Conspiracy theories seems to be getting more common, and that worries me; so I was fascinated to read this article about them, based on research at The University of Cambridge.
They had a slate of 10 common conspiracy theories, and found that over 60% of Brits believe at least one of them. 10% think that the truth about the harmful effects of vaccines is being deliberately hidden from the public. 30% think that the government is deliberately hiding the truth about how many immigrants really live here. The only reassurance here is there is less belief in conspiracy theories here or in the US, but it is still, from my point of view, belief in conspiracy theories is alarmingly high.
Widespread belief in conspiracy theories seems to lead to a breakdown in rational political discussion, and indeed to a breakdown in democracy. If people harbour irrational beliefs about the current state of things, they are in no fit state to make rational decisions about how things should be improved.
The research at Cambridge explores what leads to people holding these conspiracy theories. They arise when people feel threatened, and feel excluded from power. I assume that the number of people who feel threatened and excluded is going up, leading to increasing belief in conspiracy theories. They are also more common in less educated people, and those who depend on social media.
A way forward?
Hugo Drochon in The Guardian offers five helpful suggestions about how to combat the growth of conspiracy theories:
Talk to friends who believe in conspiracy theories. Friends, it seems, are still trusted even when journalists and politicians are not.
Listen to academics, who are still trusted more than journalists and politicians.
Educate yourself, as education makes you less likely to hold conspiracy theories.
Regulate technology, because social media encourages conspiracy theories.
Politicians need to be responsive and to listen because, if they are felt not to be listening, people turn to conspiracy theories.
I also wonder how belief in conspiracy theories relates to religion. Religious people are so diverse that there would be no single relationship to conspiracy theories. My guess is that there might be a link between conservative, dogmatic forms of religion and conspiracy theories. That could go both ways. If conspiracy theorists become religious at all, I guess they will be attracted to conservative forms of religion. Equally, conservative religion could also make people more prone to accept conspiracy theories. Conservatism in all its forms seems to be linked to people feeling threatened.
Psychologically, belief in conspiracy theories seems likely to be linked to black-and-white thinking, and to seeing things from just one point of view, not from multiple perspectives. My colleague Sara Savage has been working for some time on ‘integrative complexity’ and how to improve it.
There is encouraging evidence that, with a non-confrontational approach, people can lift their levels integrative complexity. I guess would lead to less belief in conspiracy theories.