The psychology of conspiracy theories

Salon’s Sander Van Der Linden published an interesting article, copied from Scientific American, about new studies conducted about the psychology of conspiracy theories.

One interesting finding is that conspiracists often believe in contradictory theories:

For example, the conspiracy-belief that Osama Bin Laden is still alive was positively correlated with the conspiracy-belief that he was already dead before the military raid took place. This makes little sense, logically: Bin Laden cannot be both dead and alive at the same time. An important conclusion that the authors draw from their analysis is that people don’t tend to believe in a conspiracy theory because of the specifics, but rather because of higher-order beliefs that support conspiracy-like thinking more generally. A popular example of such higher-order beliefs is a severe “distrust of authority.” The authors go on to suggest that conspiracism is therefore not just about belief in an individual theory, but rather an ideological lens through which we view the world.

A good case in point is Alex Jones’s recent commentary on the Boston bombings. Jones, (one of the country’s preeminent conspiracy theorists) reminded his audience that two of the hijacked planes on 9/11 flew out of Boston (relating one conspiracy theory to another) and moreover, that the Boston Marathon bombing could be a response to the sudden drop in the price of gold or part of a secret government plot to expand the Transportation Security Administration’s reach to sporting events. Others have pointed their fingers to a ‘mystery man’ spotted on a nearby roof shortly after the explosions. While it remains unsure whether or not credence is given to only some or all of these (note: contradicting) conspiracy theories, there clearly is a larger underlying preference to support conspiracy-type explanations more generally. Interestingly, belief in conspiracy theories has recently been linked to the rejection of science.

Conspiracists also tend to refuse to believe scientific facts:

In a paper published in Psychological Science, Stephen Lewandowsky and colleagues investigated the relation between acceptance of science and conspiracist thinking patterns. While the authors’ survey was not representative of the general population, results suggest that (controlling for other important factors) belief in multiple conspiracy theories significantly predicted the rejection of important scientific conclusions, such as climate science or the fact that smoking causes lung cancer. Yet, rejection of scientific principles is not the only possible consequence of widespread belief in conspiracy theories. Another recent study indicates that receiving positive information about or even being merely exposed to conspiracy theories can lead people to become disengaged from important political and societal topics. For example, in their study, Daniel Jolley and Karen Douglas clearly show that participants who received information that supported the idea that global warming is a hoax were less willing to engage politically and also less willing to implement individual behavioral changes such as reducing their carbon footprint.