Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories

My book, Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories, is out now! You can buy it now from all the usual places, in hardback and for Kindle and other e-readers. (Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk / Barnes & Noble / Waterstones) Continue reading

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Conspiracy theories can sometimes bolster rather than undermine support for the status quo

In a recent paper published in Political Psychology by myself from Staffordshire University and Karen Douglas and Robbie Sutton from the University of Kent, we found that conspiracy theories might be a way that people can maintain favourable attitudes towards society when the social system may be under threat. In other words, conspiracy theories may sometimes bolster rather than undermine support for the social status quo when its legitimacy is threatened.

Conspiracy theories are associated with almost every significant social and political event, such as the suggested theory that the U.S. government orchestrated the 9/11 attacks. A similar thread throughout conspiracy narratives is that they point accusing fingers at authority (such as the government). Conspiracy theories single out a small group of perceived wrongdoers who are not representative of society more generally but instead are working against us. Believing in conspiracy theories may, therefore, give people the opportunity to blame the negative actions on these wrongdoers, thus then bolstering support for the social system in general; blaming a few bad apples to save a threatened barrel.

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This argument is in line with System Justification Theory which proposes that we all have a motivation to hold positive views about the society that we live in. When our society is threatened, however, we seek to defend or bolster the status quo; for example, people may use stereotypes – which are mental shortcuts about different groups of people – to justify differences between people to maintain the status quo that we are used to. In our new paper, we argue that belief in conspiracy theories may join the ranks of these system-justification processes.

We tested the system-justifying idea across several research studies, using both undergraduate students and members of the general public. We found that conspiracy theories increased when the legitimacy of society was threatened, and that also being exposed to conspiracy theories increased satisfaction with the status quo when under threat. We found that conspiracy theories were able to increase satisfaction with society in general because people blamed society’s problems on a small group of wrongdoers, rather than society in general.

This research provides a new understanding of the role that conspiracy theories may play in our society. To directly quote the end of the paper: “The present results suggest that by pointing fingers at individuals – even groups of individuals charged with operating the system – conspiracy theories may exonerate the system, just as blaming a driver for a car crash shifts blame from the car.”

Reference: Jolley, D., Douglas, K.M, & Sutton R. (in press). Blaming a few bad apples to save a threatened barrel: The system-justifying function of conspiracy theories. Political Psychology.

A open-access copy of the paper can be downloaded via Research Gate.

This post has been re-published from InPsych @ Staffordshire University.

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Conspiracy theories in the workplace

Conspiracy theories have been shown to have potentially detrimental consequences on political, environmental, and health-related behaviour intentions. We have discussed these consequences on the blog previously. Recently, psychologists have extended this and explored how conspiracy theories may also impact our day-to-day working lives.article-title

Prof. Karen Douglas and Dr Ana Leite define organisation conspiracy theories in their 2016 British Journal of Psychology paper as “notions that powerful groups (e.g., managers) within the workplace are acting in secret to achieve some kind of malevolent objective”. They argue organisation conspiracy theories are different from gossip and rumour, as organisation conspiracy theories are typically conspiracies between individuals, such as working together to get an employee fired.

Douglas and Leite found across three studies that organisation conspiracy theories were related to decreased organisational commitment and job satisfaction, thus then leading to increased turnover intentions. In other words, people were more likely to want to leave their current job.

This research underlines the potentially detrimental consequences of conspiracy theories. Not only can they potentially lead to disengagement in important social systems but may also lead to disengagement in the workplace. The researchers, therefore, conclude that managers need to be mindful of the effects of conspiracy theories and not dismiss them as  harmless rumour or gossip.

If you are interested in reading the full paper, you can access a PDF copy here.

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What suspicion tells us about beliefs in conspiracy theories

Have a look at the statements below, and think about how much you agree with each of them on a 1-5 scale (1 = strongly disagree, 5 = strongly agree).

  1. The real truth about 9/11 is being kept from the public.
  2. People need to wake up and start asking questions about 9/11.
  3. Legitimate questions about 9/11 are being suppressed by the government, the media, and academia.
  4. Reporters, scientists, and government officials are involved in a conspiracy to cover up important information about 9/11.
  5. An impartial, independent investigation of 9/11 would show once and for all that we’ve been lied to on a massive scale.

Add up your scores, and you have a measure of how suspicious you are that there’s some kind of ongoing conspiracy surrounding 9/11. Now, do the same with these statements.

  1. The real truth about the moon landings is being kept from the public.
  2. People need to wake up and start asking questions about the moon landings.
  3. Legitimate questions about the moon landings are being suppressed by the government, the media, and academia.
  4. Reporters, scientists, and government officials are involved in a conspiracy to cover up important information about the moon landings.
  5. An impartial, independent investigation of the moon landings would show once and for all that we’ve been lied to on a massive scale.

