Understanding conspiracy theories and cognitive styles in a post-truth era

Over the past few years, I’ve read, enjoyed, and learned a great deal from the friendly banter that goes back and forth between Stephen Lewandowsky (@STWorg) and Dan Kahan (@cult_cognition) on Twitter. While Kahan often points to politics and ‘tribes’ as triggers for risk perception and behavior, Lewandowsky reframes things in a slightly different way. He suggests that perceptions may be less shaped by political ideology and more by something he calls “cognitive styles.”

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“Cognitive style” is a way of thinking that can often invoke conspiracy theories. Lewandowsky sees the tragic events such as 9-11 or the assassination of Kennedy as random events.  These random events are frightening and highly unpredictable. And humans (the ‘survivalists’ that we are) will create a story to make sense of these kinds of events that appear to defy explanation. These tragic, random events are then readily woven into the conspiracy theory narrative (A good example of this is The Beatles Never Existed; the greatest, weirdest conspiracy theory of all time” — yep, it’s a thing. I kid you not).

There are a couple of key behavioral characteristics of a conspiracy theorist:

  1. If a person believes in one conspiracy theory, he/she is likely to believe in others;
  2. He/she will often believe in conspiracy theories that contradict one another. (i.e. Princess Diana was murdered in a plot contrived by MI6 and Princess Diana’s death was a hoax and she is still alive and well).

The other common element to conspiratorial thinking is that the cognitive style frequently requires the fabrication of a malicious enemy. You probably know where I am going next here.  Big, bad Monsanto. Let’s face it, no story is complete without a “villain.” Without a villain, there can be no victim and, by default, no hero.  According to Lewandowsky, creating a villain gives the storyteller or conspiratorial thinker a “sense of control” and it “makes him/her feel better.”

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What does this mean for us as science communicators? Consumer perceptions will be influenced, to some degree, by the stories circulated by the conspiracy theorists. Conspiracy theories (and theorists) are never going to go away.  But continuing to chase fiction-filled ambulances is futile. It’s sort of like playing an ongoing game of whack-a-mole. Instead, we need to:

  1. Think proactively about how and when conspiracies may originate.
  2. Understand the triggers (events or things (i.e. new products and technologies)).
  3. Anticipate how people will potentially respond to them.
  4. Be aggressively positive about the work we do and love.
  5. Frame stories in ways that are authentic to self and, at the same time, meaningful for diverse audiences.
  6. Commit to sustained engagement. We must continue to share stories about how science improves societies and economies.

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References:

Lewandowsky, Stephan, Gilles E. Gignac, Klaus Oberauer. (2013). “The Role of Conspiracist Ideation and Worldviews in Predicting Rejection of Science.” PlosONE. Volume 8, Issue 10. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0075637

Buckley, Thea. (2015). “Why Do Some People Believe in Conspiracy Theories?” Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-do-some-people-believe-in-conspiracy-theories/. July 27th.

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2 thoughts on “Understanding conspiracy theories and cognitive styles in a post-truth era

  1. A lot of truth here, and some conspiracy theories are absolutely ridiculous and show lack of critical thinking skills among their promoters. Flat Earthers come to mind. Lizard king illuminati come to mind.

    But some conspiracies are real and some have been well-documented and exposed. It is true that the profit motive can cause people to engage in dishonest discourse, and to hide critical knowledge or to distort knowledge with a strategic bias.

    One example is Monsanto’s era of selling PCBs while consciously and intentionally hiding the risks about which they knew, in order to not lose one single dollar of profit.

    Another would be the bad science around sugar that benefited the sugar industry.

    Another would be the hiding of PFOA by DuPont as they dumped it in rivers and landfill to the harm of many people and animals.

    So, Occam’s razor becomes the tool of choice to discern what is real and what’s outlandish tin-foil-hat stuff.

    • Life is beautifully complex so the utility of Occam’s razor has its limitations. A more well-rounded approach to critical thinking is needed; taking into consideration the indirect, secondary impacts of decisions / choices. Such impacts are not necessarily visible. And our biases can make them even less visible.

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