By Jennifer Nicoll Victor, Ph.D., George Mason University
Conspiracy theories are very popular. However, it’s not like people who believe conspiracy theories are stupid or easily duped. Research shows that people who are very well-informed, but also highly skeptical or distrusting, are more prone to believing conspiracies compared to those who are less-informed or more trusting. It turns out that one’s propensity to believe conspiracies is also motivated by political preferences.
Conspiracies and Political Preferences
A 2014 study estimated that over half the US population bought into one conspiratorial idea or another at any given time. Someone might think that being well-informed and having a healthy sense of skepticism would be the traits that keep them on the right side of truth, but not necessarily. Political preferences, too, add to the mix and render a person more susceptible to misinformation and conspiracy theories.
Consider a well-informed person who has strong political beliefs and a firm sense of ‘how the world works’. When that person is presented with new information, rather than processing it in a way that might cause the person to change their worldview or update their beliefs, they instead find a way to fit the new information into their pre-existing worldview.
This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the US Government. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Human brains are notoriously bad at conditional reasoning and updating beliefs. A reason for this may be because people have a social and psychological need for security and to be around people and things that are similar to themselves in some way. By surrounding themselves with likeness—similar people, who share similar ideas, eat similar foods, wear similar clothes, and who like similar movies—people develop a psychological sense of security.
All of these similarities help to build someone’s view of the world and shape how they think about themselves. They are used to form an identity.
Learn more about the theory of collective action in American politics.
Committing to False Information
So, when people are presented with new information that challenges their place in that network, or that does not fit with their core identity, they develop a way to explain it. This is how conspiracies are born. People find a way to explain the new information in a way that does not disrupt their worldview, identity, or position in their social network.
Then, the more they get exposed to the new idea and their explanation for it, the more they tend to believe it. Being presented over and over again with the new information does not lead to updating their views; instead, it can lead to digging in their heels and really committing to the false information.
An example that illustrates the case in point is the issue of vaccination and false information surrounding its safety.
False Information Surrounding Vaccines
A study showed that 48% of Americans believe that getting a flu vaccine makes someone more likely to get the flu. It does not. Also, six percent of Americans believe that the MMR vaccine—given to prevent measles, mumps, and rubella—causes autism, despite any valid clinical evidence.
When parents who opposed vaccines were given scientifically sound information about the vaccine, it corrected some of the falsely held beliefs. Correcting information can help people update what they think. However, even those who did update their beliefs were not more likely to vaccinate their children. Changing beliefs is one thing. Changing behavior is much harder.
Today in America, political conditions are ripe for the spread of conspiracy and misinformation. It is known that conspiracy theories spread more in populations where people are relatively well-informed, but also strongly distrusting.
Americans have historically low levels of trust in government, with only 17% saying they generally trust Washington, DC to do the right thing just about always or most of the time. And with so many media choices and voices, it can be hard to know where to find good information and whether to trust the information that one comes across.
Partisanship and Believing False Narrative
Unfortunately, false information and conspiratorial thinking are more common among Republicans than Democrats. This probably is not due to lack of exposure to quality information; rather, research suggests it may have to do with the fact that Republicans have disproportionate exposure to incorrect information and a particular vulnerability to partisan-motivated reasoning.
In other words, when presented with new information, Republicans may be more likely than Democrats to try and fit false information into a preferred worldview. And Republicans are more likely than Democrats to distrust information from national news media organizations.
Containing Conspiracy Theories
There might be one bright side to the strong association between partisanship and the tendency to believe false narratives, however. If conspiracy theories tend to be circulated among people who share a party identity, then it’s also likely to be contained there.
Whether Democrats or Republicans wind up adopting beliefs that are based on bad reasoning or false information, polarization means that the falsehoods are likely to be contained among the members of one party, and not spread throughout the whole population.
Learn more about three main sources of polarization in US politics.
Safeguarding against False Information
So, what can people do? Some vigilance and personal responsibility may be helpful in reducing someone’s personal vulnerability to fake news, misinformation, and conspiracy. Approaching news consumption with an interest in being informed, rather than a desire to be provoked or entertained, can help vaccinate someone against being exposed to false information.
Putting a variety of sources and media types into their news diet and maintaining a sense of healthy skepticism (but not too much) is also a good way forward. If people stick to getting news from sources that follow good journalism practices and ethical editorial practices, then they should trust that a story has been vetted and checked. And, finally, people should try to be open to changing their minds about something.
Common Questions about Conspiracy Theories and Misinformation
When people are presented with new information that challenges their core identity, they develop a way to explain it. This is how conspiracies are born as people find a way to explain new information in a way that does not disrupt their worldview.
The positive outcome it has is that if conspiracy theories tend to be circulated among people who share a party identity, then they’re also likely to be contained there.
Republicans and Democrats react differently to new information. Republicans may be more likely than Democrats to try and fit false information into a preferred worldview and are more likely to distrust information from national news media organizations.