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Monday, March 20, 2023

Science through a tribal lens: A group-based account of polarization over scientific facts

Fasce, A., Adrián-Ventura, J., et al. (2023).
Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 26(1), 3–23.


Previous research has confirmed the prominent role of group processes in the promotion and endorsement of disinformation. We report three studies on a psychological framework derived from integrated threat theory—a psychological theory which describes how perceived threat leads to group polarization and prejudice—composed of the following constructs: group belongingness, perceived threat, outgroup derogation, and intergroup anxiety. Our pilot study suggested that need to belong and intergroup anxiety predict antiscientific beliefs (pseudoscientific, paranormal, and conspiracy theories), thus justifying the general applicability of integrated threat theory. Study 1 investigates the transition from weak to strong critical thinking regarding pseudoscientific doctrines. Besides greater outgroup derogation and perceived threats among strong critical thinkers, the model does not perform well in this context. Study 2 focuses on the intergroup conflict around anthropogenic global warming, revealing the strong predictive power of the model. These results are discussed in relation to the distinctive psychological profiles of science acceptance and rejection.

From the General Discussion

Perceived Threat and the Conspiracy of Scientists

There is a wide corpus of  research highlighting the role of  group belongingness and perceived threats in conspiracy theories (Federico et al., 2018; Mashuri et al., 2016; van der Linden et al., 2020; van Prooijen, 2015). In effect, van Prooijen (2020) has developed a comprehensive inter-group threat-based model in which distressing social events stimulate conspiracism when antagonistic outgroups are salient. Believing in the existence of  secret, powerful, and evil outgroups perpetuates and exacerbates feelings of  uncertainty and existential threat (Douglas et al., 2017), so conspiracy theories tend to backfire, being a source of  threat in themselves to their own sup-porters. This situation facilitates a feedback loop that gives rise to a generalized conspiracist world-view (Imhoff  & Bruder, 2014; van der Linden et al., 2020; van Prooijen, 2020)—in fact, prior studies have found that the best predictor of belief  in one conspiracy theory is belief  in another conspiracy theory (Abalakina-Paap et al., 1999; Goertzel, 1994).

Besides its function to justify the legitimacy of  ingroup identity and values (Jolley et al., 2018), the prototypical form of  intergroup representation that lies at the root of  conspiracy theories also provides perceived epistemic justification for antiscientific conceptions of  climate change, vaccination, AIDS, and GMOs (Jolley & Douglas, 2014; Nattrass, 2013; Uscinski et al., 2017). Conspiracy theories about scientific information give rise to the kind of epistemic defense mecha-nisms that characterize self-validating belief systems (Boudry & Braeckman, 2012; Lewandowsky et al., 2015), so contrary evidence is often interpreted as evidence of  a conspiracy—for instance, conspiracy theorists typically argue that the match between the official story and the available evidence is indeed predicted by their theory, thus characterizing contradicting evidence as being, consciously or unconsciously, part of  the alleged secret plot. Accordingly, conspiracism reduces the existing dissonance between denial and expert consensus, turning contrary information into confirmatory evidence (Lewandowsky et al., 2018).