Study finds conspiracy theories are viewed as a source of social stigma

New research in the European Journal of Social Psychology provides evidence that conspiracy theories could be considered a social stigma.

“A number of psychological studies have shown the rewarding aspects of conspiracy theories for those who subscribe to them, such as regaining a feeling of control/power, sense of meaning, need for uniqueness, etc,” explained study author Anthony Lantian of Paris Nanterre University.

“However, we often hear that for the public at large, any idea that can be described as a conspiracy theory is immediately discredited (as well as the persons who defend them). In short, conspiracy theories would be socially stigmatized. The empirical aspect of this hypothesis has so far been relatively neglected, and that it is why we thought it was important to study it.”

Two Islamic extremists who had sworn allegiance to al-Qaeda killed 11 people at Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris in 2015. In two experiments, which each included about 150 French participants, the researchers examined how people felt about defending conspiracy theories about the terror attack.

In the first experiment, the participants were randomly assigned to either write a short essay defending conspiracy theories about the Charlie Hebdo attack or a short essay criticizing them. The participants were led to believe the researchers were investigating the ability to convince others during a debate. In the second experiment, the participants were asked to image either defending or criticizing Charlie Hebdo conspiracy theories during a public debate in front of an audience.

Participants who defended the conspiracy theory said they expected that people who heard their arguments would form an unfavorable opinion of them and even despise them. These participants also indicated they would be scared that people would be less susceptible to socializing with them and would reject them.

“Asking people to defend (versus criticize) conspiracy theories leads them to expect that strangers who would be aware of their arguments would evaluate them negatively, which in turn, leads them to anticipate that these same people would socially exclude them,” Lantian told PsyPost.

“It is important to mention that these social concerns when defending conspiracy theories were not only observed among people who generally reject conspiracy theories, but also among people who moderately and strongly believe in conspiracy theories. But to be more nuanced, in one of our two studies, these social concerns became weaker as the tendency to believe in conspiracy theories increased.”

The study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“One of the limitations is that our participants were recruited on the internet and they were not interacting directly with people physically, but were instructed to anticipate or imagine social interactions. To overcome this limitation, in line with the social dimension of the concept of stigma, future studies could design role-playing games or setup an audience in a laboratory experiment to implement physical social interactions,” Lantian explained.

“Moreover, the conspiracy theories that we have used were based on the Charlie Hebdo shooting: they were more relevant geographically and temporally in the context of our studies. To generalize our findings, future studies may vary the type of conspiracy theories involved.”

Previous research has found that social exclusion leads to greater endorsement of superstitious and conspiratorial beliefs. Lantian and his colleagues noted that if belief in conspiracy theories is a cause of social exclusion, this could lead to a vicious cycle.

“Because of the known negative consequences of conspiracy theories in various domains of our social life, there is currently a lot of discussion about how to reduce them. Among the potential solutions, some researchers have suggested (and demonstrated) that ridiculing conspiracy theories might be efficient,” Lantian added.

“Our research contributes to this debate by highlighting the need to anticipate side effects that may results from ridiculing conspiracy theories. It may increase the social stigma attached to conspiracy theories that can be a source of social exclusion. This trade-off should be take into account in these discussions.”

The study, “Stigmatized beliefs: Conspiracy theories, anticipated negative evaluation of the self, and fear of social exclusion“, was authored by Anthony Lantian, Dominique Muller, Cécile Nurra, Olivier Klein, Sophie Berjot, and Myrto Pantazi.