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THE INC. LIFE

A New Study Has Found a Way to Stop People From Believing in Conspiracy Theories

Mockery feels good but it just makes conspiracy theorists dig in their heels. Try this research-backed idea instead.

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BY Jessica Stillman - 09 Aug 2018

A New Study Has Found a Way to Stop People From Believing in Conspiracy Theories

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Apple, YouTube and Facebook have pulled the plug on Infowars' Alex Jones for peddling loathsome lies such as the idea that the Sandy Hook massacre was an elaborate hoax. Twitter has failed to follow suit, stirring up heated debate about the proper role of media and tech platforms to rein in hateful speech and disinformation.

But while that's certainly a debate worth having, it's also worth asking: Does banning those who peddle lies actually reduce the number of people who believe them? Are there other ways to fight back against conspiracy theories and baseless rumors?

Who believes in Pizzagate anyway?

To start answering that question it's important to understand exactly what sort of person believes the moon landing was faked.

Belief in conspiracy theories is more common than you might think. One study found roughly half of Americans believe at least one (and hey, a few past "conspiracy theories" actually proved true). This popularity is supported by biases hard-wired into us all, psychologists say, such as our tendency to look for information that confirms our beliefs and disregard information that challenges them, or the desire to find big causes for big events.

That means conspiracy theories will probably always be this us to some extent, but there are also demographic and psychological factors that make it more likely people will believe in them, including:

  • Being less educated. This one hardly needs much explaining.

  • A desire to feel special. Those who want to stand out from the crowd (aka those with narcissistic tendencies) can adopt extreme beliefs in order to do so.

  • Feelings of powerlessness. An explanation for events beyond a person's control -- no matter how ludicrous those explanations sound to others -- can still be psychologically preferable to being the victim of blind chance or happenstance.

  • A need for certainty. "Seeking explanations for events is a natural human desire,""explains psychology professor David Ludden. "And we don't just ask questions. We also quickly find answers to those questions--not necessarily the true answers, but rather answers that comfort us or that fit into our worldview."

Management professors vs. tinfoil hat peddlers

Knowing this, what sort of interventions actually seems to persuade people to see the light and give up on conspiracy theories? As tempting as it can feel to non-believers, mocking conspiracy theorists usually just makes them dig in their heels. And it's an open question whether taking away the microphones of their leaders will make any real dent.

But when Kellogg School management professor Cynthia Wong and colleagues recently went searching for a way to reduce belief in conspiracy theories they found one promising technique. You can't quickly make someone more educated or less narcissistic to inoculate them against lies, but you can encourage them to take concrete action in pursuit of their goals. That simple step, which reduces feelings of powerlessness and reinforces the link between cause and effect, seems to move the needle.

Simply by prompting study participants to write about their aspirations the researchers were able to nudge people away from coming to wild-eyed conclusions when asked to evaluate fictional scenarios that might be viewed as conspiracies (for instance, a bank filing for bankruptcy). Subjects were also less likely to endorse existing conspiracy theories after focusing on how to improve their futures.

"You can actually shift someone's mindset so they see fewer conspiracies," Wang concluded from the findings.

More control equals fewer conspiracy theories (at work too)

The key to doing that is giving people a sense of control over their lives, even in small ways. "Wang and her co-authors suggest that government organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control can increase public trust by promoting messages that emphasize the ways individuals have control over their health outcomes," notes the Kellogg Insight write-up of the research.

Whether any intervention along these lines is enough to stop a truly malignant character like Alex Jones is doubtful, though it is handy to know that in order to stop lies like his from spreading you need to build people up rather than tear them down. Broad public applications of this truth remain an open (but interesting) question. Managers can put them to use today, however.

Want less speculating around the office about backroom deals or arbitrary promotions? Science suggests that your best bet is to talk to your people often about their goals and help them understand the steps to take to get there. If people see real, controllable paths to power and self-betterment, they're far less likely to think a tinfoil hat or a snake oil merchant is the answer.

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