What does online discussion tell us about the psychology of conspiracy theories?

This study has recently been linked to as a demonstration that people who believe 9/11 conspiracy theories are “more sane” than people who don’t. The study has no bearing on mental health, and this claim about “sanity” relies on wishful misinterpretation of the results. Please see this post and this follow-up for more information.

I’ve just had a new paper published in Frontiers in Psychology along with Karen Douglas, my co-author and PhD supervisor. Frontiers is an open-access journal, meaning that anyone can read the full text for free, so if you’re interested go ahead and check it out.

“What about Building 7?” A social psychological study of online discussion of 9/11 conspiracy theories

In this study we diverged a bit from our usual questionnaire-based methods. Instead we collected over 2000 comments from online news stories about 9/11 – the ones that tried to persuade people one way or another regarding whether the attacks were the result of a government conspiracy. We then coded each comment on a variety of variables – how hostile it was on a scale of 1 to 5, whether it mentioned other conspiracy theories positively or negatively, and most importantly how it made its argument. This last subject was what we were most interested in, and it gave us the most interesting result of the paper.

Let’s say you’re trying to convince me that 9/11 was an inside job – you have a couple of ways of going about this. First, you could try to argue that the official story is inadequate: “jet fuel can’t melt steel,” “the hole in the Pentagon couldn’t have been made by a passenger jet,” and so on. You could also argue that the conspiracy theories provide a better account: “thermite residue was found in the WTC,” “surveillance footage clearly shows a cruise missile hitting the Pentagon,” etc. If I’m trying to convince you that 9/11 was done by Al-Qaeda terrorists, I have the same two options – I could try to argue that the other interpretation is wrong (“the conspiracy would have to be implausibly huge to pull this off,” “there were no explosion sounds from the bombs going off in the towers”) or I could directly argue that my interpretation is correct (“jet fuel is hot enough to compromise the integrity of structural steel,” “witnesses saw a plane hit the Pentagon”).

In this study we found that conspiracist comments were much more likely to argue against the official account than in favour of their own interpretation. Conversely, conventionalist (anti-conspiracist) comments were more likely to argue in favour of their own interpretation than against the conspiracy theories. This result agrees with our theory that belief in conspiracy theories can be more accurately characterised as a disbelief in official or received explanations – that the content of the conspiracy theory doesn’t matter as much as the fact that it opposes whatever the official explanation is. The focus is not on promoting an alternative explanation, but in debunking the official story.

We found some other interesting things as well – check out the paper if you’re interested. It was a very interesting project and I’m glad it turned out so well, but coding thousands of news website comments is extremely labour-intensive, certainly more so than questionnaire data entry. Regardless, there’s a great deal of data out the in the form of what people write online, and we can learn a lot from analysing it.

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19 Responses to What does online discussion tell us about the psychology of conspiracy theories?

  1. I followed the link to the paper and found but a paragraph on frontiers. http://www.frontiersin.org/personality_science_and_individual_differences/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00409/abstract Is the a link to the paper or is this abstract all that is available? Thanks! ….. john

  2. Mike Wood says:

    Hi John – the link to the full text and PDF is on the right sidebar, under “Article Info”.

  3. flyingtigercomics says:

    Do you consider the documented proof of the many times that an official explanation is a pack of lies?

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  6. chevdo says:

    Anyone who has actually spent any significant amount of time partaking in the 9/11 conspiracy debate would already be aware of the conclusions of this study. Of course conspiracy theorists are concerned with attacking the official position rather than promoting conspiracy theories. They know their theories are pretty hokey, most of the time, that’s why they always do the “what about this!” game, whereby they try to pick apart the official story with whatever they can throw at it no matter how ludicrous it is. And no wonder the people arguing with them get frustrated and hostile, since it seems like the conspiracy theorists are constantly ignoring the logical explainations the anti-conspiricists are putting forth, preferring to throw out another theory. The game never changes, the purpose of the conspiracy theorist is to frustrate anyone who dares to volunteer to educate them.

    By the way, for the first few years the 9/11 truthers at least had some cogent arguments but now the facts are all available, and the only thing conspiracy theorists can do is deny the facts. Is it any wonder that those who value reality find them frustrating and react hostilely?

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