People who overestimate their political knowledge are more likely to believe conspiracy theories

People who overestimate their understanding of political issues are more likely to believe conspiracy theories, according to new research that appears in the European Journal for Social Psychology.

“Conspiracy theories about government actors and institutions are widespread across the political ideological spectrum,” remarked study author Joseph A. Vitriol, a postdoctoral research associate at Lehigh University. “These beliefs attribute outsized influence to hidden actors or clandestine groups who are perceived as the root cause of an important world event, action, or outcome.”

“Because conspiracy beliefs often preserve discredited assumptions or serve as a basis for dismissing information that challenges one’s worldview, they are often difficult to correct (as is true for many political misperceptions) and can therefore undermine the ability for citizens to effectively and ethically engage in the political process.”

“Indeed, these beliefs are not constrained to the politically disengaged or the uninformed. Instead, conspiracy theories are commonly endorsed and propagated by actors at the highest levels of political power and, as a result, are consequential for public policy,” Vitriol said.

“In short, conspiracy beliefs are important influences on citizens’ political judgment and behavior. This can undermine the ability of elected officials to address problems in society with evidence-based public policy and governance. By investigating the psychological underpinning of conspiracy beliefs, we are better able to understand how these beliefs form and spread. We are also better able to identify strategies for informing or educating the public and combating the influence of false and fabricated information on political psychology and behavior.”

“Furthermore, it is possible that overconfidence in one’s understanding of political phenomena prevents meaningful exchange of ideas across ideological/partisan boundaries, leads to increase attitudinal extremity and polarization, and reduces the likelihood that people encounter information that challenges their preexisting assumptions and beliefs.”

“Thus, we are cautiously optimistic that highlighting the limitations of people’s existing knowledge will be effective at increasing receptivity to credible and valid counter-attitudinal information, and therefore improve people’s understanding of the political world and ability to think and act in ways consistent with their own values and beliefs and the best available information or evidence.”

The study of 394 U.S. individuals was conducted before and after the 2016 presidential election. The participants were instructed to rate how well they understood six political policies. The researchers then asked those participants to provide as detailed an explanation as they could for how the policies actually worked.

“We find that inflated confidence in one’s understanding of politics and public policy is associated with the tendency to believe in political conspiracies,” Vitriol told PsyPost. “That is, people who overestimate how well they understand political phenomena are more likely to believe that hidden actors or clandestine groups are conspiring in wide-ranging activities to influence important world actions, events, and outcomes.”

“In general, people tend to overestimate how much they understand about the causal workings of the world around them. Understanding of politics is no exception. Open-mindedness, humility, and exposing oneself to many perspectives and sources of information is necessary to be an informed and ethical citizen.”

Those who overestimated their knowledge were more likely to believe conspiracies like the U.S. government intentionally created AIDS or that Princess Diana’s death was not an accident but rather an assassination.

The researchers found this was particularly true after the election for individuals who supported the losing candidate, Hillary Clinton. In other words, Clinton supporters who were overconfident about their political knowledge became even more likely to endorse conspiracy beliefs after she was defeated.

“One surprise is that the relationship between this inflated confidence in understanding politics and conspiracy beliefs increased after the 2016 U.S. presidential election among people who supported the losing candidate,” Vitriol explained. “Our findings are consistent with several lines of research demonstrating that losses in the political realm encourage conspiracy thinking.”

“For example, existing studies suggest that feeling disenfranchised politically and having one’s political party lose power are both associated with increased conspiracy thinking and belief. When people feel threatened or as though they lack control over important events, conspiracy theories become more attractive. Our findings suggest this is particularly true for people who are overconfident in their understanding of politics. However, these findings needed to be replicated in an additional electoral context.”

“Further, to the extent that inflated confidence in one’s causal understanding related to increased endorsement of conspiracy theories, it is possible that exposing this illusion of understanding the political domain may be an effective means for reducing conspiratorial thinking and even political misperceptions,” Vitriol said. “This remains to be tested, however.”

“Previous work has indicated that individuals with more accurate knowledge of politics are less likely to endorse conspiracy beliefs. Furthermore, some work indicates that belief superiority and overconfidence can lead to political extremism, which can increase endorsement of conspiracy theories.”

Vitriol said the research provides some clues on how to reduce conspiratorial thinking.

“These previous studies together suggest that a well-calibrated understanding of one’s own knowledge in the political domain might buffer against acceptance of conspiracy beliefs,” he explained. “Conspiracy beliefs often involve extreme, rigid, and even bizarre accounts of political events. Our findings might suggest that showing people the limitations of their understanding can lead to more informed, evidence-based opinions and beliefs.”

“The good thing is people can do this on their own– by proactively seeking out and exposing oneself to information and perspectives that challenges their beliefs, one stands to gain a more objective and credible understanding of the world.”

The study, “The Illusion of Explanatory Depth and Endorsement of Conspiracy Beliefs“, was authored by Joseph A. Vitriol and Jessecae K. Marsh.