Brief exposure to conspiracy theories fuels bigoted attitudes that are transferred across groups

Reading about conspiracy theories can directly increase prejudice and discrimination, according to new research published in the British Journal of Psychology. The study indicates that this prejudice-enhancing effect is not limited to the group targeted by the conspiracy theory.

“Conspiracy theories — which explain events as the result of secret, deliberate actions and cover-ups at the hands of powerful and malevolent groups — have been found to negatively impact individuals and wider society, through the environment, politics, health, and work,” said Daniel Jolley, a senior lecturer in psychology at Staffordshire University and the corresponding author of the new study.

“However, conspiracy theories can also take an intergroup focus, where for example, Jewish people are thought to be acting in plots and schemes. We were interested in our research to explore whether exposure to conspiracy theories that target groups of people (e.g., Jewish people, immigrants) could not only increase belief in those conspiracy theories but lead to increase prejudice and discrimination towards that target group.”

“We feel that understanding the consequences of conspiracy theories is a timely issue, as conspiracy theories are widespread in our society,” Jolley said.

In the study of 453 residents of the United Kingdom, participants were randomly assigned to either read an article that supported a conspiracy theory about minority groups, read an article that refuted the conspiracy theory, or read an article unrelated to conspiracy theories.

For example, one pro-conspiracy article suggested that Israel orchestrated the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.

Regardless of whether the minority group was Jewish people or Muslim immigrants, the researchers found that reading the pro-conspiracy information was associated with higher levels of prejudicial attitudes towards the targeted group.

Reading the pro-conspiracy information appeared to increase prejudice in general. Participants who read information supporting conspiracy theories against Jews also showed increases in prejudicial attitudes towards Americans, Arabs, the elderly, poor people, and people on social benefits.

“In our study, we found that exposure to conspiracy theories about different social groups increase prejudice towards that group, which can lead to discrimination. Perhaps most importantly, we also demonstrate how the prejudice-enhancing effects of intergroup conspiracy theories are not limited to the group targeted by the conspiracy but can spread to other, uninvolved groups. These issues are therefore not just highly topical, but of great significance for society,” Jolley told PsyPost.

The findings are in line with previous research, which has found that negative contact with a minority group often results in negative attitudes towards that group — and those attitudes are transferred to other minority groups as well.

But like all research, the new study includes some caveats.

“Of course, it is possible that prejudice may also increase belief in conspiracy theories, where conspiracy theories may be the product of a motivated process. Our study does not provide evidence for or against this possibility; we believe a bi-directional relationship is probable. Future research should test this possibility,” Jolley explained.

“In our study, we show that conspiracy theories can have wide-ranging consequences on intergroup relations. One question that research has yet to fully tackle, is how to reduce conspiracy beliefs and prevent these negative consequences. Efforts to reduce prejudice and defuse negative intergroup relations should, therefore, consider the contribution of popular and pervasive conspiracy theories.”

The study, “Exposure to intergroup conspiracy theories promotes prejudice which spreads across groups“, was authored by Daniel Jolley, Rose Meleady, and Karen M. Douglas.