Why more highly educated people are less into conspiracy theories

By Christian Jarrett

In this era of “fake news” and rising populism, encountering conspiracy theories is becoming a daily phenomenon. Some people usually shrug them off – they find them too simplistic, biased or far-fetched – but others are taken in. And if a person believes one kind of conspiracy theory, they usually believe others.

Psychologists are very interested in why some people are more inclined to believe in conspiracy theories, especially since the consequences can be harmful: for example, by avoiding getting their kids vaccinated, believers in vaccination conspiracies can harm wider public health; in other cases, a belief in a conspiracy against one’s own ethnic or religious group can foment radicalism.

One of the main differences between conspiracy believers and nonbelievers that’s cropped up in multiple studies is that nonbelievers tend to be more highly educated. For a new study in Applied Cognitive Psychology, Jan-Willem Van Prooijen at VU Amsterdam has conducted two large surveys to try to dig into just what it is about being more educated that seems to inoculate against belief in conspiracy.

For the first survey, Van Prooijen recruited over 4000 readers of a popular science journal in the Netherlands, with an average age of 32. He asked them about their formal education level and their belief in various well-known conspiracy theories, such as that the moon landings were hoax; he tested their feelings of powerlessness; their subjective sense of their social class (they located their position on a social ladder); and their belief in simple solutions, such as that “most problems in society are easy to solve”.

The more highly educated a participant, the less likely they were to endorse the conspiracy theories. Importantly, several of the other measures were linked to education and contributed to the association between education and less belief in conspiracy: feeling less powerlessness (or more in control), feelings of higher social status, and being sceptical of simple solutions.

A second survey was similar, but this time Van Prooijen quizzed nearly 1000 participants, average age 50, selected to be representative of the wider Dutch population. Also, there were two phases: for the first, participants answered questions about their education level; feelings of power; subjective social class; belief in simple solutions; and they took some basic tests of their analytical thinking skills. Then two weeks later, the participants rated their belief in various conspiracy theories.

Once again, more education was associated with less belief in conspiracy theories, and this seemed to be explained in part by more educated participants feeling more in control, having less belief in simple solutions, and having stronger analytical skills. Subjective social class wasn’t relevant in this survey.

Taken together, Van Prooijen said the results suggest that “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.”

The nature of his study means we can’t infer that education or the related factors he measured actually cause less belief in conspiracies. But it makes theoretical sense that they might be involved: for example, more education usually increases people’s sense of control over their lives (though there are exceptions, for instance among people from marginalized groups), while it is feelings of powerlessness that is one of the things that often attracts people to conspiracy theories.

Importantly, Van Prooijen said his findings help make sense of why education can contribute to “a less paranoid society” even when conspiracy theories are not explicitly challenged. “By teaching children analytic thinking skills along with the insight that societal problems often have no simple solutions, by stimulating a sense of 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 skepticism.”

Why Education Predicts Decreased Belief in Conspiracy Theories

Image under licence via Gettyimages.co.uk

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

35 thoughts on “Why more highly educated people are less into conspiracy theories”

  1. And yet millions of highly educated people still believe in god because it’s an accepted ‘conspiracy theory’, or at least some of them pretend to believe. Most people just don’t want to be known as crackpots, or heathens unless their friends are crackpots and heathens too.

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    1. Belief in a god is a cultural theory, not a conspiracy. Conspiracy theorists believe in secret plans and planners that more rational people understand would serve no realistic purposes. Not that the higher educated are necessarily rational, but it couldn’t hurt.

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    1. Because quality education enables skills such as critical thinking, objectivity, and knowledge? Highly educated individuals tend to be the most free-thinking and open-minded individuals in our society, the ones who enable their imagination to be the visionaries of the future giving us a better world, a more creative culture. It’s true, they are “brainwashed” to believe in themselves as unique free-thinking souls with the courage to penetrate the unknown fearlessly, and to not get in line to be sheep to the slaughter as narrow-minded conservatives hope they will be. I wouldn’t give up my education for anything; it set me free and made me the successful creative person I am today.

