Information and Persuasion: 3 Features of Conspiracy Theories

In times of crisis and upheaval conspiracy theories abound. When people experience unease and doubt, when old answers no longer seem to function or are challenged by societal change, when suspicions are born and everything seems relative and ambiguous, our brains yearn for unequivocal, clear-cut, black and white answers.

It would also appear that the decline of traditional media and a generalized distrust of the establishment has given new impetus to conspiracy theorists around the world, so let’s attempt to deconstruct conspiracy theories and have a look at their typical “ingredients” – of which there are three:

  1. Intentionality – What this means is that a small and obscure minority is credited with intentionally organizing for a purpose (usually, to exert complete control of the others).
  2. Dualism or Dichotomy – The world is divided up in “good” (the unknowing majority) and “evil”(the scheming minority), without any consideration of intermediary nuances or disproving arguments.
  3. Occultism – These malignant forces act shrouded in mystery and secrecy.

Adding to these, there is also an emotionalization of the topic, which usually reinforces rejection of any rational argument to the contrary. And emotional contagion is usually below conscious awareness.

As we know from neuroscience, the task-positive (rational, analytical) and the default mode (emotional, social) neural networks in the brain cannot function simultaneously (they suppress each other).

Why is it so difficult to dislodge a strong emotional conviction with rational arguments?

  • Well, it might be that people living in constant fear of a conspiracy against them tend to be more closed off to new possibilities, since fear is a negative emotional attractor.
  • Psychological research  also shows that when people’s minds are made up, not even a very strong argument can change them. This is called the “biased assimilation effect,” whereby we only believe evidence that fits with what we already believe. Scientists have shown that strong arguments can be persuasive, but only when people are motivated to deliberate on the issue.
  • Another study (“Political Extremism is Supported by an Illusion of Understanding”) has recently shown that asking people to provide mechanistic explanations can play a vital role in persuading them they are mistaken. People who are asked only to give “reasons” for their conviction (in other words, to focus on supporting and justifying it) do not change their views at all. The ones asked to “explain” how a certain policy would have effects, became, on average more moderate!

Apparently, asking people to provide causal (mechanistic) explanations of how they think the world works causes many illusions to evaporate, undermining previous certainty. There has been a lot of talk lately of our societies veering towards “fact-free politics”. This might not come as such a surprise for psychologists, since causal reasons have been found to be more persuasive than statistics (see here).



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