The conspiracy theory label: Not as powerful as you might think

Calling something a conspiracy theory is basically an intellectual scarlet letter. It’s a way of dismissing something you don’t like, of placing something outside the bounds of reasonable discourse. “That’s just a conspiracy theory” is a depressingly effective way of getting someone to plug their ears and turn their brains off. Right?

Wrong, apparently!

A series of experiments I did last year came up with an interesting little finding – labeling something a conspiracy theory doesn’t make someone believe it any less than if you call it something more neutral. This goes against conventional wisdom that I’ve heard repeated quite a few times online and among people who study conspiracy theories. The journal Political Psychology has just published a paper describing these studies – you can read the whole thing free here (the article is open-access thanks to a generous payment by the University of Winchester).

It’s not like I was sitting and sneering at the idea that the conspiracy theory label was powerful before running this study – I really thought this was going to go the other way. I realized sometime last year that for some reason nobody had demonstrated that the conspiracy theory label affects how seriously people take something. I thought it would be an easy slam dunk. I modified Rob’s Generic Conspiracist Beliefs scale so that one version asked how likely a variety of conspiracy theories were, and the other version asked how likely a variety of ideas were. To this I added a few additional questions that were similar in structure to the GCB items but were about confirmed historical conspiracies – things like MKULTRA, Nixon using the IRS to go after his enemies, and so on. I showed the whole mess to 150 MTurk workers, sat back, and waited for the expected results to roll in. To my great surprise, people who were asked about “conspiracy theories” judged them to be no less likely than people who were asked about “ideas.” (At the suggestion of a reviewer, I also checked out the correlation between the historical items and the GCB items – turns out that people who believe in fewer conspiracy theories are also less likely to agree that MKULTRA, COINTELPRO, etc. were real. Pretty interesting, and I’m sure that everyone will have a strong opinion on why this is. I see three options: 1. People who are more conspiratorially minded are more likely to know about these historical conspiracies because they’re often referred to in conspiracy culture; 2. People who find out about historical conspiracies become disillusioned and from there begin to find it more likely that more speculative conspiracy theories are true; and/or 3. People who agree with one thing will agree with another thing that sounds like it, regardless of knowledge, so even a conspiracy-minded person who had never heard of COINTELPRO would think it’s just the sort of thing the government would do. I think it’s almost certainly a combination of all three, and also that this parenthetical is probably way too long.)

One of the images from Experiment 2.

One of the images from Experiment 2. One weird trick for doing psychology experiments!

So, fine. Null result. Well, it was only 150 people. I decided to run down the effect by running a second study. This time I used a statistical power analysis to figure out that I should run 802 people to have a high chance of detecting a relatively small difference between groups. I also wanted to move away from conspiracies that people might have heard of and invent something entirely new. Instead of historical conspiracies or general thoughts about conspiracies, I showed my participants a fake news article about a fake political scandal in Canada (something about tax dollars being illegally funnelled into a re-election campaign). Half of the participants saw the headline “Corruption allegations emerge in wake of Canadian election,” while the other half saw “Conspiracy theories emerge in wake of Canadian election.” They then rated their thoughts on the allegations. The result? Same as before: no difference. The “conspiracy theories” people didn’t take the allegations any less seriously than the “corruption allegations” people did.

So this was pretty interesting. Not the result I’d expected, but that’s science for you. The question now is why there’s no effect when it seems like just about everyone assumed there would be. It’s possible that the label only works under some specific circumstances that these experiments didn’t cover, but even then it seems the label’s hardly as powerful as it’s been given credit for. On the other hand, maybe people in general just don’t have a negative view of conspiracy theories – maybe the intellectual stigma around the term simply doesn’t exist outside of academia (this is what Lee Basham, a philosopher from Wabash College, thinks). I’m not so sure. I think people are probably ambivalent about conspiracy theories. They’re the target of a lot of mockery and derision, and not all of it comes from elites or people who benefit from the system as it is. The paranoid conspiracy theorist is a staple stereotype in fiction. At the same time, though, conspiracy theories are fun and interesting. They’re usually stimulating to think about even if you don’t agree with them. I think this might cancel out some of the negative associations of the term, but I think we have a ways to go before we have a definite answer.

