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Severity of consequences strenghthen belief in conspiracy theories

Posted November 19, 2014

Conspiracy theories are popular in our societies. For instance, approximately 50% of New York inhabitants believed that U.S. government was aware of planned terrorist attacks, but consciously resisted to prevent them. But why people tend to think that important issues are solved behind their backs?

Image credit: Neil Moralee via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Image credit: Neil Moralee via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

A new study carried out by Dutch scientists shows that faith in secret agreements increases when the consequences of such deals become larger. “Paradoxically, seeing the world through another person’s  eyes may hence increase collective paranoia in the form of conspiracy beliefs,” the authors of the article published in the new issue of Journal of Experimental Social Psychology say.

“Although there are various definitions of conspiracy beliefs, a common definition is that these beliefs constitute an explanatory framework that involve a number of actors—frequently elected officials, managers, or legitimate institutions—that meet in secret agreement, and try to achieve a hidden goal which is perceived as unlawful or malevolent,” the researchers explain.

Previous studies suggest that these theories are often employed in order to explain important events, especially those which are perceived as threatening. Interestingly, such explanations are quite popular even among people who are only indirectly affected by some events. For instance, many Europeans believed in one of 9/11 hoax theories. How this interesting observation can be explained?

Jan-Willem van Prooijen and Eric van Dijk at Leiden University conjectured that this effect can be triggered by a feeling of empathy. “In the present research we reason that perspective taking is likely to facilitate this process: People feel a stronger need to make sense of impactful events to the extent that they take the perspective of the group that is under threat, and display an increase in conspiracy beliefs accordingly,” they say.

The scholars tested how participants will respond to the conspiracy theories explaining real and fictitious events. They also manipulated perspective taking. “The five studies reported in this contribution reveal a consistent pattern, which is that perspective taking moderates the phenomenon that events with big consequences lead to stronger conspiracy beliefs than events with small consequences,” the psychologists write. This finding  suggests that empathy can not only make the quality of interpersonal relations better, but also mediate global diffusion of doubtful beliefs.

Article: Prooijen J.W. and Dijk E., 2014, When consequence size predicts belief in conspiracy theories: The moderating role of perspective taking; Journal of Experimental Social Psychology; Volume 55, Pages 63–73, source link.

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