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Making sense of conspiracy theories
Unpicking the mechanisms that shape our engagement is key to developing effective solutions
Conspiracy theories remain a topic that fascinate and disturb us. They are often identified as responsible for a range of societal ills including people hesitating about getting vaccinated, concerned that it is a government plot to control the population, or 5G masts are being toppled as protestors consider the frequency is responsible for COVID. This is not purely a public policy issue either: many of these issues directly impact brands (e.g. 5G masts) and there is increasing evidence that businesses are being targeted with Conspiracy Theories and disinformation.
The social sciences have often tended to explain this phenomena with a focus on a ‘conspiracy mentality’, dispositions that mean people are vulnerable to misinformation. Cass Sunstein has called this a ‘crippled epistemology’, the notion that we are vulnerable to limitations in the way we process information. One example of this is motivated reasoning, where people appear to process information in a way that is fits with their pre-existing emotions and inclinations. Karen Douglas has talked about motivated ignorance and identified three types:
Epistemic – the desire for an explanation, certainty and simplicity
Existential – the desire to be safe and secure and have control
Social – the desire to fit in and feel good about ourselves
Others have pointed to the way conspiracy theories are the inevitable consequence of modern challenges such as political secrecy, surveillance, the rise of global corporations, the reduced sense of personal agency. This suggests a mismatch between the complex systems shaping our lives and the limited, individual-agency oriented, explanations we have available which results in conspiracy theorising.
Another evolving perspective is that conspiracy theories are the inevitable arguments and debates we all have about what to believe. This approach suggests conspiracy theories are the result of long held patterns of thought and challenges to official explanations, and as such can be understood through wider political, social and cultural positions.
As such we move from an explanation of conspiracy theories as being the individual mind and towards the content – both the theory itself but also the social nature of thought. This references the field of sociocultural psychology, which seeks to capture the “cultural” nature of human experience. On this basis, if culture is to humans what the water is for the eyes of fish (as set out by Jerome Bruner), then, as psychologists, we need to understand this ‘water’ (our culture) and the eye (our minds) as well as the relationship between them.
This is certainly consistent with the ‘we’ behavioural science theme that we often talk about on Frontline and perhaps, more than ever, references what Moscovici called ‘the thinking society’ where we can see the way ideologies, worldviews and cultural norms produce and maintain particular patterns of thinking and behaviour. We might also seek to explain some of the recent discussion of ‘folklore’ explanations of conspiracy theories using the discipline of sociocultural psychology.
There is clearly a huge amount of literature on possible causes of Conspiracy Theories with a focus on those who develop and perpetuate them but there has been a relatively limited degree of investigation into the wider public’s relationship with them.
To explore this, Ipsos MORI is launching a report on the way the general public engages with Conspiracy Theories, both to understand the nature of this important challenge, but also to identify how to tackle this important issue.
The report draws on survey work with over four thousand members of the UK general population and seeks to build a nuanced understanding of the issues. The data certainly suggests that the wider public have a high degree of awareness and engagement with many conspiracy theories, that may be a surprise to some.
With this in mind, there is a the case for governments and brands to avoid ‘othering’ people who engage with these beliefs, not least as they are a significant proportion of the population. Not only that but we need to recognise the nuanced relationship that many have with conspiracy theories: according to the data, while many may consider at least some conspiracy theories plausible, at the same time we may well not fully believe them but nevertheless regard them as a reasonable challenge to official explanations.
There suggests a case for governments and brands to understand and engage with the content itself. If we ignore, or attempt to close-down discussion, this inevitably drives the issue underground and causes information vacuums - where there are no voices to help people understand the different sides to the debates.
People may well have some challenges engaging and making sense of information in this complex world - but to tackle conspiracy theories effectively we surely need to properly understand the source of the beliefs, establish how people are engaging with them and then locate ourselves firmly within the debate.
The forthcoming report will be launched with a webinar – do sign up to hear more. The report itself will be available for download following the event.