Two psychological factors explain why education predicts decreased belief in conspiracy theories

The relationship between education and conspiracy theories is the result of an “interplay of multiple psychological factors,” according to new research in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology.

The study of 5,032 Dutch adults confirmed previous findings that people with high education levels are less likely to believe in conspiracy theories than people with lower education levels. Furthermore, the research uncovered two reasons why this association exists: People who are more educated are less likely to believe in simple solutions to complex problems and they feel more in control of their social environment.

Some of the conspiracy theories used in the study included the belief that the oil industry is covering up a free energy source, the belief that humans never landed on the moon, and the belief that the British Royal family secretly orchestrated the death of Princess Diana.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s author, Jan-Willem van Prooijen of VU University Amsterdam. Read his responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Van Prooijen: Conspiracy theories have fascinated me for many years now. While in previous decades scientists had the tendency to dismiss conspiracy belief as pathological, there is now a growing realization in the scientific community that belief in conspiracy theories is a common, widespread societal phenomenon. Large portions of the population believe theories such as that 9/11 was an inside job, that the pharmaceutical industry suppresses evidence that vaccines cause autism, or that climate change is a hoax. Such conspiratorial ideas may be implausible, but nevertheless they can have a real impact on real people. Indeed, in the recent US presidential elections we have seen how spreading conspiracy theories can get one elected in the highest political office.

What should the average person take away from your study?

My study focused on the relationship between education and belief in conspiracy theories. Various previous studies found that the lower educated people are, the more likely it is that they believe conspiracy theories. My study sought to examine why this relationship emerges. Specifically, education is not only related with people’s analytic thinking skills, but also with other important variables that might predict conspiracy beliefs such as self-esteem or social class.

The study found evidence for two mediators for the relationship between education and belief in conspiracy theories: People with low education levels are more likely to believe in simple solutions for complex societal problems (which is attributable to a lower capacity for analytic thinking), but also, people with low education levels are more likely to feel powerless in society. Both of these factors independently contribute to belief in conspiracy theories.

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

There are two major caveats to this study. First, the data are correlational, and hence we do not know if the observed relationships are causal. It would make sense to me that improving education decreases the tendency to believe conspiracy theories, but based on these data it would be premature to draw this conclusion. After all, children who feel powerless, or are who worse at analytic thinking, are also likely to attain lower education levels. Second, not all previous studies find a link between education and belief in conspiracy theories.

For instance, some studies did not find this link in samples collected in the Middle East, or among minority group members within the US. I suspect that feeling deprived as a group matters substantially for conspiracy theories and can therefore override effects of education. More research is needed to address these complexities.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

When presenting these findings, I frequently notice a temptation among academics to infer that conspiracy theories are somehow ‘characteristic’ for people with relatively low education levels. In response to this, I would like to emphasize that while these effects are real, the effect size is also relatively small. Conspiracy theories may be somewhat more common in the lower educated segment of society but they are by no means exclusive to this segment. Conspiracy theories can and do occur in all strata of society, including among managers, bankers, lawyers, scientists, and even the current US president.

The study was titled: “Why Education Predicts Decreased Belief in Conspiracy Theories“.