People with a conspiracy mentality show less of a bias in favor of historical experts, study finds

Is a book by a professional historian more trustworthy than a YouTube video created by an anonymous person? If you’re high in the personality trait known as conspiracy mentality, you might not see much of a difference.

New research suggests that people with a conspiratorial mindset tend to view experts and non-experts as equally credible sources of historical information. The study was published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

“The very idea for the study was born in a joint discussion with my co-author Olivier Klein at a conference of social psychological representations of history. We were listening to talks about all kinds of construals, biases and narratives about what happened in the ancient or not so ancient past,” said study author Roland Imhoff of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz.

“Having the public debate about ‘alternative facts’ from after Trump’s inauguration still in the back of our minds, we wondered: how do we even know what we know, how do we know who to trust when it comes to events we all have not experienced in first person?”

“While previous research had insisted that this is predominantly a question of trusting ingroup sources (i.e., my government, my national education institutions), we had a lingering suspicion that people who endorse conspiracy theories might have a different system of epistemic trust: not trusting those who are in power (and allegedly corrupt).”

For their research, Imhoff and his colleagues first surveyed 275 participants before conducting three experimental studies, which included a total of 884 participants from the United States and Germany.

Across all four studies, the researchers found that a conspiracy mentality was associated with reduced trust in authoritative and expert sources. However, conspiracy mentality was not associated with greater trust in unofficial, lay sources.

In other words, people who agreed with statement such as “Secret organizations can manipulate people psychologically so that they do not notice how their life is being controlled by others” and “Politicians and other leaders are nothing but the string puppets of powers operating in the background” were more likely to view an amateur historian and a professional historian as about equally credible.

People low in conspiracy mentality, on the other hand, attributed much more credibility to the professional historian.

“I think our most important, not entirely predicted finding is that whereas average people and those who do not endorse conspiracy theories agree more with any historical account if it comes from a powerful source, people who believe in conspiracies do not show such a bias,” Imhoff told PsyPost.

“Our prediction was that they have an opposite bias, but the data consistently suggests they just ignore source characteristics. To them a web blog is as trustworthy as an Oxford scholar. As we have formulated, they have terminated the social contract of epistemic trust, that we should believe official sources more than unofficial ones.”

The study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“We have looked at pre-existing individual differences in the extent to which people endorsed a conspiracy worldview, we can thus not make any claims about causal directions,” Imhoff said. “Also, we have focused on the history of WW1 and WW2 in Germany and the U.S., a relatively limited context.”

Those with conspiratorial mindset may be relatively unbiased in the sources they trust but that’s probably not a good thing.

“People look at me puzzled when I tell them that conspiracy believers are less biased, so to speak, than non-believers. To clarify, although I stand by that statement, I think we need some kind of ‘bias’ to make sense of the world and form the social glue we need as a society,” Imhoff explained.

“Naturally, we cannot experience everything personally and neither can we fully comprehend all scientific discoveries,” he added. “We just have to trust and sometimes cues like a university affiliation or a quality media outlet can be valid. This does not liberate us from critically engaging with the soundness of the argument and the transparency of presentation of evidence, but I am convinced that there is validity in these cues, otherwise I would not be a researcher but could just write a blog.”

The study, “Using Power as a Negative Cue: How Conspiracy Mentality Affects Epistemic Trust in Sources of Historical Knowledge“, was authored by Roland Imhoff, Pia Lamberty, and Olivier Klein.