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Friday, March 31, 2023

Do conspiracy theorists think too much or too little?

N.M. Brashier
Current Opinion in Psychology
Volume 49, February 2023, 101504


Conspiracy theories explain distressing events as malevolent actions by powerful groups. Why do people believe in secret plots when other explanations are more probable? On the one hand, conspiracy theorists seem to disregard accuracy; they tend to endorse mutually incompatible conspiracies, think intuitively, use heuristics, and hold other irrational beliefs. But by definition, conspiracy theorists reject the mainstream explanation for an event, often in favor of a more complex account. They exhibit a general distrust of others and expend considerable effort to find ‘evidence’ supporting their beliefs. In searching for answers, conspiracy theorists likely expose themselves to misleading information online and overestimate their own knowledge. Understanding when elaboration and cognitive effort might backfire is crucial, as conspiracy beliefs lead to political disengagement, environmental inaction, prejudice, and support for violence.


People who are drawn to conspiracy theories exhibit other stable traits – like lower cognitive ability, intuitive thinking, and proneness to cognitive biases – that suggest they are ‘lazy thinkers.’ On the other hand, conspiracy theorists also exhibit extreme levels of skepticism and expend energy justifying their beliefs; this effortful processing can ironically reinforce conspiracy beliefs. Thus, people carelessly fall down rabbit holes at some points (e.g., when reading repetitive conspiratorial claims) and methodically climb down at others (e.g., when initiating searches online). Conspiracy theories undermine elections, threaten the environment, and harm human health, so it is vitally important that interventions aimed at increasing evaluation and reducing these beliefs do not inadvertently backfire.