The psychology of conspiracy theories is an ever-growing field. I have Google Scholar Alerts set up to let me know of new research and the alerts have been particularly active recently.
It is great to see the field flourishing with activity. We are learning more about who endorses conspiracy theories, and why, whilst also examining their societal consequences. Some of the recent research has been published by colleagues of this blog – such as Rob’s paper on people who are prone to boredom being more likely to believe in conspiracy theories and Mike’s paper showing that labelling an idea a “conspiracy theory” does not make people less likely to believe it.
Another paper recently has also sparked my attention. The paper has been published by van Prooijen and Acker in Applied Cognitive Psychology that further examined the question of why people endorse conspiracy theories. Simply across two studies, they found that if people feel they do not have control over a situation (both in an experimental and a real-life control scenario), they indicated belief in conspiracy theories to a greater extent.
My own line of research is investigating the social psychological consequences of conspiracy theories (example post here) and how we can address these consequences. I therefore found their research particularly relevant. Specifically in Study 1, participants were exposed to three conditions: primed with either high or low control, or a baseline condition that was unrelated to control. The prime involved the participants writing down times when they felt in control (high) vs. times when they did not feel in control (low). In the baseline, participant recalled what they had for dinner last night.
As already mentioned, they found that low control is associated with higher belief in conspiracy theories. They also found however, that those in the high control condition reported reduced belief in conspiracy theories when compared to those in the baseline condition. Affirming a sense of control can buffer people against conspiracy theories.
Their study therefore offers a potential avenue to intervention. The implication of the research, as highlighted in the paper, is clear: When society is facing a control threat, it is important for political leaders to instil a sense of trust. van Prooijen and Acker suggest one way to do this is for leaders to be transparent about motivations for important decisions, as this has been associated with feelings of control.
Research examining tools to address the potential consequences of conspiracy theories is important. Exploring these tools is only in its infancy however, but the findings from this paper are promising. Watch this space.