Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Apr 18, 2019

Keep an Open Mind but Not So Open That Your Brains Fall Out!

by Jais Adam-Troian
A white outline sketch of a brain and verios lines and items around a black background, hover over a pile of glowing books

People believe in all sorts of strange things, including in very unlikely conspiracies for explaining world events. A 2013 survey from Public Policy Polling found that over 50% of Americans believe that JFK was killed by a government conspiracy, 15% of Americans think the government controls people’s minds with TV, and 4% believe that the government is run by lizard people. Belief in these theories is not limited to the United States.  In France for instance, 22% of people agree with the statement that “the government does not really govern and that we do not know who really pulls the strings.”

Far from being innocuous, conspiracist beliefs can have negative consequences.  For example, the belief that vaccines cause autism is linked to recent outbreaks of measles and other preventable diseases. Unfortunately, research suggests that we are highly prone to believing conspiracies.  For example, studies have found that simply reading conspiracist articles is enough to decrease people’s intention to vote, to reduce one’s carbon footprint or to vaccinate one’s children. 

So how do we fight back against conspiracy theories?  The most researched way is to use the logic of vaccines (which, BTW, do not cause autism).  Specifically, you can vaccinate people against conspiracy theories by introducing a little bit of the theory (just like a little of the disease is given in some vaccines) and then providing people with the logical tools to fight the conspiracy theory.  Then, when those people are exposed to the conspiracy theory in full force, they have the arguments to fight it. 

However, one limitation of this “vaccination” method is that it requires specific counter-arguments that are tailored against specific conspiracist beliefs, which can constitute a challenging barrier in terms of real-world interventions. Imagine that you have to create messages to disseminate on social media with arguments that are designed to counter theories ranging from Illuminati world domination to the faked death of Elvis!

Fortunately, our research suggests an easier way to protect against conspiracy theories. We wondered whether simply reminding people about how sensitive they are to being persuaded would reduce the impact of a wide range of conspiracy theories. By reminding people that they are easily persuaded, we thought we would get them to make counterarguments all on their own.  In other words, if you go into a situation knowing that you might be fooled, your defenses will be raised and you will be more protected against false beliefs.

To test this idea, we ran an experiment in which we measured people’s level of conspiracist mindset with a scale asking people about the degree to which they believed 15 broad conspiracy theories (such as that aliens have visited the Earth but governments hide it from the public, or that a small group of people secretly manipulate world events).

However, before answering these questions, some participants were led to think about their own sensitivity to persuasion by answering 12 questions (such as “my opinions fluctuate a lot,” and “I never change my mind.  Other participants were simply asked to answer 12 questions about their current emotional state (whether they felt happy, sad, angry, and so on). As we expected, participants who had thought about their susceptibility to persuasion were less likely to believe in conspiracy theories compared to those in the control condition who only rated their emotions. This effect was replicated in two subsequent studies among both student and general population samples.

In sum, our studies suggest that it is possible to fight against conspiracist beliefs by creating messages that make people think about the way they form their beliefs. Our work suggests that we might be able to make people less susceptible to conspiracy theories merely by teaching people that we all tend to be susceptible to conspiracy theories!  We are now testing whether this tactic can be successful in real-world interventions. We believe that teaching people that we are all susceptible to these conspiracy theories may help to combat the spread of online fake news and to promote critical thinking.  And that is not a conspiracy theory!

For Future Reading

Bonetto, E., Troian, J., Varet, F., Lo Monaco, G., & Girandola, F. (2018). Priming resistance to persuasion decreases adherence to conspiracy theories. Social Influence, 13(3), 125-136.

Papageorgis, D., & McGuire, W. J. (1961). The generality of immunity to persuasion produced by pre-exposure to weakened counterarguments. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 62, 475-481. doi: 10.1037/h0048430

Jais Adam-Troian is an ERC post-doctoral researcher at Istanbul Bilgi University (Turkey). His research focuses on the motivational underpinnings of radicalization, including violent extremism and adherence to conspiracy theories.

About our Blog

Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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