A new study claims that the more access a person has to higher education, the greater their sense of scepticism
At a time when ‘fake news’ is stoking the flames of rising national populism, understanding what is a conspiracy theory is an essential part of media literacy.
In an era when the Internet provided a platform for anyone to declare their views, however outlandish they may be, plenty of people know what to cast off as trumped-up nonsense.
But still, millions are swept away by even the most far-fetched stories, and belief in one conspiracy theory can often open the floodgates to even more or expose themselves to harmful consequences. Take, for instance, the anti-vaccine movement, the followers of which leave their children open to harmful diseases and threaten public health in general.
Edgar Maddison Welch, a man who police said was inspired by false internet rumours dubbed “pizzagate” to fire an assault weapon inside a Washington pizzeria, surrendering to officers last December [AP/Press Association Images]
Psychologists have spent a considerable amount of time trying to figure out why some people are more likely to buy into an outlandish theory, with education considered the greatest way to vaccinate oneself from contagious conspiracy theories.
A new study in Applied Cognitive Psychology, examined more than 4,000 readers of a popular science journal in the Netherlands, with 32 the average age of the participants. The researchers gathered data on formal education and beliefs in a number of well-known conspiracy theories, like the moon landing being an elaborate hoax.
The participants were also asked to assess their feelings of powerlessness, their place in the social structure of the Netherlands, and how strongly they believe that “most problems in society are easy to solve.”
According to the data gathered by the VU Amsterdam team, the more highly educated a person is, the less likely they are to believe a conspiracy theory. The researchers also claimed that having access to higher education also contributed to fewer participants feeling powerless, a higher position in the social order, and a greater scepticism of quick fixes to the world’s problems.
To compare their results, the academics also carried out a second survey of 1,000 volunteers, with the average age of 50, supposed to be a broader representation of Dutch society. These respondents answered the same questions as the first group, as well as some tests of their analytical thinking.
Two weeks later, the second group members were asked to also evaluate their beliefs in a number of conspiracy theories.
Again, the researchers found that the more education the respondents had received, the less likely they were to buy into conspiracies. Like the original group, access to education gave the 50-year-olds a greater sense of empowerment, a keener understanding of the lack of simple solutions, and better analytical skills.
“The relationship between education and belief in conspiracy theories cannot be reduced to a single psychological mechanism but is the product of the complex interplay of multiple psychological processes,” said the study’s lead author, Jan-Willem Van Prooijen.
A long-held conspiracy theory contends that the vapour trails left by passenger jets are actually poisonous and linked to a number of diseases [Pixabay]
The Dutch psychologist added that his study’s findings can enlighten why education enables a “less paranoid society,” even when conspiracy theories go unchallenged by mainstream media.
“By teaching children analytic thinking skills along with the insight that societal problems often have no simple solutions, by stimulating control, and by promoting a sense that one is a valued member of society, education is likely to install the mental tools that are needed to approach far-fetched conspiracy theories with a healthy dose of scepticism,” the study reads.