Conspiracy theories are influential. Empirical work, both of my own and other scholars have indeed shown that this is the case. Whilst watching “Did we land on the moon” on channel 5 last night, I therefore wondered what influence this documentary could have on someone’s beliefs about the moon landing, since it appeared to be very pro-conspiracy focused. For example, a series of studies co-authored by Karen Douglas and myself, which are due to be published in the British Journal of Psychology, have shown that after exposure to pro-conspiracy information (i.e., information that supports conspiracy theories concerning governmental or climate change conspiracies) participants were more likely to endorse a variety of conspiracy theories (i.e., 9/11, Diana etc.), relative to those who were exposed to anti-conspiracy information, or who were in a control condition. Furthermore, it was demonstrated that this exposure can also influence a person’s behavioural intentions – specifically being detrimental for intentions concerning political engagement and environmental campaigns. Therefore, this research reveals that exposure to conspiracy theories can have potentially important social consequence.
Furthermore, previous empirical research has demonstrated a similar trend. Douglas and Sutton (2008) exposed participants to conspiracy theories about the death of Princess Diana. They found that participants were then more inclined to endorse conspiracy theories, even though they perceived that their beliefs had not changed. That is, they rated the beliefs in others being influenced by the conspiracy information, but not their own beliefs. These findings therefore demonstrate that conspiracy theories can have a ‘hidden impact’ (p.217) on people’s attitude. Another empirical example is from research conducted by Butler, Koopman and Zimbardo (1995), where they found that people who had viewed the film JFK, which documents several conspiracy theories, were more likely to believe JFK conspiracies, relative to those who had not viewed the film.
From these brief empirical examples, this demonstrates that some wariness about conspiracy theories may indeed be warranted. This relates to both the serious behavioural intentions being influenced, but also one’s attitudes concerning significant events. Therefore, whilst watching the documentary last night, I wondered about how far this could be influencing the viewers’ beliefs on the moon landing. Further, I wondered whether they were even aware that their beliefs may have even been influenced, and subsequently potentially their behavioural intentions too. Conspiracy theories are a fascinating topic, but wariness needs to be taken when being exposed to such pro-conspiracy information in the absence of information supporting mainstream accounts.
Butler, L. D., Koopman, C., & Zimbardo, P. G. (1995). The psychological impact of viewing the film JFK: Emotions, beliefs and political behavioral intentions. Political Psychology, 16, 237–257. doi:10.2307/3791831
Douglas, K. M., & Sutton, R. M. (2011). Does it take one to know one? Endorsement of conspiracy theories is influenced by personal willingness to conspire. British Journal of Social Psychology, 50, 544–552. doi:10.1111/j.2044-8309.2010.02018.x
Jolley, D. & Douglas, K.M. (2013). The social consequences of conspiracism: Exposure to conspiracy theories decreases intentions to engage in politics and to reduce one’s carbon footprint. British Journal of Psychology. doi: 10.1111/bjop.12018