How developing mental immunity can protect us from bad ideas

Reading time: 6 minutes

Every day, a new video goes “viral”, and an “infectious” idea starts spreading. Mental immunity is a psychological theory that is also known as cognitive immunology. With origins dating back 70 years, this field of research is based on the premise that not only is there an immune system for the body, but an immune system for the mind as well.

People with a healthy mental immune system are more likely to detect misinformation. A strong cognitive immune system can also help spot bad ideas at an earlier stage, so you may avoid wasting time, energy or money. Let’s explore the concept of cognitive immunology, together with a list of strategies you can employ to help strengthen your mental immune system.

A mental immune system

The concept of mental immunity was formulated by Professor Andy Norman, director of the Humanism Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University. Despite the field of cognitive immunology being in its infancy, mental immunity research has deep roots dating back to the 1950s. 

The mental immune system is believed to function in a similar way to the body’s physical immune system. The purpose of the physical system of immune cells is to detect pathogens including bacteria and viruses, so that they can be eradicated from our blood stream and organ systems before they have a chance to cause damage. Similarly, a healthy mental immune system will detect harmful or incorrect information that enters our mind, so that it can be recognised as such and then promptly rejected.

In a paper about immunology’s theories of cognition, philosopher Alfred Tauber explained that developing an “immune self” requires us to actively distinguish between the self and the foreign, so that foreign information can be interrogated and potentially defended against.

This way, the mental immune system sifts through ideas, information and other forms of external stimuli to identify, and therefore protect us from, the adverse outcomes associated with misinformation.

The benefits of mental immunity

Both factual information and misinformation have the potential to spread through the population far faster than ever before. We have access to constant, real-time updates from online news platforms, as well as information shared via online magazines, social media, and unregulated websites. While factual information is a great asset, unreliable information and the inability to spot bad ideas may lead to poor decision making.

Professor Sander van der Linden from the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge published a study which showed that the public could be inoculated against misinformation regarding climate change. In the study, the publics’ cognitive immunity to misinformation was reinforced when they were given a pre-emptive warning about politically motivated attempts to spread misinformation on the human causes of global warming. The results showed that this was an effective way to strengthen their immunity to false information.

In his 2021 book Mental Immunity, Professor Andy Norman explains that the immune systems of our minds can be strengthened against ideological corruption and mind parasites, which increases our capacity for critical thinking. This in turn helps us to spot and remove bad ideas before they can cause harm.

Furthermore, developing greater cognitive flexibility allows us to change our minds faster when new, better-evidenced information is presented to us. In short, moving away from rigid thinking patterns improves our relationship with information and our resultant actions.

How to strengthen your mental immune system

You can increase your mental immunity by making your mind more resistant to misinformation, which will lead to better cognitive flexibility and decision making.

To keep on using the same analogy, these strategies work in a similar way to vaccination: they support your mind in recognising the threat of bad ideas.

1. Build awareness of misinformation. Misinformation is spread for a variety of reasons. It can be passed on innocently, especially when shared from person to person in a general conversation. However, research suggests that the spread of false content can also occur more deviously for political gain or polarisation, to generate income for media outlets, as a personal or industrial form of propaganda, or as a result of social media algorithms.

Remember that misinformation is common, that fake news is designed to appear genuine, and train yourself to immediately interrogate the information or data you are presented with. This will help make your mind more resistant to bad ideas.

2. Develop healthy meta-beliefs. A meta-belief is a belief that one holds following a thorough reasoning process or cognitive interrogation to check the validity of the belief. In their 2020 paper, Gordon Pennycook and colleagues explained that “theories of belief should take into account what people believe about when and how beliefs and opinions should change — that is, meta-beliefs.”

The team found that people who were politically liberal were more likely to believe that opinions and beliefs should change according to evidence. Those who were religious, or held paranormal or conspiratorial beliefs, were less likely to agree that beliefs should change.

Developing meta-beliefs strongly correlates with mental immunity. To strengthen your mental immune system, be prepared to assess and re-adjust previously held beliefs if new evidence comes to light. This way, your opinions are continuously being amended based on the latest evidence.

3. Practise self-reflection. When practising self-reflection, you should start to pay attention to your patterns of consumption. If this process of reflection indicates that you are drawn to the same news sources, or solely rely on influencers or social media platforms for your updates, your information diet may not be varied enough.

For greater mental nourishment, diversify your information sources and dig deeper into the underlying research to fully understand whether you are unconsciously being sold misinformation. It can also be helpful to develop a note-making practice so you can capture your thoughts and consciously reflect on the content you consume.

Mental immunity is an emerging theory and more research is needed. However, the initial investigations have shown that a strong mental immune system helps filter external information to avoid falling prey to false data or flawed ideas.

This cognitive system can be strengthened by building your awareness of the rampant nature of misinformation, developing healthy meta-beliefs, and reflecting on your patterns of information consumption.

Once reinforced, stronger mental immunity will allow you to promptly detect misinformation, reject plans that are unlikely to succeed, and increase your cognitive flexibility to quickly adapt when presented with new evidence. Definitely a concept worth experimenting with!

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