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Why Do People Believe In Misinformation And Conspiracy Theories? An Applied Psychology Podcast Episode.

Why Do People Believe In Misinformation And Conspiracy Theories? An Applied Psychology and Social Psychology Podcast Episode.

Psychological theory can be applied to real-world problems using Applied Psychology and this is the focus of today’s episode. Today we’re going to be looking at misinformation and conspiracy theories by looking at the social psychology theories helping to explain why people believe in this stuff. If you enjoy learning about social psychology, applied psychology and conspiracy theories then you’re going to be in for a treat.

This social psychology podcast episode has been sponsored by Applied Psychology: Applying Social Psychology, Cognitive Psychology and More To The Real World. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it. Also available as an AI-narrated audiobook from selected audiobook platforms and library systems. For example, Kobo, Spotify, Barnes and Noble, Google Play, Overdrive, Baker and Taylor and Bibliotheca.

Why Do People Believe In Misinformation And Conspiracy Theories? Extract From Applied Psychology COPYRIGHT 2024 Connor Whiteley

Now for the rest of the chapter, we’re going to move onto the truly fascinating stuff that I just find so interesting, because we’re going to be looking at the psychological and social factors between these beliefs and the models designed to explain misinformation and conspiracy theories.

This is going to be great.

Psychological and Emotional Factors

The first main factor behind belief in conspiracy theories and misinformation is the Illusory truth effect, and this is a very interesting effect that occurs because when information is familiar, repeated and consistent with a person’s previous cognitions then they often give it the value of true, even when this information is false (Pantazi et al. 2018; De keersmaecker et al., 2020).

In other words, if the false information is familiar, repeated and consistent with their beliefs then they believe it.

Secondly, the confirmation bias, selective exposure and motivated reasoning all play a role in a person believing in false information. Since people are motivated to get exposed to as well as accept information that aligns with their prior beliefs. Then people develop arguments and justifications to support this information and guarantee cognitive consistency as well (Lazer et al., 2018).

This does make sense because no one likes to be proved wrong or being exposed to information they flat out disagree with because this can be uncomfortable and cause some distress. Hence, the easiest way to avoid these uncomfortable feelings is to seek out only information that confirms your beliefs. Regardless of whether the information is true or not. Also, this is where echo chambers come into play. Something we look at later on in the chapter.

Thirdly, intuitive vs. deliberative thinking plays a strong role in conspiracy theories and misinformation. Since when a person uses intuition this makes them vulnerable to accepting misinformation and conspiracy theories, while deliberation protects them from accepting it (Bago et al., 2020; Swami et al., 2014; van Prooijen et al., 2020).

For example, if I told you the sky was actually white or if I told you drinking cow's milk makes you sick and you just listened to your gut or intuition. There’s a chance that you would believe me. But if you stepped back and thought through it properly then you realise that I was wrong on both accounts (unless you’re lactose-intolerant of course).

Although, the fascinating thing is that deliberate thinking isn’t only a protective factor, it too can make a person vulnerable to misinformation. Due to if a piece of misinformation matches your beliefs then deliberative thinking might contribute to the justification of false beliefs.

It's a fine balancing act for sure.

Finally for the psychological and emotional factors, emotional versus rational processing impacts whether or not someone believes in conspiracy theories and misinformation. Due to fake news and conspiracy theories are always designed to trigger negative emotions, like fear, anxiety and moral outrage. Then these negative emotions attract people’s attention making them vulnerable to being persuaded by this fake information (Vosoughi et al., 2018; Crockett, 2017; Liekefett et al., 2022).

A classic example of this in the real-world, at least in the UK, is all the fake news pumped out about migrants and how the media is making people believe that migrants are only here illegally to steal English jobs, commit crimes, rape women and live off our benefit system. That’s all fake news.

Since if you look into the numbers, attitudes and more of refugees and migrants then according to the UK Government in 2022 between 75% to 84% of them have a legal right to be here, they want to work and they want to contribute to the UK economy.

But I know the power of misinformation is strong so I’ll stop there.

Sociopsychological Factors

Moreover, there are sociopsychological factors at play here too. For instance, misperception of the source of information can lead to a person becoming influenced and believing in misinformation and conspiracy theories. Since similar to the Sleeper Effect in persuasion psychology, a person could misperceive the source of the misinformation as coming from a respected source so they listen to it when it actually came from a bad source.

Another sociopsychological factor is people are more likely to believe in misinformation and the misinformation is more likely to be persuasive when the source is attractive, powerful and similar to the listener. (Briñol & Petty, 2009). As well as people have a tendency to disregard quality cues of the source of the information. (Dias et al., 2020).

In other words, if the misinformation sounds good, matches their beliefs or plays into one of the other factors discussed in the chapter then people aren’t too bothered if the source is known for its quality or not.

Moreover, as social identity is a major factor in social psychology, research has also shown that social identity plays a role in conspiracy theories and misinformation. Especially because people are more willing to accept information from in-group members than from out-group members (Mackie et al., 1990).

Another way of putting it is that if your in-group starts spreading and saying misinformation and your outgroup shares truthful information then you’re more likely to believe your in-group.

Finally for this section, false consensus is important to take note of because this is the perception of consensus (regardless of this being true or false) is a cue of a claim’s trustworthiness. Therefore, people might trust widespread misinformation and they also overestimate how much their beliefs overlap with other people’s beliefs (Yousif et al., 2019).

