Every mass shooting produces the same conspiracy theories (more or less)

The same conspiracy theories pop up every single time there’s a mass shooting in the United States, with minimal variation. There are a couple of ways to look at this. On the one hand, maybe the conspiracy theories are right, and the Powers That Be, the ones who are really behind the mass shootings, like to use the same playbook over and over again. On the other hand, maybe it’s a combination of factors: common behaviours in unusual situations, fishing for connections, and recycled logic from previous incidents. At any rate, let’s run through the commonalities, and you can see for yourself what I mean.

  1. Multiple shooters

Ever since the Columbine shootings, where there were reports of more than two shooters, nearly every mass shooting has given rise to rumours that there were more shooters than officially acknowledged. I can’t actually find a single shooting that this hadn’t been true of, from the Virginia Tech massacre to the Aurora Batman incident to the Sandy Hook tragedy. Some theories of this type are more popular than others, but the multiple shooter motif is pretty consistent.

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Adam Ruins Everything: Episode on conspiracy theories

This week, US TV Show Adams Ruins Everything has an episode on conspiracy theories.  If you are in the US, you can tune in on 10th October 10/9c on Tru TV.  If you are not based in the US, you should be able to catch the episode online after it has aired.

In the show, Adam adds humour backed with scientific evidence to discuss important topics.  This week’s episode will showcase some of the research into the psychology of conspiracy theories that we discuss on this blog, such as to do with cognitive biases (see clips below). 

I was involved in advising the writers on the script to ensure it was accurate and – to my surprise – was invited to join the cast on set.  During the series, Adam brings on experts in the topic area to join the characters in a scripted segment; I involved in such a segment and was invited to discuss some of my work examining the consequences of conspiracy theories. 

It was a fantastic experience to join the cast and crew on set and whilst at the time of writing this post I have not seen the full episode, it is great to bring our research to a wide-reaching audience. 

Here are some teaser clips:


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Prevention is better than cure: Addressing anti-vaccine conspiracy theories

In a new paper that we have recently published, we found that people can be inoculated against the potentially harmful effects of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, but that once they are established, the conspiracy theories may be difficult to correct.

The paper with the tag-line “prevention is better than cure” has been published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology by myself and Karen Douglas.  The paper includes two experimental studies where participants were exposed to anti-vaccination conspiracy theories and factual information on vaccinations in alternate order. The participants then had to decide if they would vaccinate a child.

We found that participants who were given anti-vaccination conspiracy theories, before reading factual information about vaccines, were less likely to decide to vaccinate a child. Those who had the factual information first were resistant to conspiracy theories and were more likely to vaccinate.

In our previous research, we have demonstrated that conspiracy theories can potentially stop people from engaging in society in a positive way (see various posts on this blog such as here).  This current research highlights that once a conspiracy account has been established, it may be resistant to correction.  It is, therefore, important that other tools are developed that may help combat the negative impact of conspiracy theories.


You can access a full copy of the paper here.

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

Fake news, conspiracy theories and the UK general election

Popular conspiracy theories propose that members of UK government murdered Diana, Princess of Wales; climate change is a hoax orchestrated by the world’s scientists to secure research funding and pharmaceutical companies and governments cover up evidence of harmful side effects of vaccines for financial gain.  Conspiracy theories like these accompany almost every significant social and political event and can typically be defined as attempts to explain the ultimate causes of events as the secret actions of malevolent powerful groups, who cover up information to suit their own interests.

Fake news, which involves the publication of fictitious information on social media, appear to be a fertile ground for conspiracy theories to flourish.  Indeed, millions of people subscribe to conspiracy theories.  Conspiracy theories are, therefore not reserved for only people who are paranoid, but rather, they are a normal everyday process that we are all susceptible to.   With the popularity of social media, conspiracy theories are at our fingertips more than ever before.

What’s the harm with conspiracy theories, anyway? In research conducted with my co-author, Prof Karen Douglas at the University of Kent, we have shown that being exposed to the idea that governments are involved in plots and schemes reduces people’s likelihood of wanting to engage in the political system.  People were less likely to want to vote.

We found that being exposed to conspiracy theories can make people feel politically powerless and feel that their vote will not count; if the government is conspiring against us, how can I make a difference?

In our most recent research, we have also uncovered that conspiracy theories are potentially resistant to correction.  Once a person subscribes to a conspiracy theory, they can be increasingly difficult to debunk.

It is, therefore, important that at the point of exposure to information, people are thinking critically.  If the headline sounds too good to be true, it very well may be!  Here are some practical suggestions to help with this:

  • Think about the source; who has written the article?
  • Evaluate the evidence contained within the article; is the piece based on fact?
  • Read multiple articles from a variety of outlets on the same topic. Do not just trust one article; try and get a full picture of the story that takes into account all sides of the argument.

We know that conspiracy theories can be potentially damaging and difficult to debunk.  So, think critically before clicking “share” on Facebook or “retweeting” on Twitter.  Be sure you feel confident that the piece is accurate before sharing!

Reposted from Staffordshire University’s Election Experts.

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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.


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.

Posted in Round-Ups, Social psychology, What's the harm | 5 Comments

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


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


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 | 8 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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