That looks familiar! This is called the FICS – the Flexible Inventory of Conspiracy Suspicions. It’s a sort of fill-in-the-blanks, conspiracy theory Mad Libs thing – a new innovation in measuring conspiracy theory beliefs. You can put nearly* any topic of public interest in there, and end up with a valid measure of suspicions that there’s a conspiracy to do with it. I’ve written an article proposing and validating this approach, and was fortunate enough to have it accepted to the British Journal of Psychology. It went up on Early View this week, so you can check it out if you have access to the journal. More info about it after the jump – including how this tells us something about the way that conspiracy beliefs are structured.

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Exposure to conspiracy theories: Enduring over a two-week period

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We know that conspiracy theories may have some important negative societal consequences.  Conspiracy theories can discourage people from engaging with the political system, taking action against climate change and having a fictional child vaccinated.

In each of these empirical investigations, participants were exposed to conspiracy theories, before being asked to immediately complete several questionnaires – such as their intention to vaccinate a fictional child after they had been exposed to anti-vaccine conspiracy theories.  An intriguing question remained, however: How long do these effects persist for?

Recent research published in the International Journal of Communication has provided some answers to this.  The scholars found that after exposure to a video promoting government conspiracy theories about the moon landing (segment taken from Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon), belief in conspiracy theories increased immediately after the exposure and two weeks later (when compared to people who had not watched the video).

This provides, to my knowledge, the first empirical evidence that being exposed to conspiracy theories can change your attitudes for a prolonged (two-week) period of time.   If you are interested in reading the paper, you can access a PDF copy here.

As a scholar examining the social consequences of conspiracy theories, I find this research particularly intriguing as the research provides evidence that conspiracy theories may indeed endure for a longer period of time than the experimental session.  There are however still unanswered questions, such as whether being exposed to conspiracy theories would also change behaviours over a period of time, and of course, whether the effect persists after two-week.  Yet, this empirical investigation adds to our understanding and highlights the importance of further investigations into the psychology of conspiracy theories.

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Conspiracy theories and the campaign to Leave the EU

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With colleagues at the University of Kent (Prof Karen Douglas and Dr Aleksandra Cichocka), we have written a piece in The Psychologist discussing conspiracy theories and the campaign to Leave the EU.  In short, we have found that belief in such conspiracy theories predicts the extent to which people believe that Britain should remain part of the EU.

Here is an excerpt from the piece:

Very few, if any, conspiracy theories are being promoted by the Remain campaign. This is somewhat unsurprising as conspiracy theories, politically, are generally found in the realm of the right and not the left. But what may be surprising to some is our finding that these conspiracy theories may influence people’s opinions about Britain’s place in the EU above and beyond factors that typically influence people’s political decisions. Will conspiracy theories continue to hold this power come Thursday 23rd June?

Click here to read the piece in The Psychologists.

Posted in Social psychology, What's the harm, World events | 3 Comments

The psychology of gang stalking, and the difference between conspiracy theory and delusion

If you’ve spent enough time on the Internet (or read the New York Times yesterday), you might have come across the phenomenon of gang stalking – the alleged stalking of particular individuals by organized groups. It might seem like gang stalking is a sort of conspiracy theory, and that we can maybe understand it in the same way that we think about things like the 9/11 Truth Movement and beliefs in UFO coverups. I’m not sure about this. There are some pretty major psychological differences between the two. It’s probably not helpful to conflate run-of-the-mill conspiracy theories, which are not considered to be an indicator of psychopathology, with gang stalking, which is widely considered to be the product of delusional thinking.

In gang stalking, large gangs of perpetrators will (allegedly) use subtle methods of manipulation and harassment – muttering hurtful phrases or insults while passing their target on the street, repeatedly driving past the target’s house, preventing them from sleeping by making loud noises at odd hours, and so on. Many people who claim to be victims of gang stalking (search YouTube for a reasonably representative sample) allege more exotic stalking methods – in particular, “electronic harassment,” the use of advanced technology to torture, annoy, or even control the mind of the target from afar.

If you think this sounds pretty far-fetched, you’re not wrong. Stalking is real, of course – there’s no denying that. And there are situations where multiple people participate in bullying or even stalking – often close friends or family members. But “gang stalking” – the type that involves muttered insults, dozens of strangers working together, electronic harrassment, secret hand signals – is not really an accepted thing. In fact, suspicions of gang stalking are considered to be markers of delusional disorders like paranoid schizophrenia. In a 2015 study, Sheridan and James examined 128 reports of group (gang) stalking in an online questionnaire and found that all of them – every single one – exhibited delusional qualities.

