Home Mind & Brain Study Finds Conspiracy Theories Fueled by Cognitive Biases and Social Dynamics

Study Finds Conspiracy Theories Fueled by Cognitive Biases and Social Dynamics

Reading Time: 2 minutes

A study published in Topics in Cognitive Science explores the intricate psychological and social mechanisms that underpin conspiracy theories. Conducted by researchers Philip M. Fernbach and Jonathan E. Bogard, the study focuses on the behaviour observed at the Flat Earth International Conference, a gathering of individuals who believe that the Earth is flat. The researchers propose a three-tiered framework to understand how conspiracy theories develop and persist, shedding light on the interplay between individual cognition and group dynamics.

Conspiracy theories are often dismissed as the result of irrational thinking. However, Fernbach and Bogard’s study emphasises that the cognitive processes involved are more nuanced. At the individual level, people are prone to cognitive biases such as illusory pattern perception, hypersensitive agency detection, and the illusion of explanatory depth. These biases make individuals see patterns where none exist, attribute intentionality to random events, and overestimate their understanding of complex issues.

The study highlights “explanatory coherence” as a key principle in the acceptance of conspiracy theories. People tend to favour explanations that fit together well, even if they are unlikely. This coherence provides a sense of understanding and control, which is psychologically comforting. Additionally, conspiracy beliefs do not form overnight but evolve through a dynamic process of belief updating. This process is often biassed towards confirming pre-existing beliefs, leading to a self-reinforcing cycle that strengthens conspiratorial thinking over time.

Fernbach and Bogard’s research also delves into the social aspects of conspiracy theories. At the Flat Earth International Conference, the researchers observed that the sense of community plays a crucial role in maintaining and spreading these beliefs. Conspiracy communities often create an environment where members feel understood and supported, which can be particularly appealing to individuals who feel marginalised or disconnected from mainstream society.

One striking observation was how group interactions foster a false sense of understanding among members. For example, during a keynote presentation at the conference, attendees nodded along as the speaker detailed complex astronomical concepts. However, when questioned later, many realised they did not fully grasp the information. This phenomenon, described as a “contagious sense of understanding,” illustrates how social reinforcement can make individuals feel more knowledgeable than they actually are.

Moreover, the study discusses how conspiracy communities often develop their own norms regarding credible sources of information. These norms typically involve distrust of institutional sources and a preference for “evidence” produced within the community. Such norms lead to biassed assimilation of information, where members accept confirming evidence and reject disconfirming evidence, further entrenching their beliefs.

Fernbach and Bogard argue that conspiracy theories fulfil certain psychological and social needs. For individuals, they provide clear, albeit flawed, explanations for complex events, offering a sense of control and certainty. On a social level, conspiracy theories help to foster a sense of belonging and identity among group members. This dual fulfilment of individual and collective needs explains why conspiracy theories can be so compelling and resistant to change .

The researchers also note that societal crises, such as political instability or pandemics, can exacerbate the spread of conspiracy theories. During such times, people are more likely to seek out alternative explanations for their experiences, often turning to conspiracy theories that offer simple, cohesive narratives in the face of uncertainty.

The study’s findings have significant implications for addressing the rise of conspiracy theories. Interventions need to consider both the cognitive and social dimensions of these beliefs. Efforts to counteract conspiracy theories should focus on promoting critical thinking and cognitive flexibility at the individual level. Simultaneously, fostering inclusive and supportive communities can help mitigate the social appeal of conspiracy groups.

© Copyright 2014–2034 Psychreg Ltd