Why tidying your desk might make conspiracy theories seem less plausible

A recent study by psychologists at the University of Amsterdam looked at the consequences of feeling ambivalent, with interesting implications for belief in conspiracy theories.

We experience ambivalence when we feel both good and bad about something at the same time. Imagine eating an entire tub of ice cream. You know it would be a delightful way to spend five minutes – but you probably also know it’d be pretty bad for you in the long run. That’s ambivalence. It’s a common experience. We all feel conflicting emotions about things at some time or another. But we don’t tend to enjoy the feeling. Psychologists have known for a while that ambivalence is an undesirable state of mind, leading to negative emotions and even, in extreme cases, mental health problems. We habitually seek order and consistency, and to be ambivalent is to experience disorder. When we feel ambivalence we sometimes try to diminish or overcome it by updating our beliefs so we can arrive at a more unequivocal attitude, or simply by ignoring and downplaying the importance of the beliefs. Continue reading

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Anti-vaccine conspiracy theories and their potential impact on children’s health

MapThe Los Angeles Times recently published a piece titled: “Measles is spreading, and the anti-vaccine movement is the cause”, and as you can imagine, this caught my attention.

Recently, I have had an empirical paper published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, with Karen Douglas, my co-author and PhD supervisor.  In two studies, we investigated the potential impact of anti-vaccine conspiracy beliefs – such as the belief that research on vaccine efficacy is manipulated to make profits for pharmaceutical companies -, and exposure to anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, on vaccination intentions.

In the first study, we surveyed 89 parents about their views on anti-vaccine conspiracy theories and then asked them to indicate their intention to have a fictional child vaccinated.  It was found stronger belief in anti-vaccine conspiracy theories was associated with lower intentions to vaccinate.  This relationship was found to be explained by three factors: perceived dangers of vaccines, feelings of powerlessness and mistrust in authorities.

In the second study, using an experimental design, we aimed to replicate and extend these findings by investigating the casual relationship. To do this, we exposed 188 participants to information concerning anti-vaccine conspiracy theories or information refuting such theories.  We also included a control condition where no exposure occurred.  It was found that exposure to pro- conspiracy material reduced their intention to have a fictional child vaccinated, relative to those who were given refuting information, or in a control condition.  The same factors again explained this relationship (perceived dangers of vaccines, feelings of powerlessness and mistrust in authorities).

Referring back to the Los Angeles Times piece, our research certainly provides some evidence towards their conclusion.  Here, we suggest that anti-vaccine conspiracy theories may have more than a trivial effect on vaccination intentions.  Our work demonstrates empirically, and to our knowledge for the first time, that anti-vaccine conspiracy theories may therefore present an obstacle to vaccine uptake.  The implications of this work has the potential to be wide reaching, such as highlighting the importance of public policy taking in to account conspiracy theories (as discussed previously on this blog), and also calling for further investigations to identify the social consequences of conspiracism.

We also found some other interesting things as well – such as relating to the role of misinformation, and the potential for conspiracy information being resistant to correction. As PLOSONE is an open-access journal, where it is available to all, if you are interested in reading the whole paper, you can for free.

Posted in Social psychology, What's the harm | 8 Comments

What do you think happened to Malaysia Airlines flight MH370?

[Edited 17/03/14: The survey is now closed. Thanks to everyone who took part]

We are conducting a survey of people’s opinions about what happened to the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. If you have 7 or 8 minutes to spare, please take part in the research. It would also be a huge help if you can pass the link on to others who might like to take part via email, Facebook,  Twitter, or any other social media.

https://goldpsych.eu.qualtrics.com/SE/?SID=SV_aV4ZsQUwc620fYh

Posted in World events | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Should conspiracy theory research inform public policy?

Public-Policy

Princess Diana was murdered by the Royal Family.  The U.S. government orchestrated the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  Pharmaceutical companies cover up evidence of harmful side effects of vaccines.  Each statement is a ‘conspiracy theory’; defined as a proposed plot by powerful people or organizations working together in secret to accomplish some (usually sinister) goal (e.g., Wood, Douglas & Sutton, 2012).  Current psychological research is exploring the reasons behind why people endorse conspiracy theories, and investigating the impact such theories can have on individuals, and society.  One question that presents itself is: is the impact of conspiracy theories recognised in current UK public policy?  Using anti-vaccine conspiracy theories as a specific case study, this will be explored.

