Over the last few years, conspiracy thinking seems to have mushroomed — most visibly perhaps in the US, where QAnon supporters stormed the Capitol. Elsewhere, across the world, coronavirus-related conspiracies have abounded; one large-scale survey conducted last year found that as many as one in five Britons believed the COVID-19 fatality rate may have been exaggerated.
We already know that certain factors make individuals particularly prone to conspiratorial thinking — their level of education, for example, or a desire to feel special. And a new study, published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, has identified another facet of cognition linked to conspiratorial beliefs: critical thinking. Anthony Lantian from Université Paris Nanterre and colleagues find that the higher the level of critical thinking, the lower the belief in conspiracy theories, potentially offering a path out of conspiratorial thinking for those particularly susceptible.
In the first study, 86 participants were asked to complete a conspiracy belief scale, indicating how much they agreed with statements such as “certain significant events have been the result of the activity of a small group who secretly manipulate world events”.
They then took part in a critical thinking activity, reading a letter to the editor of a newspaper arguing that overnight parking should be banned in a particular area. Participants were asked to respond to each paragraph of the letter, assessing the relevance of the argument and evaluating the letter as whole, then wrote their responses in the form of a letter to the editor. These letters were assessed by judges on various measures of critical thinking, such as identifying good arguments, seeing other explanations, and avoiding over-generalisation. The team found that the higher participants scored on the critical thinking task, the less they believed in conspiracy theories.
However, the relationship in the first study didn’t quite reach significance. So a second study replicated the first, this time with more participants; overall, 252 took part. As well as completing the conspiracy thinking measure and the letter evaluation task, participants also reported on their own critical thinking skills.
Again, those with high levels of critical thinking ability were less likely to believe in conspiracy theories. Interestingly enough, however, conspiracy-minded participants didn’t seem aware of their critical thinking skills — both those with high and low levels of conspiracy thinking rated themselves highly on critical thinking. This makes sense when you consider the narratives of many conspiracy theory movements, which often frame themselves as true critical or free thinkers, seeing the light where others cannot.
The results may be useful when designing interventions to combat conspiratorial thinking — but being careful about how these are framed would be crucial. If someone truly believes in a specific conspiracy theory, telling them they lack critical thinking skills is unlikely to help and may instead further entrench them in their beliefs, as researchers have highlighted in coverage of QAnon. The study is also correlational — we can’t say, based on these results, that lack of critical thinking is the reason people believe conspiracy theories.
Further research could look at why critical thinking might protect against conspiratorial thinking, as well as explore degrees of conspiratorial thinking. When does somebody tip from “healthy scepticism”, as the team puts it, into full-on conspiracy? Where is the line between critically engaging with what the media or politicians tell us, for example, and labelling everything as “fake news”? Though media coverage may focus on the “true believers” of particular conspiracy theories, the journey to such a staunch position often begins somewhere far more reasonable; tracking this journey could provide valuable insight.