Cognitive Immunity: A Defence Against Harmful Ideas

How can you protect yourself from media manipulation? How do you spot fake news and biased ideas? There's an interesting strategy that helps you to react effectively.
Cognitive Immunity: A Defence Against Harmful Ideas
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 27 April, 2023

Most of us use various strategies to protect our immune systems. For instance, we take care of our diets, try to sleep eight hours every night, exercise, and avoid harmful habits like the consumption of tobacco or alcohol. However, what about our cognitive immune systems?

As a matter of fact, our minds also need defense mechanisms to keep themselves protected from negative, harmful, and false ideas. This concept first appeared in the 50s. It was popularized by figures such as Andy Norman, director of the Humanist Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University (USA).

Today, it’s more important than ever to teach children strategies to defend themselves from the inherent manipulation that occurs on social media. In fact, experts point out that it isn’t enough to develop good critical thinking. We must also develop adequate immunity so we can react quickly to the cognitive viruses swarming in the media.

Young people build their identity and self-esteem through social media. This can be extremely dangerous for their mental health, given the biased ideas conveyed by apps like Instagram and Tik Tok.

Mind with illuminated brain symbolizing neurotechnologies
The media appeal to our emotions and multiple cognitive biases to manipulate us.

Cognitive immunity

The amount of negative and harmful information around today has never before reached such dangerous heights. Moreover, the manipulation exercised by the media today is more refined and complex. As such, we’ve never been as vulnerable as we are now. There are many reasons for this.

Firstly, our attention is constantly hijacked and monopolized by our devices and their constant notifications. Information flows almost every second and we don’t like to miss out on anything. However, minds that have exhausted the ability to be attentive and to differentiate useful from useless information and the important from the irrelevant, begin to stop applying filters. Therefore, to consume energy in the short term, we tend to accept everything as true.

Secondly, the media are increasingly able to take control of our many cognitive biases. They deceive us by appealing to our emotions and they inject us with malicious ideas and concepts. What can we do in the face of these processes of which we’re barely aware? Fortunately, there’s a resource.

Cognitive immunity is the mechanism that allows us to filter out malicious information. It’s something that we should reinforce daily in much the same way that we take care of our health.

Self-reflection is a metacognitive mechanism that we should exercise to strengthen our critical thinking and cognitive immunity.

The biology of misinformation: memes, filters and media viruses

Alfred Tauber was one of the philosophers who discussed the concept of cognitive immunity. His work reminds us that this idea has been present in scientific and academic literature for almost five decades, although the concept may be more recent. The immune self is the concept that refers to the adequate perception and recognition of what comes from outside which is malicious for the individual.

This theory has become more relevant today due to the digital scenario that surrounds us. Indeed, it’s become increasingly common to hear that the so-called biology of misinformation is becoming increasingly sophisticated as the years go by. Moreover, it’s unstoppable. Some media act like viruses trying to infect us with certain ideas. To do this, they use the power of memes, algorithms, and artificial intelligence.

They seep into our emotions and appeal to our unconscious feelings and mechanisms to make us outraged, excited, or arouse our fascination. Without realizing it or almost without realizing it, we integrate ideas, attitudes, and thoughts that are false. Or, those that, due to their subjectivity, don’t really favor our interests. For example, the concepts of beauty and body schemas that adolescents adopt.

Mental parasites are harmful ideas. They enter our minds to manipulate us and create a completely erroneous and even conspiratorial image of reality.

How to develop an adequate mental immune system

In 2021, Dr. Andy Norman published the book, Mental Immunity. He wanted to deepen our knowledge and offer tools to improve our cognitive immunity. The idea is to strengthen ourselves against the ‘parasites’ of social media that affect our mental health and the perception of what surrounds us.

So, how do we exercise the mental barriers that can protect us against everything that’s false and that hurts us? In order to have a stronger cognitive immune system, we must be aware that our devices are weapons of power aimed, in certain cases, at deterrence and manipulation. We must know how to use them for our own benefit.

Here are some useful strategies.

1. Be aware of misinformation

Not everything that comes to us is true, beneficial, or useful. Therefore, the first step is to be aware that much of what we read on a daily basis can have an unhealthy impact on us. It doesn’t mean we should distrust every publication and piece of information. It means we must apply critical, curious, and impartial filters, so we can compare and contrast what we read.

2. Paying attention

Minds that don’t allow themselves to be manipulated are minds that are focused and trained in attention. Sadly, this is an ability that we’re losing. That’s because stress, multitasking, endless notifications at all times of the day and night, and the inability to calmly attend to what surrounds us are factors that weaken our cognitive immunity.

We must exercise our attention. We need to take care of our calm and attentive inner gazes. They filter with interest every aspect of the environment.

3. Self-reflection

An article published in Frontiers in Psychology claims that self-reflection is a lifeline. It helps us detach ourselves from certainties and biases that blind us to manipulation. It’s also the mechanism that deactivates inflexible thinking. Therefore, we start to question what we might’ve taken for granted or what the environment tells us. It’s a metacognitive ability that we should all start to improve today.

Child with a mobile developing cognitive immunity
We must encourage certain mechanisms in children so they develop good cognitive immunity.


Cognitive immunity is a concept, idea, or mechanism worth testing. It’s a competence that enhances our critical sense and safeguards us from the game of manipulation. Consequently, it’s a resource that mediates our psychological well-being.

Initiating children early in their lives is the best gift we could ever give them. These new generations are true digital natives who often have to navigate an unfriendly universe without any protection. Therefore, promoting their learning of basic cognitive defenses would make their lives so much easier and safer.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Kowal, C., DeGiorgio, L. A., Nakaoka, T., Hetherington, H., Huerta, P. T., Diamond, B., & Volpe, B. T. (2004). Cognition and immunity; antibody impairs memory. Immunity21(2), 179–188.
  • Dishon, N., Oldmeadow, J. A., Critchley, C., & Kaufman, J. (2017). The Effect of Trait Self-Awareness, Self-Reflection, and Perceptions of Choice Meaningfulness on Indicators of Social Identity within a Decision-Making Context. Frontiers in psychology8, 2034.
  • Norman, Andy. (2021). Mental Immunity. New York: Harper Wave.
  • Tauber, AI. Immunology’s theories of cognition. Hist Philos Life Sci. 2013;35(2):239-64. PMID: 24466634.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.