Cognition in Online Environments

The online world is rife with challenges such as manipulative choice architectures, information overload, and the spread of harmful misinformation. We aim to develop an evidence-based understanding of the dynamics and challenges specific to online environments and to build a roadmap for tackling these challenges. Our approach includes online and field experiments, conceptual and modeling work, and evidence synthesis (e.g., systematic and expert reviews).

Online Environments and Democracy

Does the widespread use of online environments for information and opinion formation contribute to a decline in democracy? We investigate the effects of digital platforms on public discourse and political behavior by synthesizing causal and correlational evidence and conducting field experiments. Our aim is to understand how online environments impact politically relevant behaviors and attitudes. For example, how can recommendation algorithms alter the deliberative quality of an online discussion? How can social cues influence whether people trust a source of information?

Stephan Lewandowsky and colleagues discuss the causal links between social media and democratic wellbeing. more

Competences for Digital Citizens

In a world of information overabundance, attention is a limited resource that is quickly overwhelmed. Furthermore, not everything online is what it claims to be, and people are often lured into the traps of low-quality, false, and manipulative information. In our conceptual work, we propose that new competences are needed to help people reclaim their attention and autonomy online. One key competence is critical ignoring: the ability to choose what to ignore and where to invest one’s attention. In our empirical work, we test simple cognitive interventions that aim to boost digital competences, including lateral reading, a fact-checking strategy for verifying the credibility of online information and self-nudging, a situational self-control strategy that involves adapting one’s information environments to minimize distractions and improve the quality of information they contain.

Anastasia Kozyreva explains how people can gain more control over their own online media use.  more
Ralph Hertwig and colleagues discuss the importance of critical ignoring in today’s attention economy. more

Addressing Misinformation and Manipulation

The spread of false and misleading information in online social networks is a global problem in need of urgent solutions. Both individual-level and system-level solutions are required to address this problem. On the system level, we focus on public attitudes to content moderation dilemmas between freedom of expression and prevention of harms from misinformation. On the individual level, we are developing atoolbox of cognitive and behavioral interventions to combat online misinformation and manipulation. We also address the challenge of highly personalized advertising, incl. personality-based microtargeting, by developing self-reflection tools that prompt people to reflect on potential vulnerabilities they might have.

Study reveals key factors that affect people’s decisions to quash harmful misinformation. more

Sharing Information Online

Online, information can be shared with the click of a button. This individual action can contribute to collective dynamics known as the viral spread of content. To better understand these dynamics, we believe it is crucial to gain insight into the individual drivers of sharing information online and how those interact with the online environment. We investigate people’s motives for sharing information on social media and whether they are ecologically rational given its content; the influence of news feeds on sharing behavior; and whether engagement-based ranking promotes sensational news and if alternative rankings can reverse that.

Associated Projects

  • Reclaiming Individual Autonomy and Democratic Discourse Online: How to Rebalance Human and Algorithmic Decision Making, Volkswagen Stiftung 2021–2025.


Kozyreva, A., Lewandowsky, S., & Hertwig, R. (2020). Citizens versus the internet: Confronting digital challenges with cognitive tools. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 21(3), 103–156.

Lorenz-Spreen, P., Lewandowsky, S., Sunstein, C. R., & Hertwig, R. (2020). How behavioural sciences can promote truth, autonomy and democratic discourse online. Nature Human Behaviour, 4(11), 1102–1109.

Lorenz-Spreen, P., Oswald, L., Lewandowsky, S., & Hertwig, R. (2023). A systematic review of worldwide causal and correlational evidence on digital media and democracy. Nature Human Behaviour, 7(1), 74–101.

Kozyreva, A., Herzog, S. M., Lewandowsky, S., Hertwig, R., Lorenz-Spreen, P., Leiser, M., & Reifler, J. (2023). Resolving content moderation dilemmas between free speech and harmful misinformation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 120(7), Article e2210666120.

Kozyreva, A., Wineburg, S., Lewandowsky, S., & Hertwig, R. (2023). Critical ignoring as a core competence for digital citizens. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 32(1), 81–88.

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