A recent study explores the psychology behind labeling ideas as conspiracy theories. The findings, published in the British Journal of Psychology, suggest that labeling a statement as a conspiracy theory does not make it less believable. Instead, less believable claims are more likely to get called conspiracy theories.
Sociologists and political scientists have discussed how the term “conspiracy theory” carries negative meaning, even suggesting that people may use the term to discredit opinions they believe to be unacceptable. Moreover, psychology studies suggest that people perceive the term to be stigmatizing.
However, if the term conspiracy theory bears a negative stigma, people would be expected to rate statements as less believable when they are labeled as conspiracy theories. And yet psychology studies have failed to find this effect.
Study author Karen M. Douglas and her team conducted four studies to explore a different hypothesis. The researchers proposed that the label “conspiracy theory” does not cause an idea to be perceived as less credible, but rather that an idea’s lack of credibility causes people to label it as a conspiracy theory.
“People use the term ‘conspiracy theory’ a lot, but we don’t know very much about what people think of the term and why and when they use it,” said Douglas, a professor of social psychology at the University of Kent. “Researchers have argued that the term is used when people want to discredit others’ ideas, but research suggests that labelling statements as conspiracy theories doesn’t actually reduce people’s belief in them. We wanted to delve deeper into this issue to understand when and why people use the term conspiracy theory.”
In a first study, the researchers had 170 U.S. adults read a series of claims that were either referred to as “conspiracy theories” or “ideas.” After reading each one, the participants answered seven different questions about the statement. They rated the extent they believed that people would take the statement seriously, dismiss it, be ridiculed for believing it, find it controversial, and find it likely. They also rated the extent they themselves found the statement likely and the extent they agreed with it.
For all but one of the seven questions, the ratings did not differ when a claim was labeled as an idea or a conspiracy theory — suggesting that calling a statement a conspiracy theory does not affect its credibility.
A second study again had participants read a series of different claims. This time, they rated the extent that they agreed with the statement and the extent that they would label the statement as a conspiracy theory. It was found that the less a person agreed with a statement, the more likely they were to label it as a conspiracy theory. This finding is in line with the study authors’ hypothesis that the label “conspiracy theory” is a consequence of a statement’s lack of credibility.
The final two studies found additional support for this hypothesis using experimental evidence — first with a between-subjects design and then a within-subjects design. Participants read statements that were selected to be either plausible or implausible. It was found that people were more likely to label the implausible statements as conspiracy theories, and more likely to label the people who believed the implausible statements as conspiracy theorists.
“We found that rather than being a cause of disbelief in statements, the term ‘conspiracy theory’ seems to be a consequence. That is, people choose to use the term when they don’t believe a statement to be true,” Douglas told PsyPost.
As far as future studies, the researchers suggest exploring why people tend to reject the term “conspiracy theory” and whether there are times when the label does evoke negative stigmatization and skepticism.
“Although the findings show that people favor terms like ‘conspiracy theory’ when they don’t believe something, we still don’t know much about what motivates people to use the terms,” Douglas said. “People might actively use these terms when they want to make someone feel more skeptical. We also know little about why people sometimes so actively reject the term ‘conspiracy theory’ when it comes to their own beliefs. More research with broader and more representative samples (including strong believers in conspiracy theories) is also needed.”
The study, “Is the label ‘conspiracy theory’ a cause or a consequence of disbelief in alternative narratives?”, was authored by Karen M. Douglas, Jan-Willem van Prooijen, and Robbie M. Sutton.