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17 Responses to The conspiracy theory label: Not as powerful as you might think

  1. I think that one problem you may have in separating out the differences between the two groups are that people who believe in conspiracy theories will likely be inclined to believe the case when it’s presented either as a conspiracy theory or simply as a news item without using the phrase. Likewise, those who are less likely, are less likely to believe it either way.

    If you’re trying to determine the psychology of belief when something’s labeled as a conspiracy theory, that’s one thing. But if you’re trying to demonstrate that the two groups have different propensity to believe based upon something being labeled, that’s a much more subtle effect.

    I think that I’d be more inclined to investigate the effects upon discourse, when labeling something a conspiracy theory. I’d want to put this into a discussion and examine the effects, and determine if the mere label significantly altered the discussion.

    • Mike Wood says:

      Naturally there’s some amount of variation regardless of the label – people’s general tendencies will shine through regardless of what manipulations you throw at them. If there’s an effect though, all else being equal, it should show up in a large randomized design (as Experiment 2 was here).

      I go into more detail on this in the paper, but there’s a mountain of psychological evidence that categorizing something will change people’s perception of it. If you tell a teacher that a child has ADHD, they’ll perceive the child’s work and behaviour as more ADHD-like than if they weren’t given that label. The fact that an equivalent effect apparently doesn’t happen for conspiracy theories is interesting, and suggests that people in general don’t categorize them in a strictly negative/implausible sort of way (and we know that this doesn’t depend on their opinions of other conspiracy theories).

      It’s possible that there’s some discourse effect as well, but in general this study seems to complicate things significantly – it’s not a straightforward effect by any means.

  2. adamkadmon says:

    Reblogged this on David G. Robertson and commented:
    An interesting post from Mike Wood. The rhetorical function of the term “Conspiracy Theory” may be more complex than many scholars (myself included) have considered. Perhaps the “stigma” is only effective in those who haven’t constructed an identity which is in opposition to certain “norms”. What do you think?

  3. Pingback: Conspiracy Round-up, August 10th, 2015 | Matthew R. X. Dentith

  4. Pingback: Buffering conspiracy theories with feelings of control | The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories

  5. What Sunstein fails to explain throughout his most recent medley of gentle authoritarianism is how the conspiracy theory term has received vigorous promotion from the editorial practices of certain major corporate news media. Conspiracy theory is not merely a flippant or off-handed water cooler term, but rather a powerful tool of political discourse.

  6. hybridrogue1 says:

    The term “Conspiracy Theory” was ‘weaponized’ by a propaganda campaign begun by CIA as a response to growing criticism of the Warren Commission Report in their “CIA Document 1035-960” [*]. This document remained classified until 1976. This document was sent to CIA assets in media with the instruction to propagate the term in a negative fashion to create an emotional irrational response in the victims of this propaganda, and stigmatize those labelled as “Conspiracy Theorists”.

    The victims of this public relations effort were not so much the ‘conspiracy theorists’, as the general public which was encouraged to despise and distrust “Conspiracy Theories”, and traumatized into suffering deep emotional angst when encountering that perceived as a conspiracy theory, which results in the shut down of the victim’s rational facilities.

    The term has been used as a talisman and sort of “magic spell” by mass media to put the viewing audience into a trance of irrational confusion. This same sort of irrational confusion has been promoted on this very site, by the so-called ‘psychologists’ here promoting their conspiracy of psychological theories, attempting to reinforce the power the stigma of the label once had.