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      1. I agree in part, although my education was later in life, going to uni at 40, and loving it, but also finding they don’t want you to think and have your own ideas, or develop new or different theories, they just want you to learn what they’ve told you to research, and repeat it back in your understanding of it. They don’t like to be questioned, and there’s no room for crossover of fields, such as psychology with anthropology, which was annoying since they were my joint fields. Neither one had time for the other, and denied certain information provided by me, as wrong and irrelevant. I wasn’t brainwashed into believing myself as a unique free thinking person, I already was one before uni, but I did have the courage to challenge them, and being educated made me stronger. Education didn’t remove my previously beliefs, it made me less afraid of talking about my beliefs, that I do believe in evolution AND religion together; that witchcraft of whatever kind still exists in societies; ghosts exist – I’ve had an experience of this once; there is an afterlife (whatever your religious belief or not) since my father died and has let me know of this; UFOs I have seen for myself; the existence of aliens because UFOs exist; that governments try to control people by whatever means and are all corrupt lining their own pockets at the expense of the people they’re supposed to support; survival theories following apocalyptic events; and most lately a suspicion that some kind of plot to take world control exists by whatever foreign power decides to try it. I am not a crank, and won’t be fobbed off by people who are afraid to know more about underlying threats to society, I’d rather know and be ready for whatever is to come than wait to be kicked up the rear end while my head is stuck in the sand.

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    2. Well, if I *am* to be brainwashed, I prefer to be brainwashed by the likes of Galileo, Aristotle, Kant, or Darwin, than by the likes of David Icke, Art Bell, or the bronze-age nomads who believed a god spoke to them from a burning bush, that the earth is flat, and slavery is fine.

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  2. The ABSOLUTE LAST ATTRIBUTE many people who refuse to question the accepted narrative of some historical events, such as the official version of the 9/11 story, is – “a healthy dose of skepticism”.

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    1. I disagree. I believe that education increases scepticism.

      Look at WHY people wanted to believe that the attack on New York was not all it seemed. Right wing extremists who want the populace to believe that the US Government is against them, and brought in Jew blaming, as usual, saying that it was a deliberate plot by the American Jews to start war in the Middle East! I am sure there is more nonsense, I won’t pretend to be fully informed on the subject.

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      1. In a certain sense, you’re right. It seems (to me) – when skepticism reinforces orthodoxy, educated people seem to be more skeptical. But the opposite seems to be true, amongst educated people, when skepticism calls into question the accepted orthodoxy.

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    1. Anti-vaxxers should not be mentioned in this article – they do not believe it is a conspiracy, but simply that their child is/ could be damaged by vaccines. This does not have sound science to back it up, they appear to be using anecdotal ‘evidence’ from (imo) rather neurotic parents.

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      1. There’s no ‘sound science’ to back it up because institutions like the CDC who proclaim that vaccines are 100% safe refuse to do control studies to compare vaccinated/non-vaccinated populations. If they did they would most likely find a negative correlation between number of vaccines received and good health. It’s pretty simple really – vaccines contain mercury, mercury is extremely toxic, injecting babies with mercury is not a good idea! People aren’t anti vaccines they’re pro safe vaccines.

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      2. Mercury exits in some vaccines in trace amounts of at most a few milllionths of a gram. You get more mercury into your body from eating a seafood meal. Harmless, and, in particular, the study linking it to autism was expsoed as BS. But the experiment about the relationship between health and vaccines was done before. Look at infant and child mortality before and after vaccines. In the past children regularly died or were crippled for life from horrible diseases like dyphteria, polio, measels, smallpox, typhus, rabies, and so on. Vaccines eradicated them, although there is a small resurgence of those fiends – in the population of the unfortunate children whose idiot parents didn’t vaccinate them. “Hey, sorry your legs don’t work, sonny – when you were born, I read a stupid website that said polio vaccines are dangerous”.

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    1. I am highly educated, but economically impoverished. The cushion of more money is not the reason that a better educated person is less likely to believe in conspiracy theories. To me it is clear that the scenarios typically presented as conspiracies are rooted in magical thinking, immature thinking, scapegoating, feeling powerless (not all poor people feel powerless), the need for excitement etc.

      Education increases scepticism and analytical thinking. Whenever I have read about a conspiracy theory, I can see the gaping flaws in the ‘logic’. For example the last conspiracy theory I can across was that there is a conspiracy to make the British Royal Family Jewish! Part of the ‘evidence’ given for this absurdity is that Kate Middleton’s mothers maiden name is Goldsmith!

