Study: Conspiracy theories could be the result of how humans handle probabilities

New research helps explain why conspiracy theories are relatively common. The study, published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, suggests conspiratorial thinking is the consequence of a general cognitive bias associated with low probabilities.

“There is plenty of evidence that belief in one conspiracy theory or the other is commonplace. We simply wondered: Why?” said study author Marko Kovic of the Zurich Institute of Public Affairs Research.

“Since conspiratorial beliefs have real-world impact, often not in a good way, we think that understanding why people believe in conspiracy theories matters. At least if we care about doing something about conspiratorial beliefs.”

“On a personal level: I used to be a bit of a conspiracy theorist myself, so understanding why I believed what I used to believe is also a motivating factor for me,” added Kovic, who is also the co-founder and former president of the group Swiss Skeptics.

In five experiments, with a total of 2,254 participants, the researchers found that people tended to endorse conspiratorial explanations for events when those events had a low probability of occurring.

For example, in two of their experiments, the researchers had participants read a fictional news excerpt about a famous journalist who abruptly died from a heart attack. In one version of the article, a doctor is quoted as saying the journalist had a 95% chance of having a heart attack. In other versions, the doctor is quoted saying the journalist had a 75%, 50%, 25% or 1% chance of having a heart attack.

Participants were more likely to believe the journalist was actually murdered when the article stated the probability of him having a heart attack was lower. This conspiratorial explanation was endorsed even more when the article noted the journalist had recently exposed government corruption.

“It’s not ‘us’ (reasonable people) vs. ‘them’ (irrational conspiracy nuts) — conspiratorial reasoning is a coping mechanism that we all use,” Kovic told PsyPost.

The study has some limitations.

“Generally, one should never put too much faith into one single study, so we need more research in this area,” Kovic explained. “For example, in the discussion of our results, we speculate that a better understanding of probabilistic reasoning might act as a kind of debiasing mechanism that would reduce the susceptibility to conspiratorial thinking. That is entirely speculative at the moment, and we would love to see research done on this question.”

“If conspiratorial thinking is indeed a heuristic that we are all prone to, then we should rethink how we go about ‘debunking’ conspiracy theories,” Kovic said. “As has been shown in existing research, merely confronting people with facts does not necessarily work. ‘Debunking’ conspiracy theories might be more effective if we adapt to conspiracy believers’ – and thus also to our own – cognitive style.”

The study, “Probability and conspiratorial thinking“, was authored by Marko Kovic and Tobias Füchslin.