Conspiracy Theories Abound. Here’s How to Curb Their Allure.
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Social Impact Aug 7, 2018

Conspiracy Theories Abound. Here’s How to Curb Their Allure.

A new study shows how feeling more in control can limit conspiratorial thinking.

Conspiracy theorists wear tinfoil hats.

Lisa Röper

Based on the research of

Jennifer A. Whitson

Joongseo Kim

Cynthia S. Wang

Tanya Menon

Brian D. Webster

From Pizzagate to the grassy knoll, conspiracy theories often move from the margins of public life to the center. One 2014 study estimates that, in any given year, about half of Americans believe at least one conspiracy theory.

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While some are fair­ly innocu­ous, oth­ers have life-threat­en­ing con­se­quences. Dur­ing the 2014 Ebo­la out­break in West Africa, many peo­ple came to believe the health work­ers try­ing to treat them were actu­al­ly try­ing to infect them. As a result, they avoid­ed med­ical treatment.

Cyn­thia Wang has watched the spread of con­spir­a­to­r­i­al think­ing with fas­ci­na­tion — Who is not inter­est­ed in con­spir­a­cies?” she says — but also with con­cern. You start won­der­ing, what caus­es peo­ple to come up with these alter­na­tive expla­na­tions that some­times seem out­landish?” says Wang, a clin­i­cal pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tions at the Kel­logg School.

Pre­vi­ous research iden­ti­fies sev­er­al attrib­ut­es that pre­dict people’s will­ing­ness to believe con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries. Fac­tors such as edu­ca­tion­al attain­ment, nar­cis­sism, and even how eas­i­ly some­one gets bored can be linked to beliefs that, for instance, the gov­ern­ment is try­ing to con­trol the pop­u­la­tion via flu­o­ride in the water. 

We real­ly want­ed to see what not only dri­ves these con­spir­a­to­r­i­al per­cep­tions, but how can you also stop them.”

But Wang and her coau­thors were inter­est­ed in hunt­ing for fac­tors under­ly­ing con­spir­a­cy prone­ness that might be more mal­leable. After all, you can’t change people’s per­son­al­i­ties or edu­ca­tion­al back­grounds overnight. 

We real­ly want­ed to see what not only dri­ves these con­spir­a­to­r­i­al per­cep­tions, but how can you also stop them,” she explains. What are things that can be done by orga­ni­za­tions that can pre­vent this mind­set? That’s why we took a more social psy­cho­log­i­cal approach.” 

In a new paper, Wang and her coau­thors found that indi­vid­u­als who exhib­it a desire to take action in pur­suit of their goals are less prone to con­spir­a­to­r­i­al think­ing. And the researchers were able to nudge par­tic­i­pants toward adopt­ing a goal-dri­ven mind­set, thus reduc­ing their sus­cep­ti­bil­i­ty to con­spir­a­cy theories. 

This paper is excit­ing because we intro­duce a fac­tor that pro­vides an immu­ni­ty to con­spir­a­cy per­cep­tions through this increased sense of con­trol,” says Wang. 

The Truth Is Out There

Wang teamed up on the research with Jen­nifer Whit­son at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Los Ange­les, Joongseo Kim at Penn State – Erie, Tanya Menon at The Ohio State Uni­ver­si­ty, and Bri­an Web­ster at Ball State Uni­ver­si­ty. They start­ed by focus­ing on some­thing called reg­u­la­to­ry focus the­o­ry (RFT), which looks at how peo­ple go about achiev­ing their goals. 

RFT pro­pos­es two main strate­gies. Peo­ple with a pro­mo­tion-focused” ori­en­ta­tion aim to do every­thing in their pow­er to achieve their hopes and dreams. In this mind­set, indi­vid­u­als believe they can shape their future, sug­gest­ing that they feel a high degree of con­trol over their envi­ron­ment. Those with a pre­ven­tion-focused” ori­en­ta­tion, on the oth­er hand, act dili­gent­ly to pro­tect the secu­ri­ty they already have. 

The researchers hypoth­e­sized that pre­ven­tion-focused peo­ple might be more prone to believe con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries because con­spir­a­cies can feel like a threat to their secu­ri­ty. The team sus­pect­ed that peo­ple with a pro­mo­tion focus, how­ev­er, would be more skeptical. 

To test the hypoth­e­sis, they recruit­ed 278 online par­tic­i­pants. Peo­ple were ran­dom­ly giv­en one of three writ­ing prompts, designed to nudge them toward a par­tic­u­lar mind­set: a pro­mo­tion-focused group wrote about a hope or aspi­ra­tion, a pre­ven­tion-focused group wrote about an oblig­a­tion, and a neu­tral group wrote about the every­day activ­i­ties of some­one they know. 

Then they were pre­sent­ed with a fic­tion­al sce­nario about a bank fil­ing for bank­rupt­cy. In the account, some observers believed that the bank’s exec­u­tives com­mit­ted mis­con­duct even though the gov­ern­ment found no evi­dence that they did. After read­ing the sto­ry, par­tic­i­pants answered a series of ques­tions gaug­ing their belief in whether a con­spir­a­cy took place. 

