Study Finds Those Who Are Overconfident About Political Knowledge More Likely To Subscribe To Conspiracy Theories

According to a new study published in the European Journal for Social Psychology, those who overestimate their level of knowledge regarding political issues are more likely to subscribe to various conspiracy theories.

Conspiracy Theories and Overconfidence

The study investigated 394 people across the United States, monitoring these people before and after the 2016 presidential election. The study’s participants had been instructed to rate their understanding of six different political policies. Afterwards, the researchers asked the participants in the study to give them as in-depth, detailed explanations of the topics as they could. The subjects were asked to explain, to the best of their ability, how the policies worked. According to the researchers “inflated confidence in one’s understanding of politics and public policy is associated with the tendency to believe in political conspiracies.”

An analysis of the data revealed that those who had self-reported a high level of knowledge regarding political issues were more likely to ascribe to certain conspiracy theories, such as the idea that AIDS was an intentional creation of the US government or that Princess Diana had been assassinated not killed in an accident.

According to the researchers, those who find themselves on the losing end of political contests, such as those who supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, are more likely to subscribe to conspiracy theories than those who aren’t. These results are consistent with other research that finds losses in the political realm promote conspiratorial thinking. However, the phenomena is by no means exclusive to those who supported a losing candidate. Conspiratorial thinking can be found throughout the entire political spectrum.

Joseph Vitriol, a postdoctoral research associate from Lehigh University explains the motivation for studying how conspiracy theories impact people and which people are the most susceptible to them. Vitriol says that existence of conspiracy theories hampers the possibility of honest, open discourse about important issues within society.

Vitriol says while conspiracy theories regarding government institutions and personnel are widespread across the entire political spectrum, they often manifest most prominently in those who overestimate their understanding of various political issues. According to Vitriol, the primary forms of political conspiracy theory are those that attribute undue or inflated influence to clandestine actors and hidden groups of people, who are usually regarded as the primary cause of important events, outcomes, and actions.

How Conspiracy Theories Harm Legitimate Discourse

Other research into conspiracy theories and conspiratorial thinking suggests that feelings of disempowerment and political disenfranchisement are likely to increase both conspiracy beliefs and thinking. If people feel threatened, Vitriol argues, or like they lack agency over the world around them, they find conspiratorial theories more compelling. The new research suggests this effect is amplified amongst those who are overconfident of their understanding of politics.

Vitriol says conspiracy theories often enable people to dismiss “information that challenges one’s worldview”. Photo: sasint via Pixabay, CC0

Vitriol says that conspiracy theories often serve to preserve and perpetuate assumptions discredited by available evidence and that they frequently serve as the basis for “dismissing information that challenges one’s worldview”. In other words, the nature of a conspiracy theory enables people to ignore information that contradicts a favored worldview or the theory itself. Conspiracy theories, Vitriol explains, are extremely difficult to correct and frequently undermine the ability of citizens to participate effectively and ethically with the political process.

Vitriol says that conspiracy theories aren’t limited to the uninformed or the politically disengaged, rather conspiracy theories are frequently (genuinely) propagated and perpetuated by those in positions of power and are therefore quite important in shaping the direction of public policy.

For these reasons, conspiracy theories are important influences on the political process which impact people’s judgements and behaviors. They make the exchange of ideas across partisan/political boundaries more difficult, which can lead to more polarization and the creation of extremists. They can end up undermining the ability for elected officials to address genuine problems within society using evidence-based policies. The researchers hope their work will shed light on how conspiracy theories form and spread. This could, in turn, lead to the creation of better strategies to combat misinformation and educate the populace in critical thinking strategies that can inoculate them against conspiracy theories designed to exploit their political psychology and behavior.

Promoting Awareness and Education

To the extent that an individual’s overconfidence regarding their understanding of political systems are associated with greater belief in conspiracy theories, it’s possible that shedding light on this lack of understanding could be an effective method of combating misinformation and conspiracy theories. Previous research suggests that better education, more accurate knowledge of political systems and policies, may effectively reduce unwarranted belief in conspiracies and the proliferation of misinformation.

It’s good to expose yourself to arguments that challenge your ideas, even if it’s hard sometimes. Photo: JESHOOTScom via Pixabay, CC0

Vitriol explains that the new study provides some hints at how to effectively combat the proliferation of misinformation and conspiratorial thinking. Vitriol explains:

These previous studies together suggest that a well-calibrated understanding of one’s own knowledge in the political domain might buffer against acceptance of conspiracy beliefs. Conspiracy beliefs often involve extreme, rigid, and even bizarre accounts of political events. Our findings might suggest that showing people the limitations of their understanding can lead to more informed, evidence-based opinions and beliefs.

The good thing, Vitriol says, is that cultivating a better understanding of political events and systems is something that people can do on their own. Individuals can proactively search out information and perspectives that challenge their own belief systems and ideas, and by doing so a person may gain a more “objective and credible understanding of the world.”

The new study describes a phenomena similar to the Dunning-Kruger effect, where people often overestimate their level of knowledge/competency with any particulate topic. Recent research into how the Dunning-Kruger effect applies in the political realm implies that those who report being extremely confident in their level of political knowledge actually know less than people who report lower levels of political knowledge. The observed effect is even more pronounced when political partisanship is taken into account, with people more likely to rate their level of political knowledge as being higher than people of opposing political parties. Combined, the two studies examining political knowledge suggest that we should all be more careful with our pronouncements of political knowledge and be more open to the possibility we could be wrong.