Corine Astroth ’21
On February 6, University of Kent professor Karen Douglas gave a talk at Scripps titled “The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories.” In her lecture, she discussed the epistemic, existential, and social reasons people have for believing conspiracy theories and addressed the potential outcomes of these beliefs. Douglas is also a co-author of the paper “Understanding Conspiracy Theories,” which she discussed with students in the Scripps Humanities Seminar.
Douglas defined conspiracy theories as “attempts to explain the ultimate causes of significant social and political events and circumstances with claims of secret plots by two or more powerful actors.” Throughout her talk, she listed some of the more mainstream conspiracies theories such as rejecting climate change and the belief that vaccinations are harmful and/or cause autism. Douglas also addressed more extreme theories, including the 9/11 truther movement, whose followers find the US culpable for the attack, and David Icke’s lizard people conspiracy, which claims prominent world leaders are really Jewish shape-shifting reptiles.
Although these views seem outlandish, they have acquired a wide following. Douglas’ research suggests that one reason people trust conspiracy theories such as these is that they desire meaning and certainty. She cited studies displaying that conspiracy beliefs are stronger among people who seek patterns in their environments. Her paper also presents evidence that conspiracy theories are more widespread under conditions of uncertainty. Belief in conspiracies is associated with feelings of powerlessness, and it has been found that conspiracy theories offer greater feelings of control and security. Beyond these root causes, people are socially inclined towards conspiracy theories as they are “linked to defensive ways of identifying with one’s social group.” Although people are motivated towards belief in conspiracies for many reasons, Douglas stated that there is little evidence to suggest that peoples epistemic, existential, and social needs are met through belief in conspiracy theories. Unfortunately, research does show negative outcomes such as people choosing not to reduce their carbon footprints, not voting, avoiding vaccinating their children, and in general harboring prejudiced views.
So, if conspiracy theories are bad, what’s the solution? During a discussion with students in the Humanities Seminar, Douglas listed critical thinking as essential to combating belief in conspiracy theories. She based this on evidence that believers in conspiracy theories tend to have lower levels of analytical thinking and score lower in rational thinking style. These findings point to preventative solutions because, as Rebecca Reisman SC ’21 stated, “it is nearly impossible to convince people when their theories are incorrect.” This is supported by research showing prevention is the most effective method against conspiracies.
Perhaps then, the proliferation of conspiracy theories reveals a failing on the part of education systems. Conspiracy theories are based on the desire for the truth and search for meaning is not vicious in itself. In fact, there is possibly nothing more human, and for this reason, I do not believe that we should aim to eliminate conspiracy theories altogether. Questioning standardly held views generally serves to further our knowledge. However, when people are not provided the necessary skills to seek the truth in constructive ways, the effects can be catastrophic. Through Douglas’ work, it seems evident to me that people are not receiving the proper skills to fulfill their natural curiosities, and I believe this is supported by research that suggests conspiracy theories are linked to feelings of boredom.
This talk prompted me to reflect in multiple ways. First, in the areas where my education generates critical thinking and other areas where it promotes a regurgitation of information. Secondly, on the work left to be done in the field of psychology surrounding conspiracy theories. Douglas herself conceded during the question and answer portion of her talk that she could not answer all the questions because the research does not exist. Rachel Diamond SC ’21 “found it striking how often she said more research was needed given that it is such an important topic.” I agree with Rachel. Considering measles outbreaks and extreme weather pattern changes, this topic is of utmost importance, but progress in the field will require a new generation of critical thinkers. Which leaves me wondering, will these intellects be harder to find?
Douglas, K. M., Uscinski, J. E., Sutton, R. M., Cichocka, A., Nefes, T., Ang, J., & Deravi, F. (2018). UNDERSTANDING CONSPIRACY THEORIES. Political Psychology. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/329774882_Understanding_conspiracy_theories.