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What can we learn from conspiracy theorists?
Conspiracist thinking tells us all something about how we evaluate evidence
A key part of behaviour change work is helping people to evaluate evidence effectively. For example, in our work in health and finance, we often look at the way people decide if something is a problem - obesity, a skin condition, lack of sleep, financial difficulties and so on. We all have sleepless nights, have an issue with our weight at times, fall slightly behind on our finances. But how do we weigh the evidence to decide if this is something problematic? Indeed, who even decides if something is problematic? How we weigh evidence and draw conclusions is a critical part of how we live our everyday lives.
It is tempting to assume that if we accumulate evidence then we can make a reasoned choice. But as we know, it is not that simple. There is a mountain of research that suggest straight information provision is not enough. For example, in a recent meta-analysis, literacy education was found to account for just 0.1% of subsequent financial behaviours. But why is this? There are a host of reasons. Drawing conclusions from a myriad of often conflicting information can be hard. Or simply translating generic advice into implications for our own lives can be tricky.
One area in which behavioural science is much involved is helping to tackle misinformation and conspiracy theories, often focusing on the psychological mechanisms of the way we evaluate evidence. What can we learn about the way people evaluate evidence for conspiracy theories (e.g. applied to climate change or indeed believing the earth is flat), and how can we apply this to the way we evaluate evidence to more everyday issues?
At first glance, people who hold what are commonly called conspiracy theories seem to be engaged in a very different category of thinking than our everyday problems. But look a little closer and it seems they are not quite so alien. Take a point that was articulated well by Jenny Rice in her book Awful Archives: she talks about the way in which people who hold conspiracy theories are not necessarily using evidence to directly confirm a conspiracy theory – such as the earth being flat. Rather, the evidence they collect is often used to cast doubt on the mainstream version of events (that the earth is round), thus making the alternative a possibility. Indeed Michael Wood and Karen Douglas assert that “conspiracism has its basis in disbelieving a mainstream or received narrative rather than in believing a specific alternative”. This leads to a second, related point, that people can believe in incompatible conspiracy theories. Research by Michael Wood and colleagues found that people who believed that Princess Diana faked her own death were also more likely to believe that she was murdered.
From this, we can see the way we might be less invested in any given piece of information about an issue; instead there is a wider set of beliefs that sits behind this which is perhaps more important. A lot of time can be spent on debating a particular piece of evidence but the real story is in the bigger world view that is held.
Perhaps this is not all that different from less noticeable ways we use evidence in this way – I can collect evidence to cast doubt on information that I need eight hours sleep a night. For example, it is widely known that Margaret Thatcher famously survived on four hours sleep a night. There are many stories of successful people starting work very early in the morning. Now, I might not have a solid argument for why I think alternative sleep patterns are correct, but I have quite a bit of evidence that serves to question the validity of the assertion that eight hours is needed.
This means that I could go to the doctor with a sleep problem but could very easily not have a very effective consultation as I have a whole belief system about sleep which is might not get tackled. I may get some advice about my poor sleep hygiene but if my background beliefs about the sleep are not addressed then my adherence to the advice may be poor.
There are many legitimate reasons why we may challenge mainstream views and marginalised groups can have particularly good reason to do so. We tend to assume that people who hold conspiracy theories as true use quite different mechanisms to review information. But there is a case for starting to question this a little more carefully – perhaps the issue is that they are familiar mechanisms that we all use in the everyday, but the subject matter can feel very alien to us.
This is not to defend the problematic positions of many conspiracy theories and the damage they do: but perhaps we can learn something from them. There are a wide range of challenges in health, finance and well-being that urgently need people to assimilate information, or evidence, to help them reach more positive outcomes. By examining the way people who hold conspiracy theories evaluate evidence, we can more clearly understand how we may design behaviour change strategies that facilitate effective engagement more widely.