Science Can Finally Explain Why Some People Always Believe in Conspiracy Theories
Jet fuel can't melt steel beams. Stanley Kubrick filmed the fake Moon landings. Elvis is alive and well. JFK was shot from the grassy knoll. No matter how meticulously you lay out the evidence to the contrary, conspiracy theorists will always see something bigger and more sinister behind major current events.
You might think it's because they're missing a few screws, but a new study from the Zurich Institute of Public Affairs Research say it's all about understanding probability—or rather, misunderstanding it.
The study involved 2,254 people and revolved around a fictional news clipping that was provided to participants as though it were real.
The clipping reported on the death of a prominent journalist named John (who had apparently died of a heart attack) and an estimation by a doctor on how likely someone like John would die from a heart attack. Depending on the version of the article, the statistic giving the probability of a heart attack was changed to be 1 percent, 25 percent, 50 percent, 75 percent, or 95 percent. Participants were then asked whether they believed that John died of a heart, or whether he was murdered.
From there, a different group of participants was given the same article (again, with variations in the heart attack statistic), but with a sentence adding that John had recently published a story revealing widespread government corruption.
When asked the same question regarding John's death (was it a heart attack, or murder?), many of those who had been given the version of the article with lower heart attack statistics believed it was more likely that John was murdered. Compared to the people in the first group who saw the same low statistic, those who read about the supposed expose were more likely to believe in a murder conspiracy.
According to the authors of the study, the implications are clear. "The lower the probability of an event, the stronger participants embrace conspiratorial explanations," wrote the researchers.
"Conspiratorial thinking, we conclude, potentially represents a cognitive heuristic: A coping mechanism for uncertainty."
In essence, it seems that many people embrace evidence that there's something bigger going on behind the scenes when normal, non-sinister explanations seem statistically small.
Marko Kovic, one of the authors of the study, says that this may signal that we need to change how we approach conspiracy theories (and theorists):
"If conspiratorial thinking is indeed a heuristic that we are all prone to, then we should rethink how we go about 'debunking' conspiracy theories. As has been shown in existing research, merely confronting people with facts does not necessarily work. 'Debunking' conspiracy theories might be more effective if we adapt to conspiracy believers'—and thus also to our own—cognitive style."