Study: Rational arguments and ridicule can both reduce belief in conspiracy theories

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Pointing out logical inconsistencies in conspiracy theories can be an effective method of discrediting them, according to new research published in Frontiers in Psychology.

The researchers had 813 Hungarian adults listen to a speech outlining a made-up conspiracy that purported to explain how hidden Jewish groups and international financial powers were secretly shaping the fate of Hungary. The speech emphasized that “nothing happens by chance, nothing is what it seems, everything is interconnected with everything, and the world is divided into good and evil.”

The participants then listened to another speech which either: pointed out the logical flaws of the conspiracy theory, mocked the ridiculousness and irrationality of those who believed the conspiracy theory, or called attention to the dangers of scapegoating while attempting to increase empathy for Jews. A fourth group of participants, who were used as a control, listened to a weather forecast.

The researchers found that the rationality speech and the ridiculing speech — but not the empathetic speech — were effective in reducing belief in the conspiracy theory.

PsyPost interviewed Peter Kreko, a visiting professor at Indiana University, assistant professor at Eötvös Loránt University of Sciences and senior associate to Political Capital Institute. Read his explanation of the research below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Kreko: Because, despite the lot of good research on the functions and nature of conspiracy theories, the reduction of conspiracy beliefs has been rather a neglected topic. Conspiracy theories, on the other hand, are extremely widespread – and not just in dictatorships, but democratic societies as well. Conspiracy theories can be extremely harmful, they can lead to the persecution of groups. For examples, the Protocols of Elders of Zion, a conspiracy theory fabricated in the early 20th century on the Jewish leaders’ plot to rule the World, played an important role in the ideological justification of the murders of the Holocaust. Anti-science conspiracy theories are often similarly dangerous – the anti-vaccination movement is a good example. Several hundreds of thousands of people are estimated to die each year as a consequence of non-vaccination. Given all of these negative impacts of conspiracy theories, it is essential to have evidence-based studies on how to reduce the popularity of such theories.

What should the average person take away from your study?

Our findings refuted three general beliefs on conspiracy theories. First, that conspiracy theories are impossible to refute. Rational and ridiculing arguments were both effective in reducing conspiracy theories. Second, that belief in conspiracy theories is connected to specific personality types e.g. paranoia and paranoiac schizophrenia. Only very weak, or even non-significant links were found between conspiracy theory-related variables and individual differences.

Third, our findings go against the mainstream of the communication literature and “common wisdom,” as well as the current affective wave of social psychology emphasizing that emotions constitute the most important factor behind shaping beliefs and attitudes. Despite the general assessment that we are in a “post-truth” World, truth and facts do matter when it comes to refuting conspiracy theories. Uncovering arguments regarding the logical inconsistencies of conspiracy beliefs can be an effective way to discredit them.

Rationality has a bigger impact on shaping (sometimes irrational) beliefs than previously expected. A possible explanation of this is that in the current communication environment, people are overloaded with emotional messages coming from ads, political and social campaigns.

And the results have political implications as well: helping analytic thinking by providing detailed explanations can reinforce deliberate processing of information.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

The present study is not without limitations. The effect sizes were not large. However, measuring the effectiveness of different reasoning or convincing strategies is not easy. In the present study, the number of arguments was balanced, but the length of the audio recordings was different in the different conditions. Further, studies should balance the number of arguments, their length and pretest the effectiveness of each argument. Needless to say that it is a time consuming task.

If we consider the present study as an intervention, it can first be said that this is not a wise one, as direct and confronting strategies were used to convince individuals regarding CT reduction. Second, this experiment did not have the very solid theoretical background that a good intervention requires. Third, this study only measured the short-term effects of different CT reduction strategies. Fourth, it targeted a general population instead of a specific subgroup of individuals. Fifth, the timing of the experiment was not related to a big CT-related scandal, which could have influenced the effectiveness of the conditions.

But beside the limitations, the present study shows that rational arguments can reduce conspiracy beliefs,  while ridiculing also appears to be somewhat effective. Future studies are needed in order to explore the boundaries of these results. But, after careful investigation of these conditions (culture, timing, different groups with different characteristics, different speakers, etc.), media campaigns can be designed and in collaboration with competent public speakers, different conspiracy theory reduction strategies can be tested.

The study, “Changing Conspiracy Beliefs through Rationality and Ridiculing“, was also co-authored by Gábor Orosz, Benedek Paskuj, István Tóth-Király, Beáta Bőthe and Christine Roland-Lévy.

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