Do you believe in a secret group is controlling the world? Aliens at Roswell? Chemtrails? Then you might also believe in astrology, homeopathy, or climate change denial, a new study suggests.
The world is buzzing with information. More than ever before, we have access to nigh-unlimited information via the internet. You can read about anything and everything — we essentially have the sum of human knowledge at the tips of our fingers. Yet throughout these trends, something unexpected happened: instead of having a more accurate depiction of the world, people are having more and more baseless beliefs.
The internet is buzzing with conspiracy theories. They’ve made their way into every layer of society, from our day-to-day browsing to the president of the United States. Unsubstantiated beliefs have infiltrated both public opinion and policy and they’re already having a massive effect on society.
Several research groups are studying this phenomenon; one particular group in Maryland has set out to see why people fall for these stories. They say the core issue is a failure to think critically.
“My main teaching and research focus is on critical thinking. Accepting unsubstantiated claims, such as endorsing false conspiracy theories, psychological misconceptions, paranormal claims, and pseudoscience each represents a failure to think critically,” said study author D. Alan Bensley, a psychology professor at Frostburg State University.
In a study they recently published, the team studied the interconnection between conspiracy theories and pseudoscience — two types of unsubstantiated claims. They surveyed 286 psychology undergrads about their paranormal beliefs, endorsement of conspiracies, factual knowledge about psychology, and acceptance of pseudoscience.
They asked participants how much they agree with general conspiracies such as:
- “Technology with mind control capacities is used on people without their knowledge,”
and then how much they believed in 30 specific conspiracies, such as:
- “Alien ships crashed near Roswell, New Mexico in 1947 and the U.S. government has covered it up.”
But researchers employed a trick. The second category included three types of conspiracy theories — conspiracies which have been debunked, conspiracies which have been proven true, and conspiracies which were made-up.
“We found that measures of generic conspiracist ideation, specific fictitious conspiracy theory, and false conspiracy theory beliefs were all strongly and positively intercorrelated,” researchers write.
The team found that participants who believed the debunked and fabricated conspiracy theories were more likely to believe in other non-conspiratorial unsubstantiated claims — particularly pseudoscience and poorly-supported psychological practices.
“People show an individual difference in the tendency to endorse unsubstantiated beliefs. It has been known for some time that people who tend to accept one false conspiracy theory, such as the claim that the 911 attack was an inside job, are also more likely to accept others, as well,” Bensley told PsyPost.
“Our research goes beyond this to show that people who tend to accept conspiracy theories also tend to endorse psychological misconceptions, pseudoscientific claims, and paranormal and superstitious claims.”
This makes a lot of sense when you think about it. If the unsubstantiated evidence is enough to make you fall for conspiracy theories, it’s probably enough to also make you believe in other unsubstantiated things — like pseudoscience. But there’s a nuance, researchers say. People who believe in some conspiracy theories are more likely to believe in other conspiracy theories, and also more likely to believe in pseudoscience. However, the correlation is much stronger with the former than the latter. In other words, conspiracy theories are related to pseudoscience — but they’re much more related to other conspiracies. It’s an important distinction to make, Bensley stresses.
It’s also important to note the limitations of the study. The sample size is not particularly large, for starters. Secondly, psychology undergrads might not be representative of the entire society in this regard. This is a well-known issue in psychology, but one for which there is no clear-cut solution. Gathering participants from your own university is vastly easier than getting them from outside, but this can produce important biases in study results.
Nonetheless, the results in this study are coherent with those of previous research — particularly the aptly-named study “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit” which found that “a bias toward accepting statements as true may be an important component of pseudo-profound bullshit receptivity.”
A lack of skeptical thinking is one of the major issues fueling both conspiracy theories and pseudoscience. We need more critical thinking in the classroom, in policy-making, and in our day-to-day lives. How that can be accomplished, however, is not clear at the moment.
The study, “The generality of belief in unsubstantiated claims“, was published in Applied Cognitive Psychology