One important area of current psychological research is investigating the impact of conspiracy theories on the individual, and society.  For example, research has shown that conspiracy theories may change the way people think about social events.  After exposure to conspiracy theories about the death of Princess Diana, participants were persuaded to endorse the conspiracy theory account without being aware of it (Douglas & Sutton, 2008).  Further, scholars have experimentally demonstrated that exposure to conspiracy information can be detrimental by reducing pro-environmental intentions and willingness to engage in politics (Butler, Koopman & Zimbardo, 1995; Jolley & Douglas, 2014a).

Conspiracy theories can also have potentially negative consequences for the prevention of diseases.  The development of vaccines is one of the most important advances in the history of medicine.  Indeed, a recent Parliament Postnote discussed how governments should further stimulate vaccine research (Post, 2008).  However, even with increased efforts of policy makers, in recent year’s vaccination rates have declined.  In many regions of the UK rates lie well below the recommended 95% uptake (Health Protection Service, 2013).   One obstacle may be the influence of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories.  Rather, current psychological research has shown exposure to anti-vaccine conspiracy information reduces pro-vaccination intentions (Jolley & Douglas, 2014b). Thus, whilst the decrease uptake of vaccines could be for several reasons, it highlights the contributing potential detrimental effect of conspiracy theories.

immunisationCurrent UK public policy is based around voluntary immunisation.  This has been successful in most cases.  However, policy makers do need to take into account ways to effectively approach the ever increasing number of parents in the UK who do not vaccinate their children. Research has shown that detailed information about risk and benefits of immunisations appear to be successful in altering the decision of parents who were initially opposed to vaccination (e.g., Moran, Gainotti, & Petrini, 2008).  Thus, as recently suggested by Fine-Goulden (2010), all parents who have not arranged for their children’s vaccinations should meet with a well-informed healthcare professional who can provide this information face to face and address any particular concerns in a sensitive manner.

However, anti-vaccine conspiracy theories reflect suspicion and mistrust of scientific research examining vaccine efficacy and safety.  Rather, they attempt to explain away overwhelming scientific evidence that vaccines are effective, safe, and necessary (Kata, 2010).  Therefore, such a policy that involves a meeting with a health care professional may not be successful with parents who hold anti-vaccine conspiracy beliefs due to their suspicion and mistrust of scientific research.  This clearly demonstrates the importance of current public policy taking in to account conspiracy theories and their impact.

Conspiracy theories are a popular area of conversation, with beliefs seemingly to be increasing over time.  Current psychological research is showing conspiracy theories to be potentially detrimental to us all.  This research is timely in the face of declining vaccination rates, and recent outbreaks of vaccinated-against diseases such as measles. For those parents who hold anti-vaccine conspiracy beliefs, just being given information about vaccines may not be sufficient to improve their vaccine uptake.  Instead, further interventions need to be explored and tested empirically for those parents who hold anti-vaccine conspiracy beliefs, which can then inform future public policy. Similarly, such an intervention developed may be fruitful in other domains, such as in policy to encourage pro-environmental engagement.  This clearly highlights the importance of psychological research informing future intervention and public policy.

Posted in Social psychology | Tagged | 29 Comments

The President is Dead: Why Conspiracy Theories About the Death of JFK Endure

November 22nd marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Over the years, numerous investigations have amassed evidence that Lee Harvey Oswald was the assassin, and failed to find compelling proof that anyone else was involved. Yet the identity of the person who fired the fatal bullet is still a subject of debate among the public. In the run up to the anniversary, the internet has been rife with conspiracy theories surrounding Kennedy’s death. Polls consistently show that conspiracist accounts of the JFK assassination are more widely believed than any other conspiracy theory – most surveys show that a majority of the US public suspects that Lee Harvey Oswald wasn’t acting alone. Why is it that this event, more than any other, captured the conspiracist imagination and refuses to let go?  Continue reading

Posted in Biases & heuristics, Proportionality bias, World events | Tagged , , , , | 36 Comments

PsyPAG Quarterly special issue: The psychology of conspiracy theories

PsyPAGQsept The PsyPAG Quarterly is a publication which is distributed free of charge to all psychology postgraduates in the UK. As an editor of this publication, for the September ’13 edition, I put together a special issue on the psychology of conspiracy theories. You can find a link to the PDF of the full edition below.

You will see articles from the regular faces of this blog – Rob, Christopher, Mike and I, plus one new face – Anthony. We each cover a difference aspect of the psychology of conspiracy theories, and I feel we present an up-to-date overview of the field. The edition also includes some re-print blog posts from each of us.

