What if they’re not crazy? Belief in conspiracy theories may be normal

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At least since the publication of Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” belief in conspiracy theories has been seen as an aberrational, fringe phenomenon. But what if is isn’t? A 2014 study by Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood of the University of Chicago found that “half of the American public consistently endorses at least one conspiracy theory.” So such belief isn’t just found on the fringe. Now a new paper by a team at the University of Antwerp, led by Sander Van de Cruys, argues that it’s not so aberrational either. “The motto of the conspiracist, ‘Do your own research,’ may seem ludicrous to scientists,” they write. But a close look at the information-seeking process itself finds that it’s not fundamentally different from what scientists themselves do in making discoveries — especially when it comes to the importance of “aha moments.”

This isn’t to say there’s no flawed thinking involved in embracing conspiracy theory — but flawed thinking is itself normal among human beings, including scientists. So the question isn’t whether conspiracy theorists’ thinking is sound, but rather to what extent it isn’t, and how it differ from the thinking of people who don’t embrace conspiracy theories. This entire approach offers some good news by opening the door to better and more open-minded ways of engaging with conspiracy theories and their followers. To learn more about this paper — which is titled “Insight in the conspiracist’s mind” — I interviewed Van de Cruys, a postdoctoral researcher at the Antwerp Social Lab. Our email exchange has been edited for clarity and length.

The conventional view is that conspiracy theories and those who embrace them are aberrational. Your paper argues that they’re not, and offers a specific model for why. But first you go into some of the problems with that conventional view that recent research has brought to light. What are those problems?

The key problem is both moral and scientific. These “aberrational accounts” paint a picture of some humans (those with conspiracy theories) that is not supported by psychological science, namely that they are mere passive recipients of whatever (mis)information they are bombarded with. The metaphor of (mis)information as viruses in an infodemic reinforces this view of passive, gullible people who are powerless against “infection” by “contagious” misinformation.

Content retrieved from: https://www.salon.com/2023/10/21/what-if-theyre-not-crazy-belief-in-conspiracy-theories-may-be-normal/.

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