    One will not that it is most rare for these “psychologists” to actually make note of the material and substance of any particular “conspiracy theory”, but they rather focus on ‘conspiracy theory’ as a psychological problem of the conspiracy theorist, rather that a sociopolitical problem effecting the general population and caused by perception manipulation, propaganda and dismissal of the actual facts of history and current events.
    [*] see: http://www.jfklancer.com/CIA.html
    \\][//

    • Mike Wood says:

      “The victims of this public relations effort were not so much the ‘conspiracy theorists’, as the general public which was encouraged to despise and distrust “Conspiracy Theories”, and traumatized into suffering deep emotional angst when encountering that perceived as a conspiracy theory, which results in the shut down of the victim’s rational facilities.

      The term has been used as a talisman and sort of “magic spell” by mass media to put the viewing audience into a trance of irrational confusion. This same sort of irrational confusion has been promoted on this very site, by the so-called ‘psychologists’ here promoting their conspiracy of psychological theories, attempting to reinforce the power the stigma of the label once had.”

      Ultimately this is an empirical question, and it’s exactly what I was interested in testing. . Does categorizing something as a conspiracy theory really induce deep emotional angst, a shutdown of all rational faculties, a state of hypnotic confusion, etc.? The evidence shows pretty straightforwardly that this isn’t the case now, and it’s actually not clear that it ever was – certainly if the effect was as strong as you say, it wouldn’t wear off very easily. Yet there’s not even a trace of it visible in the data, and the sample size is large enough to reliably detect relatively small effects.

      Have you read the article? Your characterization of it seems a bit knee-jerk. There’s definitely nothing in there that presents conspiracy theorizing as individual psychopathology.

      • hybridrogue1 says:

        “Have you read the article?”~Mike Wood

        Yes I read the entire article on the journal web site that it is published on.

        “The evidence shows pretty straightforwardly that this isn’t the case now…”~Ibid

        It may not be the case now, but there is much water under the bridge, and it can only be supposition that it was “never the case”. The advent of the Internet has surely had a sobering effect on a population that formerly gotten the vast majority of it’s information from television. I think it is the post TV generation that is waking up from the “trance” that I posit in my original remarks.
        And there is much more to the effects of watching TV, which I am sure you must know, being the scholar in psychological studies that you are. Some of the effects are discussed at:
        https://hybridrogue1.wordpress.com/2014/09/10/voodoo-ritual-2/

        You end by saying, “There’s definitely nothing in there that presents conspiracy theorizing as individual psychopathology.” Yes I do appreciate that, however if you will look over the bulk of the articles on this site, I think they could be characterized as intimating such a message as conspiracy theorizing is individual psychopathology.
        And I would point out that many of the comments of the readers here certainly are under such an impression.

        As I am sure you have surmised, I am a researcher, and much of my research is concerned with a forensic view of history. This as is suggested, that I have looked into the deeper history, and the fact that conspiracy is one of the foundations of the architecture of modern political power. I am sure the average reader would say that I am a ‘conspiracy theorist’. I accept such a characterization only insofar as the term “theorist” is used in it’s proper scientific definition.

        I also suspect that my web blog is familiar to at least a few of the ‘psychologists’ who are regular contributors to this site. Let me end by congratulating you on a very fine and well researched article. Many in the research community have been very impressed with it!

        Yours truly, Willy Whitten aka HybridRogue – \\][//

      • Mike Wood says:

        “It may not be the case now, but there is much water under the bridge, and it can only be supposition that it was “never the case”. The advent of the Internet has surely had a sobering effect on a population that formerly gotten the vast majority of it’s information from television. I think it is the post TV generation that is waking up from the “trance” that I posit in my original remarks.”

        It’s also supposition to say that the label once held this terrible power people ascribe to it. More so, even. For ages I’ve been hearing people talk about the brainwashing power of the term. As soon as someone does an empirical study of it, though, there’s no trace of an effect. Maybe it was just never as strong as people assumed it was – the label manipulation didn’t affect older people any more than it did younger people so it doesn’t seem to be a generational effect.

