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Penn researchers study why conspiracy theories are so believable | 5 Questions

The pandemic has fueled and multiplied any number of baseless beliefs. That's no surprise to researchers who study what makes so many of us believe the things we do despite the evidence.

Dolores Albarracín is a Penn Integrates Knowledge professor who directs the science of science communication division of the Annenberg Public Policy Center.
Dolores Albarracín is a Penn Integrates Knowledge professor who directs the science of science communication division of the Annenberg Public Policy Center.Read moreCourtesy of University of Pennsylvania

Remember the one about how Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. and faked his birth certificate?

Or how about lizard aliens hybridizing with humans and now holding positions of power in our government?

Those are some of the conspiracy theories that professors at the University of Pennsylvania and Western Illinois University examined in their new book, Creating Conspiracy Beliefs: How Our Thoughts are Shaped.

As part of their research, they investigated 400,000 relevant tweets from November 2019 to February 2020. They analyzed surveys. They conducted panels.

They found that fear and anxiety play a role. Social interactions influence. And then there’s the media.

We recently spoke with two of the authors at the University of Pennsylvania — Dolores Albarracín, a Penn Integrates Knowledge professor who directs the science of science communication division of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who directs the policy center and is a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication.

Co-authors are Julia Albarracín, a political science professor at Western Illinois University, and Man-pui Sally Chan, a research associate at the Annenberg School for Communication.

What prompted your interest in this?

ALBARRACÍN: I grew up in Argentina in the 1970s with a state conspiracy. The military dictatorship covered up its crimes. Decades later, to be seeing these ideas playing out in the public theater, with very little evidence to support them, and within a democratic system, is very intriguing.

JAMIESON: I was working on the book Cyberwar and realized that in the final days of the 2016 election, you had online activity that was reading into emails from John Podesta an elaborate set of confessions that he was involved in a pedophile ring. I could not believe anybody could believe this.

Then I saw a poll that suggested, no, there was actually sizeable belief among the public. Beyond that, a person actually acted on this belief, showing up at the D.C. pizza parlor with a rifle so he could free the children. So this seemingly nonsensical, highly implausible construction of an alternative reality had not only elicited belief, but also highly problematic, endangering action.

Tell us more about conspiracy theories and beliefs.

JAMIESON: There is some confusion about this. People assume that when you mention conspiracy theories, they are necessarily false. But there are some that prove to be true. Iran Contra was real. The Watergate cover-up was real. The theories we are studying are highly implausible, unwarranted by existing evidence. They often involve malign individuals engaged in activities that, if disclosed, would be problematic for them.

ALBARRACÍN: An example is the belief that vaccines cause autism and other health problems, and that Big Pharma is orchestrating an elaborate cover-up because they want to sell more vaccines. There is no factual evidence. But people who believe it also believe that the lack of evidence is in itself evidence that the conspiracy is taking place. It is evidence of the power of the deceivers to manipulate.

Who promotes conspiracy theories and why?

JAMIESON: When it comes to politically based conspiracy theories, those who promote them are usually doing it for ideological ends. It advantages them ideologically to suggest that the opposing candidate or the opposing political party is engaged in malign activities and successfully covering them up. The media outlets that advance an ideology are more likely to then spread and legitimize the conspiracy theory because it is consistent with the views of their audience.

Also, when a party is in power, the deep-state theory is convenient. If your president is not able to succeed at something, you now have an explanation. The deep state is conspiring to ensure that he can’t.

» READ MORE: Penn’s Kathleen Hall Jamieson wins National Academy of Sciences’ biggest award

Why would anyone believe in things that seem so implausible?

ALBARRACÍN: For the book, we looked at three factors: people’s interest in knowing about their world, their interest in defending beliefs, and their interest in being accepted by others. We found that the first is negatively correlated with conspiracy theories. The more interested you are in facts, the less likely you are to believe a conspiracy theory. Your investment in defending your existing beliefs or ideology is also not very consequential. Wanting to be socially accepted, wanting to belong to a group, is associated. But even those two cannot fully explain why people believe in these theories.

What ultimately needs to happen, an absolutely necessary factor, is a source of social influence — the media, other people within your community. Our studies showed that use of conservative media — Fox News or other outlets — is the primary predictor of belief, along with discussions with other people in your community.

Anxiety also plays a role. Anxiety could, on the one hand, lead you to find comfort in, say, religion or something else. But there is another psychological process, which is that we tend to look for explanations for why we feel anxious. To some, a conspiracy theory can be a really good explanation.

JAMIESON: The notion that anxiety might direct your attention in a really interesting one because it would explain why we had this quick uptake of conspiracy theories during COVID. We were detecting belief in COVID-specific conspiracy theories as early as March of 2020. Why? There was a lot of attention to this as a topic, and there was a lot of anxiety.

In our study of media, we have rarely been able to find as much total messaging devoted to a topic as we have seen with some of the conspiracy theories. When you’re searching online, wondering why people would believe this, you find a lot of circulation of that content. So people are more likely to be exposed to it. They have initial exposure, then additional exposure. The proportion of the messaging that you’re getting that is consistent with the conspiracy theory is unusually high. Those kinds of things amalgamate.

ALBARRACÍN: It actually doesn’t take a lot of effort to believe these conspiracy theories. Our brain forms beliefs without much effort, and conspiracy theories have mechanisms in them that make them plausible, that make them very easy, actually, to process. One is that if others believe it, it must be true. The other factor, to a lesser extent, is historic plausibility. The belief that the HIV virus was created to eradicate gay men or African Americans is made more plausible by Tuskegee. There have been cases in which the health system has been unfair and has done things that resulted in harm.

As for the belief that the lack of evidence is somehow evidence — proof — of the cover-up, that’s pretty indestructible. How do you then disconfirm it? If there is evidence, OK, it is believable. But if there isn’t evidence, it is also believable.

Why is it important to understand all this?

JAMIESON: Conspiracy beliefs can be consequential. So if you believe there’s sex trafficking behind equipment left on Mars by NASA, it has virtually no consequence. If you believe that the coronavirus is a hoax, that vaccines will kill you, that masking causes the disease and that all those things are being put in place by forces that are trying to create harm, and to teach you to be obedient so they can create a totalitarian state, that’s a problem. If you put all those things together, you are less likely to wear a mask or get vaccinated, so you are more likely to get COVID and to infect others.

The next logical step is to determine how to decrease the likelihood that people will fall into conspiracy beliefs that are consequential. One way is to make sure that in all media channels we have the best available science. So the idea that health experts won’t go on Fox News because they won’t treat you well should be a nonstarter. Let’s make sure that the voice of science is heard in all those channels that are trafficking in conspiracy theories.