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Psychology Study: 'Conspiracy Theorists' Are Critical Thinkers That Reject The Official Story

Published: November 30, 2014
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Source: Front Psych

Abstract
Recent research into the psychology of conspiracy belief has highlighted the importance of belief systems in the acceptance or rejection of conspiracy theories. We examined a large sample of conspiracist (pro-conspiracy-theory) and conventionalist (anti-conspiracy-theory) comments on news websites in order to investigate the relative importance of promoting alternative explanations vs. rejecting conventional explanations for events. In accordance with our hypotheses, we found that conspiracist commenters were more likely to argue against the opposing interpretation and less likely to argue in favor of their own interpretation, while the opposite was true of conventionalist commenters. However, conspiracist comments were more likely to explicitly put forward an account than conventionalist comments were. In addition, conspiracists were more likely to express mistrust and made more positive and fewer negative references to other conspiracy theories. The data also indicate that conspiracists were largely unwilling to apply the “conspiracy theory” label to their own beliefs and objected when others did so, lending support to the long-held suggestion that conspiracy belief carries a social stigma. Finally, conventionalist arguments tended to have a more hostile tone. These tendencies in persuasive communication can be understood as a reflection of an underlying conspiracist worldview in which the details of individual conspiracy theories are less important than a generalized rejection of official explanations.

Conspiracy theories, defined as allegations that powerful people or organizations are plotting together in secret to achieve sinister ends through deception of the public (Abalakina-Paap et al., 1999; Wood et al., 2012), have long been an important element of popular discourse. With the advent of the Internet, they have become more visible than ever. Although the psychological literature on conspiracy belief has a relatively short history, with most of the relevant research having been conducted only within the past twenty years, it has revealed a great deal regarding individual differences between those who generally believe conspiracy theories (whom we call “conspiracists”) and those who prefer conventional explanations (whom we call “conventionalists”). Conspiracy beliefs have been shown to be positively correlated with mistrust of other people (Goertzel, 1994) and authorities (Swami et al., 2010); feelings of powerlessness and low self-esteem (Abalakina-Paap et al., 1999); superstition, beliefs in the paranormal, and schizotypy (Darwin et al., 2011); a perceived lack of control (Hamsher et al., 1968; Whitson and Galinsky, 2008); a Machiavellian approach to social interaction (Douglas and Sutton, 2011); and openness to experience (Swami et al., 2010; but see Swami et al., 2011).

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