Final­ly, par­tic­i­pants rat­ed on a scale from one to five their belief in 10 dif­fer­ent real-life con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries — for exam­ple, that the U.S. gov­ern­ment is man­dat­ing a switch to flu­o­res­cent light­bulbs because they make peo­ple obe­di­ent and easy to control. 

(If this sounds ridicu­lous to you — well, you aren’t alone. Wang admits she found many of the sce­nar­ios fun­ny. Still, they have their believ­ers. Peo­ple dif­fer a lot in whether they think the gov­ern­ment is con­trol­ling you via flu­o­res­cent lights,” she says.) 

The results revealed that par­tic­i­pants in the pro­mo­tion-focused group were less like­ly to endorse con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries. But, con­trary to the researchers’ hypoth­e­sis, par­tic­i­pants in the pre­ven­tion-focused group were no more like­ly than those in the neu­tral group in their propen­si­ty to reach for tin­foil hats. 

The Mil­i­tary Is In On It!

For the sec­ond study, the researchers want­ed to focus on a very dif­fer­ent pop­u­la­tion to see how gen­er­al­iz­able their find­ings were. They took their research to the mil­i­tary, sur­vey­ing 202 sol­diers at a U.S. Army base. 

The sol­diers respond­ed to one ques­tion­naire that mea­sured how pro­mo­tion-focused or pre­ven­tion-focused they were, and anoth­er that assessed their sense of per­son­al con­trol (“What hap­pens to me in the future depends on me,” for instance). 

You can actu­al­ly shift someone’s mind­set so they see few­er conspiracies.” 

Next, the ser­vice­men and women ranked, on a scale of one to sev­en, how much they agreed or dis­agreed with a set of state­ments about con­spir­a­cies in the mil­i­tary, such as Sol­diers are sin­gled out’ when assigned to job tasks.” 

The researchers found that sol­diers with a high degree of pro­mo­tion focus also exhib­it­ed a strong sense of per­son­al con­trol. (Pre­ven­tion focus was unre­lat­ed to a sense of con­trol.) And as in the first study, sol­diers who report­ed greater pro­mo­tion focus were not as like­ly to be swayed by con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries. Sta­tis­ti­cal analy­sis revealed that per­son­al con­trol was the like­ly mech­a­nism behind this phe­nom­e­non. In oth­er words, peo­ple who are pro­mo­tion focused are less con­spir­a­cy prone because they feel a sense of agency in the world. 

Mind Con­trol

So could manip­u­lat­ing that sense of agency in turn change someone’s sus­cep­ti­bil­i­ty to con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries? To find out, Wang and her col­leagues recruit­ed 215 col­lege students. 

Par­tic­i­pants were first primed to be in either a pro­mo­tion- or pre­ven­tion-focused state. Then they par­tic­i­pat­ed in a sec­ond exer­cise designed to make them feel more or less in con­trol. Final­ly, their con­spir­a­to­r­i­al beliefs were measured. 

For par­tic­i­pants who were first primed for pro­mo­tion focus — but not those primed for pre­ven­tion focus — feel­ing less in con­trol caused a spike in con­spir­a­to­r­i­al thinking. 

This find­ing high­light­ed the impor­tance of per­son­al con­trol in pre­dict­ing how like­ly pro­mo­tion-focused peo­ple are to believe in sin­is­ter plots and cabals. These indi­vid­u­als, who would nor­mal­ly be less like­ly to lend con­spir­a­cies cre­dence, can instant­ly become more sus­cep­ti­ble when they feel less in control. 

Trust No One

To Wang, the three stud­ies showed that con­spir­a­to­r­i­al think­ing is some­thing that can be changed. If you can increase con­spir­a­cy prone­ness by remov­ing per­son­al con­trol, it stands to rea­son you can actu­al­ly shift someone’s mind­set so they see few­er con­spir­a­cies,” she says. 

That’s a heart­en­ing find­ing in a world where con­spir­a­cies are flour­ish­ing. For exam­ple, Wang and her coau­thors sug­gest that gov­ern­ment orga­ni­za­tions such as the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol can increase pub­lic trust by pro­mot­ing mes­sages that empha­size the ways indi­vid­u­als have con­trol over their health outcomes. 

In future research, Wang hopes to under­stand the down­stream effects of con­spir­a­to­r­i­al think­ing. Are peo­ple who believe in con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries more prone to aggres­sion, for instance? 

She also wants to study people’s abil­i­ty to dis­tin­guish real and false con­spir­a­cies. Skep­ti­cism of pow­er­ful insti­tu­tions is healthy and some­times war­rant­ed: after all, Richard Nixon real­ly was behind the Water­gate break-in. 

Are peo­ple able to tell actu­al con­spir­a­cies from fake con­spir­a­cies?” Wang won­ders. Par­tic­u­lar­ly in the age of fake news,” if peo­ple could detect authen­tic abus­es of pow­er, that would be a big thing that would help society.” 

Featured Faculty

Cynthia S. Wang

Clinical Professor of Management & Organizations

About the Writer

Susie Allen is a freelance writer in Chicago.

About the Research

Whitson, Jennifer A., Joongseo Kim, Cynthia S. Wang, Tanya Menon, and Brian D. Webster. 2018. “Regulatory Focus and Conspiratorial Perceptions: The Importance of Personal Control.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Read the original

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