Climate change is a Chinese hoax. The government has a secret chemtrail spraying program. The Earth is flat and NASA is hiding the truth from us all.
Conspiracy theories about government officials are about as American as apple pie, and in the current political climate, it seems like they are popping up more and more.
Now, social psychology researchers have identified two major factors that may influence the likelihood of someone believing in a conspiracy.
It turns out that people who overestimate their political understanding, as well as people who feel threatened by social and cultural changes, are the ones most likely to believe in conspiracy theories.
"The current political moment is one of volatility and major social change, including increased cultural and ethnic diversity and widespread collective action among members of previously marginalized groups, who are effectively challenging the status quo and seeking change in public policy and political discourse," said co-author of both the studies Joseph Vitriol, a postdoctoral research associate in social psychology.
"For many members of the public, particularly individuals who have benefited from existing social and political arrangements, these developments and changes are quite threatening and can motivate compensatory endorsement of conspiracy beliefs or theories," he added.
In a survey of 3,500 American adults, those who agreed with statements like "In this country, there is a 'real America' distinct from those who don't share the same values" and "America's greatest values are increasingly decaying from within," were also more likely to agree with statements such as, "The media is the puppet of those in power" and "Nothing in politics or world affairs happens by accident or coincidence."
The results suggest that people who feel threatened by America's changing values, both culturally, socially and ideologically, are more likely to be irrationally skeptical of those in power.
"We found that when one feels that society's fundamental, defining values are under siege," Vitriol says, "it is a strong predictor of a general tendency toward conspiracy thinking and endorsement of both ideological and non‐ideological conspiracy theories."
The second study surveyed nearly 400 adult Americans, asking them to rate their understanding of public policies, and then provide a detailed explanation for how those policies actually work.
At the very end of the survey, participants were asked to rate their understanding once again.
The findings reveal a significant reduction in ratings the second time around, assumedly because once participants were tasked with explaining public policies, most people realized how limited their understanding actually was.
Those who remained overly confident in their political understanding, however, were found to be most susceptible to conspiracy theories.
The findings suggest that people who overestimate their political knowledge are more likely to live under the illusion that specific individuals or groups are conspiring to influence global decisions, events and outcomes.
The research is supported by previous studies that have linked conspiracy theories and narcissism, which is a grandiose view of one's own talents and one's place in the world.
"Participants who had high levels of confidence in their understanding of public policies after generating an explanation were more likely to endorse political conspiracies, especially if they also lacked accurate knowledge of political phenomena," said co-author Jessecae Marsh, an associate professor of psychology.
According to Vitriol, making people aware of their limited understanding is one of the best ways to counter outlandish conspiracy theories and beliefs.
"Our findings might suggest that showing people the limitations of their understanding can lead to more informed, evidence-based opinions and beliefs," said Vitriol.
"The good thing is people can do this on their own—by proactively seeking out and exposing oneself to information and perspectives that challenges their beliefs, one stands to gain a more objective and credible understanding of the world."
By practising some humility and challenging preconceived beliefs, we can keep two feet firmly on the ground.