Please leave us any comments you have about the special issue. It would be great to hear any thoughts.

Special issue: The psychology of conspiracy theories

Posted in Social psychology | 24 Comments

Conspiracy distractions

[I wrote this article two years ago, on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. It was originally published in The Skeptic magazine.]

On the morning of September 11th, 2011, New York City solemnly remembered the thousands of people who lost their lives in the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks of ten years ago. At the newly completed memorial where the Twin Towers once stood in Lower Manhattan, the names of the 2,977 people who died in the towers, the Pentagon, and on the hijacked airplanes were read by family members and friends. Their voices reverberated for blocks around the subdued streets of the financial district.

But two blocks from the Ground Zero memorial, opposite the peace-ribbon-covered railings of St. Paul’s Chapel at the corner of Broadway and Fulton Street, the victims’ names were drowned out by a general rabble punctuated by chants of “controlled demolition, 9-11” and “three buildings, two planes”. Continue reading

Posted in 9/11, World events | Tagged , , , , | 97 Comments

5 reasons why “predictive programming” is psychologically implausible

If you think that popular culture – movies, TV, and music – have been kind of samey lately, you’re not alone. Peter Suderman at Slate has proposed that most summer blockbusters follow the same basic formula laid out in a screenwriting book from 2005. Others, though, think that this problem goes back much further, and reflects a sinister conspiracy to indoctrinate the public into accepting a totalitarian future.

This is a conspiracy theory called “predictive programming.” It’s the brainchild of a man by the name of Alan Watt, and has been popularised by luminaries of conspiracism like Alex Jones and David Icke, among many others. Here’s how it works.

Continue reading

Posted in Social psychology | Tagged , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

The Wood & Douglas (2013) commission report: Whitewash or coverup?

As I write this the fuss about our Frontiers article, “What about Building 7?” A social psychological study of online discussion of 9/11 conspiracy theories, has mostly died down, so now seems like a good time to do a bit of a postmortem and take a look at some of the issues that have come up since the whole ruckus kicked off with Kevin Barrett’s awful PressTV article and its infinite copy-pastes around the blogspamosphere.

I’ve been contacted for a couple of interviews since this whole business started: a Google Hangouts interview with the Renegade Variety Hour, and an audio podcast interview with Greg Moffitt of Legalise Freedom. These two shows come from quite different perspectives – Renegade Variety Hour was very conventionalist while Legalise Freedom had more of a conspiracist slant to it – so it was an interesting experience and I was glad to have the opportunity to correct some of the misconceptions that have been circulating around. I was also invited to be on Coast to Coast AM, but that got pushed back so it might not happen. We’ll see.

On the whole it’s been a pretty interesting two weeks. There’s a bit more to talk about, including a new counter-rebuttal from Barrett, below the fold.

Continue reading

Posted in Confirmation bias, Social psychology | Tagged , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Setting the record straight on Wood & Douglas, 2013

Our recently published Frontiers study on online communication, “What about Building 7?” A social psychological study of online discussion of 9/11 conspiracy theories, has been the subject of some chatter on the Internet – but not quite in the way I had hoped. A story by Kevin Barrett on PressTV.ir has interpreted the study as showing that conspiracists are “more sane” than conventionalists, and, given that this is an appealing headline for long-suffering conspiracists, has been copy-pasted around the Internet in a highly uncritical fashion. I’m often guilty of this too – reading the headline and moving on – because who has the time to read every original source of every news story? In this case, of course, the paper says nothing of the sort and the article’s conclusions are based on misrepresentations of several critical findings.

How on earth did Barrett get the idea that the study makes some judgement that conspiracists are more well-adjusted than conventionalists? He first mentions the size of the comment sample and how it’s split between the two classes of comments:

The authors were surprised to discover that it is now more conventional to leave so-called conspiracist comments than conventionalist ones: “Of the 2174 comments collected, 1459 were coded as conspiracist and 715 as conventionalist.” In other words, among people who comment on news articles, those who disbelieve government accounts of such events as 9/11 and the JFK assassination outnumber believers by more than two to one. That means it is the pro-conspiracy commenters who are expressing what is now the conventional wisdom, while the anti-conspiracy commenters are becoming a small, beleaguered minority.