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      1. Agreed. I recently saw a video on Youtube… some dude claiming that the 9/11 planes were ‘photoshopped in’ because part of the wing disappeared behind a building when it shouldn’t have. Thing is, the building in question just ‘looked’ like it was further away, an optical illusion. He didn’t even bother to research on Google maps beforehand. That’s the type of stuff you’ve got to deal with, and stupid people lap it up without even bothering to double check it for themselves. That said, you can be educated and still be stupid.. 🙂

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      2. i noticed that many conspiracy theories people believe in would be pointless even if they were true. Suppose he entire royal family converted to judaism tomorrow. Apart from the queen no longer being the head of the church, which she is only formally in any case, what difference would it make? Not much more logical is the idea to, apparently, poison most of the population with “chemtrails”. Again,if it were true (apparently the evil conspirators do not breath air), what’s the point? You’d think the evil slave-master rulers would want *more* slaves, not less.

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  3. I think it’s absolutely crucial to see how this is mediated by, on one hand, feelings of control, comfort in one’s place in society and not feeling hard-done, ie accepting the society for what it is, and on the other, questioning attitudes, critical thinking etc.

    To test these, one should compare highly educated marginalised/socially excluded people (not necessarily from marginalised groups, just once whose social status is not commensurate with their education) with more conformist/adjusted/lucky ones.

    I’d love to see whether educated people’s beliefs in conspiracy theories are more related to how likely/unlikely the theory is (ie are they more likely to believe in plausible conspiracies eg Kennedy assassination than unplausible ones eg Moon landing hoax in comparison to uneducated people) and whether these beliefs are mediated by their expertise (whether doctors and biologists are less likely to believe in medical conspiracies or all conspiracies, whether engineers are less likely to believe in blown-up-Twin-Towers than non-engineers etc), or if it’s a general trend…

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  4. Anti-vaxxers should not be mentioned in this article – they do not believe it is a conspiracy, but simply that their child is/ could be damaged by vaccines. This does not have sound science to back it up, they appear to be using anecdotal ‘evidence’ from (imo) rather neurotic parents.

    I met a woman a while ago who went on about the Illuminati, and she was the most stupid person I had met for years!

    I think another factor for lovers of conspiracy theories is boredom. It makes life more exciting if you decide that there are secret plots all over the place. There is a childish fascination with it.

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    1. I assume that anti-vaxxers are not actually believing that the vaccines are INTENDED to harm children. If there are people who do believe that then yes, of course they are conspiracy theorists, but I can’t imagine what reason they would produce for the medical profession wanting to harm children.

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      1. Try thinking about the problems facing mankind, overpopulation leads to greater poverty, higher crime, inequalities, discrimination, etc. Humanity has taken over the planet, at the expense of all other species lives, wellbeing, and their habitats. As populations grow the world becomes an increasingly smaller place, finding green untouched areas is hard in towns and cities, nothing is preserved. We as a race impact on the planet and everything living to its detriment. The medical profession could have been instructed at a high level that vaccines should be compulsory, and without knowing of any intention to harm – not just children, but genetics that transfer down the generations. How medics could be unaware of this is unknown, but it’s not impossible to consider this a long-term project to reduce populations in a way that doesn’t come via normal loss through war and slow disease. This is an internal war to curb our growth. A conspiracy theory? – maybe, who knows …..

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      2. Overpopulation is a real issue, but those who call for a “drastic reduction in population” to make the human population “less damaging to the planet” – in other words genocide on a level that would make the dead of the holocaust or WWII seem like a rounding error – are not exactly inspriing confidence about their deep love for humanity. They are in effect holding a sign, “up with famine and pestilence!” – or, since they always imagine the blessed reduction in population occurring somewhere else, far away from them – “up with famine and pestilence, so long as it kills other people i don’t care about!”.

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  5. Considering the amount of lies people believe in that are held as truth, I’d say those accepted “truths” that have been so for eons are and always have been far more dangerous and destructive than a few individuals who opt out of vaccinations. The biggest false truth is the military industrial complex. The U.S. has been in almost perpetual war for over 200+ years and waged under the guise of “To Protect Country and Freedom” and it’s wrapped up all nice and pretty in pride and patriotic duty/sacrifice and celebration. It’s illusion/delusion is pinned with medals of honor for rape, thievery, torture and murder. The reality is that war is business waged purely for profit and power. It’s all a real game of thrones played by high functioning sociopaths using low functioning humans as “Monopoly” game pieces/tokens/PAWNS. These “Players” could never be satiated by virtual world video games. Each generation this “FARCE” is recycled. And this is just one example of the “false truths” the human race keeps alive. I see “conspiracy theories” as metaphorical ice picks that could eventually break down false truths. It’s highly unlikely that the education factor in all of this is not as relevant as the LOGIC and COMMON SENSE factor. Because … THEY HAVE! If one looks at the “education” factor, it is rife with books of history written by subjective/biased authors. This is especially true when war is written about. A good example would be the text books most read in the U.S. in early education. Do those text books tell the real truth about the extermination of the natives of the U.S.? No. Not even close. They even report that slavery was abolished. False. Today LOGIC and COMMON SENSE shows one that it has NEVER been abolished. It is referred today mostly as Human Trafficking. I could go on listing all the false truths among the human race of amnesiacs. But what good will it do. I understand why people hang onto them. Fear and self-preservation.