      • hybridrogue1 says:

        “It’s also supposition to say that the label once held this terrible power people ascribe to it.”~Michael Wood

        Yes both propositions are to a degree “supposition”, so let me agree with you on this account, and revise my proposition in this way, that perhaps the label did not hold this terrible power that the people who promoted the term hoped to ascribe to it.

        I will presume that you are familiar with Michael Barkun. [?]
        Michael Barkun is heralded as “an expert on conspiracy theories”. He was interviewed by Chip Berlet for New Internationalist Magazine in September 2004 to speak to his book;
        A Culture of Conspiracy.

        The interview begins thus:
        New Internationalist: What is the appeal of conspiracism to people trying to understand how power is abused? How can someone tell the difference between conspiracism and rational criticism of the status quo?

        Barkun: “The appeal of conspiracism is threefold. First, conspiracy theories claim to explain what others can’t. They appear to make sense out of a world that is otherwise confusing. Second, they do so in an appealingly simple way, by dividing the world sharply between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. They trace all evil back to a single source, the conspirators and their agents. Finally, conspiracy theories are often presented as special, secret knowledge unknown or unappreciated by others. For conspiracists, the masses are a brainwashed herd, while the conspiracists in the know can congratulate themselves on penetrating the plotters’ deceptions.”
        _______________
        I thought Barkun’s statement curious that: “[C]onspiracy theories claim to explain what others can’t,”

        I was wondering what “other theories” Barkun meant in this quote. Do these “other theories” NOT “appear to make sense out of a world that is otherwise confusing”?
        Do these “other theories” NOT “do so in an appealingly simple way, by dividing the world sharply between the forces of light and the forces of darkness”?

        I would say that the theory of “The War on Terrorism” certainly does “make sense of the world… in an appealingly simple way”. And I would add that it is a deceitfully simple way, and certainly divides “the world sharply between the forces of light and the forces of darkness.”

        And does not the War on Terrorism Theory NOT, “trace all evil back to a single source, the terrorists and their sponsors”?

        Continuing, Burkan says, “conspiracy theories are often presented as special, secret knowledge unknown or unappreciated by others.”

        This is generally not actually the case. Most of the arguments I make are from readily available public sources, those sources hardly attempt to keep their knowledge “secret..or..”unknown”. Of course this knowledge certainly can be said to be “unappreciated by others”. Like Barkun himself who has misrepresented that “knowledge” as in someway esoteric, when it is in fact in the public arena.

        He continues with: “For conspiracists, the masses are a brainwashed herd.” Yes, this is certainly true, and I think that this theory that the masses are a brainwashed herd, is a well made and well established argument by those who study media. It is especially telling that the propagandists themselves have made no secret as to the techniques they have used to brainwash the masses into a confused and baffled herd; Bernays was very clear in his work, PROPAGANDA, in-which he writes the following:

        “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”

        Now it may be argued that this is in a sense esoteric and hidden knowledge, as Bernays is barely known to the baffled herd, because he is rarely if ever mentioned in mainstream media dialog, despite the enormous influence he has had on society in the development of the PR machine that IS the mainstream media.

        I suspect that Barkun is hardly ignorant of the works and of Bernays and the influence it has had in engineering modern society. Which brings us to the focal point of all of this, that Barkun is in fact himself, like Bernays, a propagandist who’s intent is to further baffle the confused herd.
        \\][//

      • Mike Wood says:

        I’ve read Barkun’s book, yes. We’ve learned some things in the past 10 years, though, and there are varying levels of empirical supports for the claims you’ve quoted. First, the attraction to black-and-white, good-and-evil narratives – a study from last year demonstrated that at least in the US, people who see the world as a struggle between absolute good and absolute evil take conspiracy theories generally more seriously – not just the end times NWO stuff as you might expect, but also chemtrails and 9/11 (the article is Conspiracy Theories and the Paranoid Style(s) of Mass Opinion, by Oliver and Wood [an unrelated Wood]) – this suggests that it’s more than a religiosity effect.

