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Cognitive Science

Study: Conspiracy theory believers tend to endorse other unsubstantiated beliefs as well

People who believe in conspiracy theories are also more likely to believe in pseudoscience and paranormal phenomena, according to new research published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology. The findings indicate that some people appear to have a general susceptibility to believing unsubstantiated claims.

“My main teaching and research focus is on critical thinking. Accepting unsubstantiated claims, such as endorsing false conspiracy theories, psychological misconceptions, paranormal claims, and pseudoscience each represents a failure to think critically,” said study author D. Alan Bensley, a psychology professor at Frostburg State University.

“I have long been interested in why people believe unsubstantiated claims, such as the paranormal belief in ghosts, the conspiracy theory that the 1969 moon landing was a hoax, the psychological misconception that the average person uses only 10% of his or her brain, and the pseudoscience, astrology, claiming that the position of the stars and planets at the moment of your birth determines your future.”

“My second textbook, Critical Thinking in Psychology and Everyday Life is designed to help students, not only to reason effectively about psychological questions but also to correct their misconceptions, reject pseudoscientific and paranormal claims, and recognize false conspiracy theories,” Bensley said.

“To assess learning outcomes related to critical thinking and rejection of unsubstantiated claims, I developed, along with my colleagues, measures of psychological misconceptions, belief in pseudoscience versus evidence-based practices, and measures of conspiracy theory belief.”

“Besides helping us to study the effectiveness of instruction with the critical thinking textbook, these measures have been useful for investigating people’s acceptance of unsubstantiated claims. In this new study, we have used these measures to examine the interesting question of how general is the acceptance of these unsubstantiated claims.”

The researchers surveyed 286 psychology undergraduate students regarding their paranormal beliefs, endorsement of conspiracies, factual knowledge about psychology, and acceptance of pseudoscience.

The participants were asked to indicate how much they agreed with general conspiracist ideas, such as “Technology with mind control capacities is used on people without their knowledge,” and how much they believed in 30 specific conspiracies, such as “Alien ships crashed near Roswell, New Mexico in 1947 and the U.S. government has covered it up.”

The latter category included popular but debunked conspiracy theories, conspiracies that were made-up by researchers, and conspiracies that have been verified as true.

Bensley and his colleagues found that participants who endorsed general conspiracist ideas also tended to believe the debunked and fabricated conspiracy theories.

In addition, participants who believed the debunked and fabricated conspiracy theories also tended to believe in other non-conspiratorial unsubstantiated claims, including pseudoscience, poorly-supported psychological practices, and paranormal phenomena.

“People show an individual difference in the tendency to endorse unsubstantiated beliefs. It has been known for some time that people who tend to accept one false conspiracy theory, such as the claim that the 911 attack was an inside job, are also more likely to accept others, as well,” Bensley told PsyPost.

“Our research goes beyond this to show that people who tend to accept conspiracy theories also tend to endorse psychological misconceptions, pseudoscientific claims, and paranormal and superstitious claims.”

But there is some nuance to the generality of belief in unsubstantiated claims. The conspiracy-related measures appeared to be more tightly clustered together than the other measures of unsubstantiated beliefs.

“Although all of these measures of unfounded beliefs are correlated with each other (inter-correlated), conspiracy theories of different types (false, true, and fictitious) are more strongly related to each other than are the other measures of paranormal belief, psychological misconceptions, and pseudoscience,” Bensley explained.

“These other measures cluster together better and form a different factor than the conspiracy theory measures. In other words, they are more related to each other than they are to the conspiracy theory measures.”

All research includes some limitations, and the current study is no exception.

“The correlations we obtained were often quite strong, but they were based on a sample composed of only introductory psychology students, although it was diverse in terms of ethnicity and sex. The study should be repeated with a representative sample of the U.S. population,” Bensley said.

The underlying psychological cause that results in the general endorsement of unsubstantiated claims is also unclear.

“We are presently completing another study that is testing whether people who tend to endorse more of these unfounded claims differ in their thinking style from those who endorse fewer. Specifically, we are examining whether people who endorse unfounded claims more also tend to rely more on their intuitive-experiential thinking while people who endorse them less tend to rely more on rational-analytic thinking,” Bensley said.

Despite the limitations, the results are in line with previous research on “pseudo-profound bullshit,” which has found that people who are more prone to misjudge nonsensical statement as profound are also more likely to believe in a variety of unsubstantiated claims.

“Our research and other studies also show that endorsement of conspiracy theories, paranormal and pseudoscientific claims and psychological misconceptions are each very common. Consequently, a person is likely to encounter people who endorse these,” Bensley added.

“However, our most recent research suggests that encountering individuals who endorse more of these unsubstantiated claims predicts that those same people will also more often endorse other of these unfounded claims, compared to people who endorse fewer of them.”

The study, “The generality of belief in unsubstantiated claims“, was authored by D. Alan Bensley, Scott O. Lilienfeld, Krystal A. Rowan, Christopher M. Masciocchi, and Florent Grain.