Monday, January 14, 2013

Do conspiracy theories reduce political engagement?

I came across an interesting paper in the British Journal of Psychology at work today: 'The social consequences of conspiracism' by Daniel Jolley and Karen Douglas from the University of Kent. (That link will take you to a PDF of the whole paper.)

In it the researchers explore the potential consequences of exposure to governmental conspiracy theories on intentions to engage in politics.

Their conclusion:
Research exploring the consequences of conspiracy theories is timely because despite claims that they are harmful, especially in raising suspicion concerning scientific claims, ... there is little evidence supporting this claim. 
The current studies demonstrate that some wariness about conspiracy theories may indeed be warranted. Specifically, the current research provides evidence that exposure to conspiracy theories may potentially have important social consequences. 
People who were exposed to conspiracy theories about both shady and suspicious government operations and that climate change is a hoax, reported less intention to engage in the political system – an effect that occurred because conspiracy theories led to feelings of political powerlessness. 
Furthermore, people who were exposed to conspiracy theories about climate change reported less intention to reduce their carbon footprint – an effect that occurred because conspiracy theories led to feelings of powerlessness and uncertainty towards climate change, and also feelings of disappointment in climate scientists. 
The current research therefore opens up a new line of research investigating the social consequences of an ever-growing climate of conspiracism.
There is a danger that anyone who questions mainstream explanations of events will be dismissed as a 'conspiracy theorist'. As Hillsborough has shown, sometimes those explanations are plain wrong and do involve actions that it is reasonable to describe as a conspiracy.

However, the reasearchers have adopted a reasonably tight definition of 'conspiracism' - "Conspiracy theories can be described as attempts to explain the ultimate causes of events as secret plots by powerful forces rather than as overt activities or accidents" - for this study.

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