        Your example of the War on Terrorism is a good one, but not for the reason you might think. I don’t think anyone blames every social problem ever on terrorism – a diehard Bush-loving neocon might see 9/11, the crappy economy, and the policies of the Obama administration as the result of radical Islam, but wouldn’t think Bin Laden and co. had anything to do with the rise of communism or the dominance of the Catholic church in medieval Europe. Even in a more restricted timeframe, our hypothetical neocon would be unlikely to blame radical Islamist terrorism for domestic mass shootings, the lack of a cure for cancer, corporate food monoculture, invasive advertising, NSA spying, climate change, the phasing-out of incandescent light bulbs, or the LGBT civil rights movement. But there’s no shortage of people who see all of these things as emanations of the same conspiracy to enslave humanity. Alex Jones thinks that every single one of these things is part of a greater plot spanning centuries, if not millennia. David Icke goes even further and thinks that humanity literally lived an Edenic existence in the orbit of Saturn until the cosmic catastrophe precipitated by the arrival of the interdimensional lizard people a few thousand years ago, and that every single bad thing that’s happened since then has been the result of their meddling.

        I’m not picking on Jones and Icke because I think every conspiracy theorist believes what they do, but because they’re influential and people listen to them, and because they symbolize some of the prevailing trends quite well – Jones the post-militia right-libertarian NWO strain of conspiracism, and Icke the new-age left-libertarian energy hologram shit. They’re elements of a more general pattern, and there are many other examples of both (your Mark Koernkes and Michael Tsarions). If you go to any conspiracy theory forum and read their current events section you’ll see people blaming the same “Them” for all of the things I listed above (and probably for the popularity of David Icke and Alex Jones as well).

        I think it’s fair to characterize most conspiracy theories’ sources as esoteric, if only because they’re sources that most people don’t know about. I’d call the Nag Hammadi texts and the writings of Aleister Crowley esoteric as well, despite the fact that you can read them online and probably pick up a copy at your local university’s library. It varies, of course. Crowley’s a good deal more esoteric than Bernays or the PNAC. But there is a lot of crossover between conspiracy theory culture and the esoteric – the New Age type conspiracy theories draw very explicitly on the western occult tradition, and even the more right-libertarian stuff often leans quite heavily on Nesta Webster, Bill Cooper, older anti-masonic texts, and sometimes really bizarre shit like British Israelism and the serpent seed doctrine. Now obviously it’s not fair to say that all conspiracy theorists are into esoteric stuff because of the intellectual heritage of some of the ideas in the conspirasphere. That’s not necessarily relevant to the psychology of the thing. All of these things are generalities anyway – averages and trends. But the driving force and the attitude is often about uncovering hidden knowledge, whether it’s hidden in the sense that it’s been buried in the desert for a thousand years or hidden in the sense that the media won’t talk about it and the sheeple don’t want to believe it.

      • hybridrogue1 says:

        Mr Wood, your comment of September 14, 2015 at 7:39 am is quite complex, it addresses “conspiracy theory” as a general concept. I have a specific view that is far from most of the examples you use here. So I am not going to deconstruct your entire comment.
        If you would ever wish to discuss the events of 9/11 specifically I would very much like to have your views. As per all the other issues you address in your latest comment, I have little interest in addressing them.
        Thank you, \\][//

  7. hybridrogue1 says:

    I would like to know what is at the bottom of this interest in “conspiracy theory” that drives these psychologist to specialize in it as a subject of study. What is it that you are attempting to prove or disprove about ‘conspiracy theory’? If you aren’t attempting to make proofs that those who try to unwind the official narratives given by authority, as being in some sense “deranged” or “deluded”, then what could be the impetus for spending so much effort in schooling to secure a doctorate in psychology with the specific aim of analyzing the mental and emotional construct of “conspiracy theorists” or as you label them/us, “conspiracists”?
    \\][//

  8. Honr Network says:

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