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    1. What you are writing sounds like garbage to me. Let’s resurrect Tesla and get his opinion on this matter. He would not be afraid of the truth and would try to warn people. I think you should research some of these “so called” conspiracy theories yourself before writing an article like this. For instance, there is an entire group of very educated and intelligent architects and engineers (Architects and Engineers for 911 Truth) that believe 911 was an inside job. There are many former CIA, ex-military and other very intelligent folks who also believe in finding the truth. I am sorry, but if you don’t believe something is happening behind the scenes in this world and has for a very long time, you have to really enjoy your ignorance. There is an overwhelming body of evidence regarding many conspiracy theories and they are labeled as such to immediately discredit them. You need to wake up yourself as people like you are part of the problem.

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    2. Very well said hipjipc. People need to wake up to these truths. Watch the Matrix movie again and realize you all need to be “unplugged” people.

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  6. Another factor to consider here is cognitive dissonance. In order to believe in conspiracy theories we have to admit to ourselves that we have been tricked and that our long held ideologies are flawed, this is a difficult thing to do for anyone but particularly difficult the older and more educated we are.

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    1. Sure Rakie, I see what your saying and I think your beliefs are well intentioned but what your saying totally goes both ways. As in, if a person believed and fought for all these “theories,” and then one day realized that those therories were lacking so much information, critical thinking, and not to mention a huge annoyance of spreading misinformation for the communities that are actually trying to make a difference in the world, it is very hard to to let go and admit to ones self that you were actually the person you thought you were fighting against. Trust me it is very hard to come to terms with and emotionally painful. This goes for the, sadly, few anti-vaxxers out there that decided to switch gears deciding to vaccinate after researching and willing to accept scientists’ research and evidence. I will be critical here of some doctors and pro-vaxxers. I think more people would be willing to give an ear to the misinformation about vacinations that is out there if the anti-vaxxers were made to feel so bad and stupid for making a misinformed decision.

      However, with my experience, I am specifically talking of the 911 inside job conspiracy. I was a huge believer. Not just in this conspiracy but in many others. Some friends of mine still believe the hype. I love them as people but it has come to the point where I avoid taking about it with them because instead of taking my critical thinking into consideration, at this point they just see me as becoming “brainwashed, conformist, joining the “dark side”.

      The breaking point for me was this: There was a scene in one of those “informative” 911 inside job videos (and trust me I watched all of them and was convinced) that spoke of 4/4 timing in music and how all pop/rock music was in 4/4 timing because it was in step to the human heart beat and the heart was connected to the brain and the brain could be controlled. Basically they were saying that “the elite rulers of the world” deliberately made 4/4 the preferred timing in North American mainstream pop/rock to control the young people of the world through pop music on the radio, t.v etc.

      I not university educated. In fact I didn’t even finish high school and either did my whole family. I grew up poor and uneducated and remained that way. However, I had been a pro musician at that point for about 15 years. When I watched that scene I had a “enlightenment” and understood how people with the ability to think critical would have seen it. The reason was because when it came to music, which I was educated in, not from university, but from experience, everything changed. What they were saying in that video about the time signature being used to control the young masses sounded so ridiculous to me that I burst out laughing how stupid it was. Then I had remembered I believed all the other theories in the video. I felt sick and really dumb when I thought about all the time I invested watching those videos. All the debates with people about how they didn’t know anything and were just sheep, brainwashed when in fact in was me who was closed minded and the sheep to not even listen to people who had spent countless hours researching, studying and understood what it was to be a critical thinker. I didn’t even know what that meant. I felt so ashamed when I thought of some of the conversations I had. Spreading misinformation about about government structures and politics, things I knew nothing about and I’m sure it was soooo obvious when I was tangled in debate. I’m turning red just writing about it.

      I started to get interested in science and became educated about how the world works and how we can make it better. Yes there are tyrants and greedy people in every field but there are also good, smart people who want to make a difference in the world that are in healthcare, science, politics, engineering, business and even religion.

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