Halting Misinformation is Crucial in Battling Conspiracies

At a QAnon rally in Los Angeles (2020). Photo by Joel Muniz.

Was the moon landing faked? Is the Earth flat? Does Bill Gates inject microchips in Americans? (The answer to all of these is no.) There are many popular conspiracy theories held amongst the American population. With very little to no evidence backing up conspiracies, why do so many people believe in them? A recent study from the Philipps-University emphasizes the importance of limiting the spread of misinformation.

A conspiracy theory is a belief that some covert but influential organization is responsible for a circumstance or event. Conspiracy theories and the spread of misinformation are increasingly prevalent problems in American society. According to a 2014 study conducted by the University of Chicago, 50% of Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory. They have corrupted many facets of life, from political integrity to the validity of hard science. With the ease of accessing information, the threat of conspiracy theories is becoming an ever-pressing issue. 

Stephanie Mehl, a professor at Philipps-University, in Marburg, Germany, published her findings last year in Psychology. She aimed to understand the cognitive functions behind belief in conspiracy theories by measuring jumping to conclusion bias within participants. As the name suggests, jumping to conclusion (JTC) bias describes the psychological phenomenon by which individuals draw conclusions from limited information. Mehl hypothesised that participants who showed high levels of JTC bias differ from participants who didn’t with respect to the quantity of conspiracy theories they believed.

Participants were subject to two psychological tests that assessed their belief in conspiracy theories and their level of JTC bias. The first was a questionnaire listing 20 of the most popular conspiracy theories (for example, Was John F. Kennedy not shot by Lee Harvey Oswald alone?). Participants ranked their agreement with the conspiracy theory on a five-point scale, with 5 being “I fully agree.” The mean approval rate of the total sample was 2.63/5 across all theories.

In the second test, Mehl tested for JTC bias by asking participants to make a judgement about a constructed scenario with limited information. Participants were shown photos of two ponds with different ratios of blue and orange fish—40 to 60 for condition A, and 60 to 40 for condition B. Participants were presented with a fisherman’s “catch” and were asked to classify which condition, A or B, the fish came from.

Mehl found that participants who made quicker judgements believed in more conspiracy theories than those who asked to see the catch again or to see another catch before making their judgment. Mehl extrapolated that individuals are less likely to want more information about the “catches,” and are therefore more likely to believe in conspiracies, because of a higher level of JTC bias. 

Conspiracy theories are so dangerous because of their effect on an individual’s trust in the framework of society. This mistrust often leads to acts of violence or the rejection of authority. For example, there is no empirical evidence to support that the 2020 election was rigged, yet many still believe it. Believers of conspiracy theories are internally compelled to fight the system and spread the misinformation. Although fish categorization does not reproduce this internal drive, Mehl’s research points to crucial information about belief in conspiracies.

6-20% of Americans believe that the U.S. government faked the moon landing, no doubt because there is an abundance of misinformation about it. If individuals do not require adequate empirical evidence to make a judgment on a topic, then at what point should we limit the access to misleading information? In an interview this January, Dr. Karen Douglas, professor of social psychology at the University of Kent, said, “It’s much easier for people to find this sort of information now than it ever has been before.”

The plethora of misinformation is widespread, and the real science is buried underneath a mountain of conspiracy theories. As a result, the beliefs are validated and the lies are perpetuated. The only clear solution to this seemingly endless cycle is a restriction on the spread of false information.

This article was edited by Rebecca Stevens and Emi Krishnamurthy.