a single prior exposure to a “fake news” headline is sufficient to increase later belief in the headline, even when the headline is tagged with a warning on exposure and/or is inconsistent with one’s political ideology. This is a crucial finding because it means that interventions intended to combat disinformation on social media should focus on cutting off initial exposure to low-quality content. 

Pennycook’s research has also shown that subtly inducing thoughts about accuracy is sufficient to selectively decrease people’s willingness to consider sharing false news on social media. Along with his colleagues, he tested in a large-scale field experiment on Twitter by messaging users who had retweeted content from well-known sources of misleading news, and found a significant increase in the quality of news they subsequently shared. 

In only five years, Pennycook’s publication and research record reveals the substantial, innovative, and influential work he’s both led and been a part of, culminating in more than $4.5 million of funding, publishing 66 journal articles, five book chapters, an edited volume, and several popular press articles.   

Over his short career, he has amassed numerous honours and awards, including: The Canadian Psychological Association Honours Thesis Award, the University of Waterloo Arts Alumni Gold Medal (for outstanding dissertation), the Governor General’s Gold Medal (for outstanding dissertation), two NSERC USRA awards, a NSERC CGS Master’s award, a NSERC CGS Doctoral award, a NSERC Postdoctoral Fellowship (ranked first for psychology in Canada), and (as mentioned) a SSHRC Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship (ranked first in Canada). His 2018 SSHRC Insight Discovery Grant was also ranked number one in Canada and his 2020 SSHRC Discovery Grant was placed in the top sextile and ranked fourth in his committee. Finally, Pennycook was named Poynter Institute’s International Fact-Checking Network Researcher of the Year in 2017. 

He was selected to give the prestigious “Junior Keynote” at this year’s (subsequently postponed) International Conference on Thinking in Paris, France. In just the last three years he has given 17 invited talks, including at top institutions such as Harvard University, Yale University, Brown University, the University of Pennsylvania, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Toronto. 

He has also published in top international outlets, including: Science, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Nature Human Behavior, and Trends in Cognitive Sciences – to name but a few. He has been cited more than 6,767 times (including 2,322 times this year so far), placing him as one of the most cited people in his subfield, despite being merely three years into his professorship. 

Pennycook has also made a big splash outside of academia, with his work frequently being  covered by major media outlets, such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, Scientific American, The Wall Street Journal, CBC, LA Times, The Atlantic, New York Magazine, Bloomberg, Time Magazine, and The Guardian

Dr. David G. Rand, associate professor at the Sloan School and Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at Massachusetts Institute of Technology says that Pennycook is an astonishingly creative and productive scientist working on issues of deep importance for social psychology. 

“Gordon Pennycook is just outstanding,” says Rand, with whom Pennycook worked under while a postdoctoral fellow in his MIT lab, and with whom he continues to closely collaborate with. “I feel lucky to have him as a colleague, and I cannot imagine someone better suited for the College of New Scholars, Artists, and Scientists of the Royal Society of Canada. I cannot over-emphasize how impressive Gordon’s research record is. He has quality, quantity, and cohesion. His work is deeply insightful, shedding real new light on how the human mind works – with both theoretical and practical implications. He has a clear generative research agenda organized around a core topic which lends itself naturally to many applications (rather than a disconnected collection of work on different topics). And he has very strongly demonstrated his ability to conduct and publish impactful work independently.” 

Dr. Kathleen McNutt, Vice-President (Research) at the University of Regina says that Pennycook’s research has already tangibly impacted the field of cognitive psychology, and has had a significant impact globally through the dissemination and application of his research outcomes.

“Rarely a week goes by that I don’t see Dr. Pennycook’s name and/or his research being referred to by a major media outlet, whether for his work on disinformation relating to politics, or his most recent work fighting against COVID-19 misinformation on social media,” says McNutt. “This shows what a major impact he is having on the lives of people everyday as he goes to battle to fight the spread of disinformation.” 

The Royal Society of Canada, founded in 1882, recognizes scholarly, research, and artistic excellence, advises governments and organizations, and promotes a culture of knowledge and innovation in Canada and with other national academies around the world.

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