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.
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.
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.”