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The great Columbia conspiracy: Why Trump and others seem to contradict themselves on Obama’s past

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Photo credit: Matt A. Johnson (flickr)

So, I suppose we should talk about Donald Trump at some point. Trump might just be the most famous conspiracy-monger in the world at the moment. He’s flirted with, if not outright endorsed, a wide variety of conspiracy theories, ranging from run-of-the-mill birtherism to old-school Clinton Death List claims to the new hotness that is the vaccine-autism connection.

 

A few people have noticed that Trump seems to buy into an odd combination of theories about Obama’s time at Columbia University. Officially, Obama attended Columbia from 1981 to 1983 as a transfer student from Occidental College in California; after graduating he went on to study law at Harvard. Since 2008, people (mostly on the right) have raised doubts about Obama’s time at Columbia – they’ve speculated that he was admitted as a foreign student, proving he wasn’t born in America; that he had awful grades and only got through university because of affirmative action policies; that he was turned into a Marxist Manchurian candidate by the constant barrage of radical leftist teaching; or even that he never attended Columbia at all. The official story is a carefully constructed lie, meant to cover up the sinister truth. Continue reading

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Are You Serious?

62255339I’ve posted here before about why measuring belief in conspiracy theories can be tricky. Recently I was invited to visit University of Cambridge’s Conspiracy and Democracy project and the issue of measuring belief came up again, particularly the question of what it means when somebody indicates on a survey that they “believe” (or don’t “believe”) a conspiracist claim. I wrote a blog post for the Conspiracy and Democracy project about the idea, which I’m reposting in full below. You can also watch the full public talk I gave at Cambridge at the bottom of this post.


Psychologists love to measure things, and psychologists who study conspiracy theories are no exception. To understand where conspiracy theories come from, we need to be able to measure the extent to which people believe them. But measuring things is often trickier than it first appears. Continue reading

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Intention Seekers: The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories About MS804

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I wrote a post over at Psychology Today on the psychology behind conspiracy theories about airline disasters like the disappearance of MH370, and more recently, MS804. Part of the appeal, according to a handful of recent studies, may be how conspiracy theories resonate with our brain’s intentionality bias.

When ambiguous events happen, we automatically assume that they were intended, rather than accidental. The bias is easy to spot in kids. When young children see somebody sneeze of fall over, they think that the person must have meant to sneeze or fall over. As we grow older, of course, we realize that people don’t always intend to do everything they do, and we can override our automatic judgment of intent. But the bias stays with us. One study found that having people drink a few shots of alcohol made them more likely to interpret ambiguous events as intentional—which might explain why so many fights start in bars when somebody interprets an innocent comment as an aggressive affront.

To read more about how this helps us understand conspiracy theories, click over to Psychology Today.

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Stress and belief in conspiracy theories

A recent a piece of research published by Viren Swami and colleagues has uncovered a link between feeling stressed and belief in conspiracy theories.

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Swami and colleagues gathered responses from over 400 people, where the responders completed various measures, such as indicating their perceived stress (over the last month), stressful life events (over last 6 months) and belief in conspiracy theories.  They found that more stressful life events and greater perceived stress predicted belief in conspiracy theories.

There are a couple of reasons proposed why this may be the case.  For example, when people experience stress (say a stressful life event), they may start thinking in a particular way such as seeing patterns when they do not exist, which may lead on to prompting a conspiratorial mind set.  Once this worldview has begun to develop therefore, belief in conspiracy theories are more easily reinforced.

Alternatively, the researchers suggest stress may not be the central driving force, but rather, the findings may be caused by a threat to a sense of control.  When an event happens; the death of JFK as an example, this causes people to feel a sense powerlessness, thus people may seek out conspiracy theories as a way to reinstall a sense of control.  The next step in the research is to examine the complex relationships between stress, control and belief in conspiracy theories in order to tease apart the mechanisms.

JFK

Investigating the associations between beliefs in conspiracy theories and factors such as stress is an important avenue of research. From my own work, we have highlighted the potential negative consequences of belief in, and exposure to, conspiracy theories.  It is therefore paramount that we strive to learn more about the psychology of conspiracy theories.

Of course conspiracy theories may offer several benefits.  They can be a way to gain a sense of control as suggested and can be said to promote transparency within authorities.  Conspiracy theories can also reduce the likelihood of people voting, taking action against climate change, and having a fictional child vaccinated.  In some of my most recent work, conspiracy theories can be used as a way to express negativity, alongside changing how we perceive other social groups.

As highlighted by Swami and colleagues therefore, examining belief in conspiracy theories remains an urgent issue for researchers and policy-makers.

 

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