Conspiracy theories, i.e., alternative explanations of events and states of affairs, are not only widespread, but also efficacious, though usually in a negative way.
In a series of five experiments, with a total of 2,254 participants, Marko Kovic from the Zurich Institute of Public Affairs Research, and Tobias Füchslin from the University of Zurich have found that people tend to endorse conspiratorial beliefs for events which had a low probability of occurring.
For instance, in two of the five experiments, participants were asked to read a fictional news story about a well-known journalist who suddenly died of a heart attack. The story was identical for all groups except for the probability assigned to such an event occuring – 95%, 75%, 50%, 25% or 1%.
As predicted by the hypothesis, the likelihood of people believing the journalist was murdered strongly correlated with the probability of him suffering a heart attack – the lower the probability, the higher the incidence of conspiratorial thinking.
Moreover, the belief in foul play was reinforced even further when the article noted the journalist had revealed a case of government corruption not long before his untimely demise.
“It’s not ‘us’ (reasonable people) vs. ‘them’ (irrational conspiracy nuts) – conspiratorial reasoning is a coping mechanism we all use,” explained Kovic.
According to the authors, their findings — if confirmed by further research — could have important applications in the divisive cultural and political landscape of today.
“For example, in the discussion of our results, we speculate that a better understanding of probabilistic reasoning might act as a kind of de-biasing mechanism that would reduce the susceptibility to conspiratorial thinking. That is entirely speculative at the moment, and we would love to see research done on this question,” said Kovic.
Given prior studies indicating that merely confronting people with facts is ineffective, and may even lead to counterproductive outcomes, a potentially more fruitful approach would be to increase people’s awareness of the kinds of heuristics we all tend to fall prey to in the presence of uncertainty.