Labeling something a conspiracy theory does not reduce belief in it, study finds

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Labelling something a conspiracy theory does not reduce belief in it, according to a recent study published this August in Political Psychology. The findings are in contrast to previous research showing that people actively counter-argue the label of conspiracy-theory label when others apply it to their beliefs.

“Conspiracy Theory” is widely acknowledged as a loaded term. It is often used as an act of rhetorical violence and a way of dismissing a reasonable suspicion as irrational paranoia. For example, politicians use it to mock and dismiss allegations against them, but others warn that it could be used as a rhetorical weapon to prevent opposition or dissent.

Therefore, is has been suggested that labelling something a conspiracy theory makes it seem less believable based upon this stereotyped view of conspiracy theories as paranoid and unfounded.

The study, by Michael Wood of the University of Winchester, aimed to determine whether the conspiracy-theory label is damaging to an idea’s credibility. The study involved 2 experiments. In Experiment 1, 150 participants were randomly assigned to either: a conspiracy theory condition, where they were asked to rate the likelihood of a variety of “conspiracy theories”; or an idea condition, where the same items were instead presented as “ideas”.

In Experiment 2, 802 participants viewed a short mock news article about a fictitious political scandal. Half of the participants were given an article with the headline, “Conspiracy Theories Emerge in Wake of Canadian Election Result”, and half of the participants were given an article with the headline, “Corruption Allegations Emerge in Wake of Canadian Election Result” (control condition).

The results revealed that, for Experiment 1, using the label of conspiracy theory had no effect on conspiracy theory views or beliefs in real historical conspiracies. Experiment 2 also found no effect of using the term conspiracy theory on the views about the fictitious political scandal.

The researchers highlighted that, “The lack of an effect of the conspiracy-theory label in both experiments was unexpected and may be due to a romanticized image of conspiracy theories in popular media or a dilution of the term to include mundane speculation regarding corruption and political intrigue.” Suggesting that, “the term has some positive connotations that may cancel out some of the intellectual stigma associated with it.”

In conclusion, it was suggested that the increasing use of the conspiracy theory label by politicians, for example, “may instead have caused a reevaluation of the label itself: For many, it may have prompted the question of whether conspiracy theories might be on the right track after all.”