Credit: Glenn Carstens/Unsplash.

Why do people believe conspiracy theories? – Expert Reaction

The widely-accepted idea that a loss of control leads people to believe conspiracy theories is challenged by new research from the University of Otago.

The researchers ran a range of psychology experiments online to test the link between people’s feelings of control and their inclination to believe in conspiracy theories. While their findings suggest that there is a correlation between feelings of being in control and likelihood of believing conspiracies, the authors say this does not prove causation, and that there is no “one size fits all” explanation for why the two are linked.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the findings of this research. 

Ana Stojanov, Doctoral Student, Department of Psychology, University of Otago, comments:

“According to the prevailing scholarly account, conspiracy theory beliefs — and susceptibility to such beliefs — tend to emerge when people experience a loss of personal control. Thus, tenuous ideas involving interconnected and nefarious behind-the-scenes agents, secret plots, and shadowy government operations become increasingly popular when there is some upheaval to everyday lives, such as occurs with natural disasters, contested elections, public health crises, and similarly disruptive events.

“However, the scientific evidence for this “commonsense” argument about conspiracy theory beliefs and lack of control is mixed, at best. In a series of six carefully controlled online studies, we investigated this presumed causal link. Surprisingly, we found no support for the claim that a loss of control makes people more vulnerable to conspiracy theory beliefs.

“That said, our results should be interpreted with caution, since the manipulations we used for our experimental studies were artificial, and arguably less impactful, than the potent and overwhelming feelings of loss of control under disruptive real-world conditions.”

Conflict of interest statement: Ana is lead author of the publication, which is based on her PhD research.

Dr Dean Ballinger, Lecturer in Screen & Media Studies at the University of Waikato, comments:

“The article is a significant research study into the possible causal relationships between a sense of personal control over events and belief or acceptance in conspiracy theories.

“A complementary study could be developed looking at notions of personal freedom in relation to conspiracy beliefs. A prominent theme underlying many conspiracy theories is that of political and social control versus political and social freedom. Conspiracy theorists believe that sinister, omnipotent groups want to develop a system of totalitarian control in which personal freedoms are removed and people are effectively enslaved. This is particularly the case with conspiracy theories from the USA, which are based upon American mythologies of liberty and freedom.

“Researching how New Zealanders conceptualise their sense of personal, social and political freedoms in relation to conspiracy beliefs may be a significant area for further research.”

No conflict of interest.

Professor Linda Waimarie Nikora, Professor of Indigenous Studies (formerly Professor of Psychology), University of Auckland, comments:

“The authors note that these studies cannot be used to reliably generalise to current COVID related conspiracies. However, I do think we have a challenge with conspiratorial thinking and this is on the rise. It is not helped by politicians in electioneering mode. Postponing the election and adopting a bipartisan approach will significantly reduce the amount of misinformation and arising rumours.

“From a responsible ‘science’ perspective, I think the way to address ‘lack of control’ is to focus people’s attention on what they ‘can’ control. This paper does not advance anything in this direction. If we create an optimum environment for people then they’re better able to decision-make around those things that are important to their lives and to thus remain in control.”

No conflict of interest.

Professor Marc Wilson, School of Psychology, Acting Dean, Faculty of Science, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“The events of 9/11 were a catalyst, if not a starting point, for a huge surge in both conspiracy theorising and interest in conspiracy theorising. It was a dramatic event that has continued to invite speculation in public as well as corners of the internet ever since. Even in New Zealand, around a third of us endorse the idea that the US Government knew about in advance, or actively planned, the 9/11 attacks.

“Acts like 9/11 are not only dramatic but hugely threatening – are there more people out there plotting similar atrocity? Indeed, lack of control has become a big stone in the foundation of psychological theorising of conspiracy belief, and the jumping off point for Ana Stojanov and colleagues at the University of Otago. It’s deeply discomfiting, the story goes, to live in a world where bad stuff could happen at any moment and outside of our control, and some of us (to some extent) might seek comfort in  “implausible, unwarranted claims that important social events are caused by malevolent clandestine groups… in contradiction to the explanations offered by relevant epistemic authorities…”

“Research in quest of this smoking gun has been equivocal – some studies for, some against, and a good chunk on the fence.

“Across a series of six studies, participants drawn from Amazon’s online workforce MTurk answer questions about general belief in whether conspiracies occur OR belief in specific conspiracies, after completing a range of tasks designed to make them feel in control, or not in control, of things that have happened in their lives. And.. not much. Conspiracy ideation was unaffected but, importantly, people in the ‘low control’ parts of the experiments said they felt, on average, less in control of events – making people feel less in control doesn’t seem to increase tendencies to look for conspiracies, even though how out of control a person feels seems to weakly predict their conspiracy ideation.

“What does this mean then? A strong reading is that we should bin the control hypothesis and focus on another candidate for best explanation of conspiracy belief. But we don’t have many more obvious candidates. Maybe these experiments decrease feelings of control, but not in a way that leads to conspiracy thinking?

“Regardless, once again the answer to the question is ‘actually, it’s more complicated than that’.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I have co-published with Jamin Halberstadt (in 2016) and examined Ana Stojanov’s PhD thesis from which this research is published.”

Dr. M R. X. Dentith, Teaching Fellow, Philosophy Programme, University of Waikato, comments:

“In this intriguing paper the authors test whether a perceived lack of control might be responsible for belief in conspiracy theories. The authors argue that, upon investigation, there is no causal relationship between a person’s perceived lack of control and their belief in conspiracy theories. This research will be useful for sketching out how we should go about analysing what causes belief in conspiracy theories in future.

“However, our choice of what counts as a “conspiracy theory” ends up assuming the conclusion of our research into such theories. Herein lies the problem; if you work with a definition of “conspiracy theory” which says they are “mad, bad and dangerous” then it just turns out that belief in such theories will be irrational.

“Given the wave of COVID-19 conspiracy theories doing the rounds at the moment, and the fear belief in these conspiracy theories may lead to people not taking appropriate measures to help eliminate the second wave of the virus here in Aotearoa, people might consider that it is not exactly the best time to argue that belief in conspiracy theories can be rational. But, as work in the social sciences has shown, it can be rational to believe conspiracy theories. Not just that, but it is not even clear that the label “conspiracy theory” is taken to be pejorative by the general public.

“So, whilst I think the authors’ work is valuable, if they had worked with a non-pejorative definition, then it would have been clear that a perceived lack of control could only ever be correlated with some belief in such theories. As such, their conclusion turns out not to be news to those of us working with a more general, less pejorative definition of “conspiracy theory” or “conspiracy theorist”.”

No conflict of interest.