I know that last one was a bit confusing so let me explain it another way. Let’s use a real example, if someone spreads misinformation about humanity never visiting the moon (which we have) and 3% of a country believed in the theory. Then that isn’t a very strong consensus so there isn’t much point believing in it, because surely if the misinformation was correct then more people would believe in it.

Yet if 60% of a population believed we never went to the moon. Then there is a strong consensus and it would get a person thinking, because surely if that many people believe it then it has to be true, doesn’t it?

And maybe as an outsider or someone who doesn’t believe in it, I should change and modify my beliefs so my beliefs align with this piece of misinformation more.

That’s a better way to explain false consensus.

Motivational Needs-based Model of Conspiracy Beliefs

The main model that looks to accurately explain believe in conspiracy theories was proposed by Douglas and Sutton (2023) and Douglas et al. (2017) and it investigates how people are motivated to believe in this false information and theories in three domains.

Firstly, the model proposes that people have epistemic motives and this relates to how people need to achieve knowledge and reduce uncertainty in their lives. As a result, they give higher agency to certain stories, use pattern perception, search for meaning and engage in conjunction fallacy and illusory correlations in an effort to reduce their uncertainty about the world, even if it means believing in conspiracy theories.

To use an example, everyone wants to believe they have unique knowledge and they’re certain they know how the world works and everyone wants to believe the world is stable and predictable. So when terrorists smash two planes into the twin towers that destroys the lie that the world is a predictable place creating uncertainty and certain groups of people would feel more uncertain than others, and some people would want to find out the “truth” about what happened.

Then they stumble across conspiracy theories that help to give them the knowledge and certainty about themselves, others and the world that they so desperately crave. That’s an example of how a person could fall into believing a conspiracy theory.

Secondly, the model proposes people have existential motives related to their need to feel safe and in control. As well as if these needs aren’t met them the consequence is people develop an anxious attachment style and they feel anxious, powerlessness, and lack of control.

Therefore, like the example two paragraphs above, conspiracy theories can help people to feel safe and in control.

Finally, the model proposes people have social motives that are fulfilled by conspiracy theories, and these motives are all about a person’s need to maintain their own positive self-image and their group image. As well as this connects to other Social Psychology topics like low self-esteem, collective and individual narcissism, a person’s need for uniqueness and intergroup threat.

The Caveat:

Nonetheless, I have to admit that the problem with this model is that it is very theoretical and I, personally, can see how conspiracy theories fulfil each of these needs. Yet we still don’t know if conspiracy theories actually satisfy these needs.

According to the research, there is evidence that existential motives leads to conspiracy theories but they lead to increased aggression, anxiety and more. This is really evidence that conspiracy theories fulfil these needs.

More research has to be done on this topic.

The Context

Earlier in the chapter I mentioned things like echo chambers and more, and these are critical to the spreading of misinformation and conspiracy theories, so that’s why we’re going to look at them now.

One way to think about this last section is that we’ve looked at why misinformation and conspiracy theories are believed in and spread, but now we’ll look at the how?

Consequently, as we know, unless we’ve been living under a rock, online media is a massive player in spreading misinformation since online media propagates misinformation and this is why it’s important to look at.

Due to when it comes to the propagation of misinformation, it’s a very sad finding that misinformation spreads faster than true, valid information, at least on Twitter according to Vosoughi et al. (2018).

Also, on social media, it’s basically impossible to track information back to its original source so a person cannot assess the author’s credibility or trustworthiness very easily.

This only makes it easier to believe in misinformation.

Furthermore, online media does increase the likelihood of people engaging in confirmation bias, selective exposure, motivated reasoning and illusory truth bias. As well as online media creates an environment for people focused on social validation. This potentially stirs up misperceptions, misbeliefs and false consensus within groups of like-minded individuals. Also if you want something very interesting to think about definitely read Into the Rabbit Hole by Sutton and Douglas (2022) and Lewandowsky & van der Linden (2021).

In addition, echo chambers play an interesting role in conspiracy theories because everyone self-selects themselves into homogenous groups with like-minded people who share similar news, attitudes and beliefs.

And I think if we take a step back then this is true for the vast, vast majority of us. Since my social groups are basically exclusively made up of psychology people (mostly students), professional fiction writers and people who have the same political beliefs as me.

This is great for us most of the time because it prevents arguments, makes us feel part of a group and more, but if that group believes in conspiracy theories and only talks about them positively then this is a problem. Since the group would refuse to seek out disconfirming evidence and any sort of proof against their theory.

Making this an echo chamber.

Moreover, if we focus on social media for a moment then from the 1st August to 31st December 2016, there were over 2.4 million French users on Twitter according to Gaumont et al. (2018) and that’s just French users and there were 1.4 million users on Facebook at the same time.

That’s a lot of people in one potential space to be exposed to misinformation and conspiracy theories, so someone tested this idea.

Here comes Brugnoli et al. (2019) who investigated people’s preference on social media between science content versus conspiracy content, and the results are hardly surprising. The conspiracy content was more popular, and this was made even worse by filter bubbles. Since the social media algorithms themselves filter information people see based on individual preferences and past behaviour.

In other words, if people like conspiracy content then they will see more conspiracy content and they won’t be shown true, validated content.

Which is a massive danger and shame.


I really hope you enjoyed today’s social psychology podcast episode.

If you want to learn more, please check out:

Applied Psychology: Applying Social Psychology, Cognitive Psychology and More To The Real World. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it. Also available as an AI-narrated audiobook from selected audiobook platforms and library systems. For example, Kobo, Spotify, Barnes and Noble, Google Play, Overdrive, Baker and Taylor and Bibliotheca.

Have a great day.

Applied Psychology Reference

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