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Understanding the Psychology of Conspiracy Theories: Part 2

Q&A: When do conspiracy theory beliefs become dangerous?

Public domain
President Kennedy and motorcade minutes before his assassination in Dallas in 1963
Source: Public domain

I recently was invited back to The Lisa Show at BYU Radio to talk about conspiracy theories. You can listen to the interview here.

What follows below are some of the questions and my answers in written form that served as the basis for the interview. This is part two, featuring the second half of the interview.

Tell us a little bit about the idea of living in a “post-truth” world. How has this affected the spread of conspiracy theories?

The idea that we’re living in a post-truth world is based on the premise that disagreement about facts and the conflation of facts and opinion has gotten to the point that people don’t believe that facts exist at all or that truth and so-called “alternative truths” are one and the same.1

It’s been argued that conspiracy theories are a symptom of living in that kind of post-truth world.

Have we seen this kind of fight against science happen before in history? What really drives these movements?

Anti-science movements have certainly recurred throughout history. The post-modernism movement is one good example.

I’m not a historian or political scientist, but it appears that such movements have occurred in the wake of considerable technological advancement, such as after the Age of Enlightenment, as a kind of backlash, and can also occur as a distinct part of populist and totalitarian movements. Authors like George Orwell or Hannah Arendt wrote about how such movements are grounded in a revolt against “elites” and “experts” and thrive on raising doubts about whether facts exist and repeating lies often enough that they are taken to be truths.

What’s the difference between scientific skepticism and denialism?

Skepticism in science is about not believing in something unless there is objective evidence and being skeptical about the reliability of one-time, subjective observations.

While conspiracy theories often claim to be skeptics, they’re often really more denialists who are actively rejecting the evidence. There’s a core feeling that authority and experts aren’t to be trusted, which then paves the way towards embracing more outlandish ideas. In this way, when mistrust manifests as denialism, it leaves us vulnerable to misinformation.

Do you think there’s something potentially dangerous about conspiracy theories?

I think that belief in misinformation always has the potential to be harmful.

Belief in conspiracy theories has been shown to be associated with a variety of negative outcomes, whether we’re talking about not getting vaccinated or spreading lies about how mass shootings were so-called “false flag operations” or showing up at a pizza parlor with an AR-15 to research whether Hillary Clinton was running a child pornography ring in the basement.

When we hold beliefs with extreme conviction — not only conspiracy theories but often political and religious beliefs — and when we feel the need to defend them as part of our identity, they can often get us into trouble in our social interactions with other people.

My view is that holding beliefs with “cognitive flexibility” — the ability to concede that we might be wrong, especially when there’s an actual lack of evidence — is a far more healthy way to have faith in our beliefs.

How should we react if we come across someone who does believe in a conspiracy theory? Do you think it’s helpful to try to bring them to the light? If so, what’s the best way to go about it?

When we talk to people with divergent viewpoints, we should think about what our goals are in terms of having a dialogue. It’s probably not very useful to set out with a goal of changing people’s minds, especially when people are already grounded in their beliefs.

But if we did want to change their minds — as we do for example in cognitive behavioral therapy for people with “cognitive distortions” that are common in depression — we have to do so by first listening empathically with the goal of understanding. So, that’s how I’d recommend starting conversations about conspiracy theories.

I also spoke earlier about how mistrust often lies at the core of conspiracy theory beliefs. This suggests that getting people to modify conspiracy theory beliefs is unlikely to happen outside of a place of trust. Needless to say, having these conversations online is highly unlikely to modify beliefs — on the contrary, when we have such dialogues on social media, they tend to degenerate into arguments, leading us to the opposite effect — that is, digging our heels in more deeply about our respective beliefs rather than coming to a place of mutual understanding.

How can we protect ourselves against conspiracy theories? How can we be sure that we’re getting our information from reliable sources?

Well, there’s almost no research on how to change or prevent belief in conspiracy theories. Several people have contacted me in response to my Psychology Today post asking how to deal with a loved one who believes that the Earth is flat or some other conspiracy theory. I don’t have easy answers for them, but I’ll give you a longer answer about conspiracy theories in general.

My view is that fixing things requires changes on at least two levels. First, we can certainly try to change people’s minds. As a society, we also should take steps to prevent belief in misinformation by fostering analytic thinking and to make us all better consumers of online information, but that’s really something that requires wholescale change. Professors at the University of Washington have developed a college curriculum with this goal in mind that they call “Calling Bullshit,” but ideally we’d start this kind of education much earlier in school.

Second, it’s been said that the problem of “misinformation in the head” must be tackled by confronting “misinformation in the world.”2 Since I believe that conspiracy theories are ultimately rooted in mistrust, it means that part of the responsibility of reducing misinformation lies in institutions of authority taking steps to gain or gain back the trust of the public.

It also means that we need to carefully consider whether we want to support media companies facilitating the proliferation of misinformation and propaganda without some kind of fact-checking or other regulation. Last year, YouTube took steps to make conspiracy theory videos less prominent in search algorithms. Facebook is in the news now about its own controversial policies. It’s a free speech debate that’s very active right now and will likely continue for years to come.

Click here to read the first half of this interview, "Understanding the Psychology of Conspiracy Beliefs, Part 1."

To read more about the psychology of conspiracy theories, check out these posts:


1. Lewandowsky S, Ecker UKH, Cook J. Beyond misinformation: Understanding and coping with the “post-truth” era. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition 2017, 6, 353-369.

2. Seifert CM. The distributed influence of misinformation. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition 2017, 6, 397-400.