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Susceptibility to Conspiracy Theories and Fake News


Conspiracy theories, which explain events or a set of circumstances as the result of secret plot by usually powerful and malevolent groups, are quite common. One study reported in JAMA estimated that about half of Americans believe at least one medical conspiracy theory, such as those relating to cancer cures, vaccines or cell phones. [GT1] Research has provided some understanding about why people are drawn to conspiracy theories and what makes some people more likely to believe than others.

fake news image.jpgIn a commentary in Psychiatric Services last week, Richard Friedman, M.D., notes that “some conspiracy theories, such as the belief that Earth is flat or that the moon landing was faked by the government, are laughable and harmless.” Others, however, such as the idea that vaccines are part of plot to cause harm, can be dangerous. Belief in conspiracies can prevent people from seeking medical treatment and from sticking to it.

Humans have “evolved to quickly detect pattens and understand how events in our world might be causally related to each other,” Friedman explains. People generally seek an understanding or reason for events—an explanation of how things fit together—rather than seeing the world as random or coincidental. But this also makes us prone to errors, seeing connections where there are none.

One 2018 study identified some characteristics common to people who are more susceptible to conspiracies. People who are more suspicious, untrusting, eccentric, and tend to see the world as a dangerous place are more likely to see meaningful patterns where they might not exist and to believe in conspiracy theories.

In 2017, researchers at the University of Kent in England reviewed studies on peoples’ motivations to believe conspiracy theories. The authors identify three basic categories of motivation driving people to accept these theories, including the desire to:

  • understand one’s environment;
  • be safe and in control of one’s environment; and
  • maintain a positive image of oneself and one’s social group.

However, the authors did not find that the conspiracy beliefs fulfilled these motivations. Instead, they conclude that these theories “may be more appealing than satisfying.”

Taking a slightly difference perspective, researchers from Princeton and New York University looked at who is more likely to share false information (i.e., fake news) on social media. Based on a study of Facebook, they found instances of people sharing false information were relatively rare, but there were distinct differences by age. On average, users over 65 shared nearly seven times as many articles from fake news domains as young adults.

Given our propensity to seek connection and explanation, Friedman suggests our current environment, with easy access to overwhelming amounts of information, is fertile ground for confusion and conspiracy theories.  But we can counter tendencies toward accepting false information by asking questions, considering the sources of information, and improving our critical thinking abilities. 




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