In writing this Barrett did not realise that these only include persuasive comments – comments that were written with the apparent intent to change somebody’s mind about the cause of 9/11. It doesn’t include comments that, for instance, take the conventional explanation for granted and just talk about something else; that complain about someone else’s post; that simply insult someone; and so on. So it’s totally baseless to conclude that conspiracist comments outnumber conventionalist comments – I did the data collection for this study and am positive that this is not the case. Probably it’s true of a few articles, but certainly not in general.

I pointed this out in the comments on the PressTV website (for which, hilariously, I was downvoted by the website’s readers) and Barrett responded:

Dear Dr. Wood, Thank you for the clarification. Something similar is going on in academic publishing. Of the scholarly books and articles that in some way or other argue for or against the official conspiracy theory (OCT) of 9/11, there seem to be far more anti-official-conspiracy articles than those that explicitly support the official story. In that sense, 9/11 truth rules in academia; so if this were like any other disputed issue, the academic community would agree that 9/11 was an inside job, based on the evidence in scholarly publications. But there are a large number of publications that simply take the OCT for granted, while there are not so many that take its falsity for granted. So the current situation, in which the OCT remains the default position, is the product of ignorance and complacency.

I could spend a long time picking apart this reasoning but suffice it to say that this a completely bogus interpretation, and the original error in the article still hasn’t been corrected despite Barrett’s obvious awareness of the problem.

 Next, Barrett turns to the actual findings of the study:

Perhaps because their supposedly mainstream views no longer represent the majority, the anti-conspiracy commenters often displayed anger and hostility: “The research… showed that people who favoured the official account of 9/11 were generally more hostile when trying to persuade their rivals.”

Additionally, it turned out that the anti-conspiracy people were not only hostile, but fanatically attached to their own conspiracy theories as well. According to them, their own theory of 9/11 – a conspiracy theory holding that 19 Arabs, none of whom could fly planes with any proficiency, pulled off the crime of the century under the direction of a guy on dialysis in a cave in Afghanistan – was indisputably true. The so-called conspiracists, on the other hand, did not pretend to have a theory that completely explained the events of 9/11: “For people who think 9/11 was a government conspiracy, the focus is not on promoting a specific rival theory, but in trying to debunk the official account.”

Apart from the reference to the earlier statistical debacle, this characterisation of the hostility finding is correct (ADDED 29/07: though we don’t attribute this to personality differences as Barrett seems to; see this post for further discussion). The interpretation of the other finding is unusual and perhaps overstates the case (there was no measure of “fanaticism” in the study, unless defending a position you agree with is inherently fanatical) but this isn’t an unreasonable interpretation otherwise – it’s a question of values I suppose.

Additionally, the study found that so-called conspiracists discuss historical context (such as viewing the JFK assassination as a precedent for 9/11) more than anti-conspiracists.

This, though, is just flat-out wrong. The finding it refers to is that conspiracists mentioned more unrelated conspiracy theories positively than conventionalists did – conspiracists were more likely to say something like “9/11 was an inside job, just like the JFK assassination” than conventionalists were to say something like “9/11 conspiracies are nonsense! Now the JFK assassination, there’s a real conspiracy.” However, the opposite was true of negative mentions of other conspiracy theories – it was more likely for conventionalists to say “9/11 conspiracies are nonsense, just like UFO coverups” than for conspiracists to say “9/11 was a real conspiracy, not like that UFO coverup stuff.” In other words, 9/11 conspiracists tend to believe other conspiracy theories as well and 9/11 conventionalists tend to disbelieve other conspiracy theories as well – it’s a replication of a classic finding with new archival methodology. The idea that this somehow demonstrates that that conspiracists “discuss historical context more” is a total misinterpretation and seems to willfully ignore half of the finding it refers to.

Anyway, the damage seems to have been done – the PressTV article has been reprinted on a lot of different websites, forums, and social media thanks to its sensationalised headline and smug triumphalism. I’m ambivalent about this – I like that my research is being recognised since I am inherently a media whore, but I’m less happy about the fact that it’s only seeing wide exposure after having been twisted and misinterpreted by an extremely biased article on Iranian state-run media. Still, the last article that we published was met with headlines like “Psychologists prove conspiracy theorists are all crazy!” (there’s no room for nuance on the Internet, is there?) so I suppose it all balances out. I just hope that some people will read the paper itself rather than taking PressTV’s word for what it says.

Posted in 9/11, Confirmation bias, Social psychology | Tagged , , , , , | 214 Comments