It’s not just sheep — even go-getters can be susceptible when they feel less in control
Conspiracy theories are not a 21st-century-only phenomenon, but Twitter, Facebook and YouTube (and the bots that exploit them) are proving to be powerful accelerants.
As tracked by Google Trends, search terms deep state and flat earth are just two examples of recent conspiracy theories attracting growing interest, though they trail behind Pizzagate, the 9/11 attacks as an “inside job” and the enduring belief that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone to assassinate JFK.
In a world where conspiracy beliefs increasingly find voice, understanding the root of who is or isn’t susceptible becomes a potential means to curb the fantasies, which can have profound public policy impact.
Efforts to contain a 2014 Ebola outbreak in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone were complicated by conspiracy theories that pharmaceutical companies had created the disease to profit from providing a cure, and by the meme alleging that frontline aid workers were planted to spread the disease.
Prior research has explored factors such as age, education level and personality traits (narcissism, self-esteem) that may induce conspiracy belief.
In an article published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, UCLA Anderson’s Jennifer Whitson, Penn State’s Joongseo Kim, Northwestern’s Cynthia S. Wang, Ohio State University’s Tanya Menon and Ball State University’s Brian D. Webster examine how a sense of control over one’s environment impacts conspiracy belief.
The researchers used an established rubric that sorts people into two basic camps: “promotion” focused people are go-getters driven by goals and aspirations that they believe can be achieved with personal effort. The “prevention” focused crowd is more head-down, concerned about not screwing up and inclined to go with the flow.
In two experiments, participants were primed to fall into a prevention or promotion mindset (or left unmanipulated to serve as a baseline or control group). One field study explored the conspiratorial leanings of more than 200 members of the U.S. military who were put through tests to determine whether they tended to be promotion or prevention focused.
The researchers found that people with a dominant promotion focus are less likely to glom on to a conspiracy theory than a baseline group. But the researchers also found that their hypothesis going into the study — which had posited that “prevention” types would be more hospitable to conspiracy theories — did not play out.
They teased out that a heightened sense of personal control among people with a promotion focus serves to tamp down conspiratorial belief.
“Prevention focus does not elevate conspiratorial beliefs; rather it is promotion focus, and its concomitant sense of personal control, that acts to dampen these patterns of cognition.”
Of interest to anyone with an eye on shifting public discourse, messing with an individual’s sense of personal control, the researchers established, is a lever that shifts susceptibility to conspiratorial inklings. While “promotion-focused individuals’ inflated sense of personal control reduces the drive to see structure that can cause increases in conspiratorial beliefs,” the researchers found that lever can be pushed and pulled. When researchers manipulated the go-getters to lose their sense of control, the subjects’ belief in conspiracies rose.
That suggests that one way, potentially, to decrease belief in a conspiracy is to focus on how to increase an individual’s personal agency. For instance, the researchers posit that if an organization such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds itself in the middle of a scare that might incite conspiracy (see: Ebola in Africa, 2014), it might appeal to an individual’s ability to take steps to stay healthy. That play to personal control could reduce the leverage of a conspiracy.