Labelling something a “conspiracy theory” does little to stop people from believing it

By Emma Young

The label “conspiracy theory” is often slapped on unsubstantiated ideas. But does labelling something a conspiracy theory actually discredit it? A new paper in the  British Journal of Psychology suggests not. Karen M. Douglas at the University of Kent and colleagues find that people call an idea that they already consider unbelievable a “conspiracy theory” — rather than being influenced by that term to disbelieve it.

In an initial online study on 170 US adults, the team explored whether labelling a statement an “idea” or a “conspiracy theory” made any difference to the participants’ attitudes towards it. The statements were taken from an existing conspiracy theory scale; they included “The power held by heads of state is second to that of small, unknown groups who really control world politics”, for example.

The results were clear: whichever label was used made no difference to how seriously the statement was taken, or to participants’ ideas about how controversial or believable it was.

These findings support and extend earlier work that suggested calling an idea a conspiracy theory doesn’t actually reduce endorsement of it. And this is important, because as the team writes: “This suggests that people’s belief that the label has the power to discredit these narratives may be misplaced.”

The team then ran a second study on 199 students. The participants read a list of statements and rated the extent to which they would call each a conspiracy theory, and also their own level of agreement with the statement. The results showed that the less participants believed the statements to be true, the more likely they were to call them “conspiracy theories”. This hardly seems surprising. But the team takes it as evidence that pre-existing disbelief leads to use of the term.

In further studies, participants were shown pairs of statements, one more plausible than the other. For example, a statement about the loss of Malaysia flight MH370 came in two forms: “Malaysia flight MH370 was hijacked by North Korea, a fact known but suppressed by the Malaysian government” and “Malaysia flight MH370 was consumed by a black hole, a fact known by suppressed by the Malaysian government”.  The researchers found that participants tended to rate the less plausible statement as more likely to be a conspiracy theory and were more likely to call people who believed these ideas “conspiracy theorists”.

“Taken together, the present results…suggest that the label ‘conspiracy theory’ is likely to be a consequence rather than a cause of (dis)belief in conspiracy narratives,” the team writes.

Why does the “conspiracy theory” label have little power to encourage people to be sceptical about an idea

As the researchers suggest, one possibility is that we know from experience that the label tends to be used by sceptics, so we may decide that the person using that label is biased, and resist their influence. Other work has also found that some people are more likely to endorse conspiracy theories that they think are unpopular because it satisfies their need to feel special. For these people, it’s possible that if the label is applied, this could backfire, and make the idea more appealing.

Clearly, more work is needed on how to tackle belief in conspiracy theories. But this research certainly further builds the case that simply calling them conspiracy theories won’t help.

Is the label ‘conspiracy theory’ a cause or a consequence of disbelief in alternative narratives?

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest

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