Conspiracy theories are a tricky concept because some of the time the conspiracies are true. The government has been behind some pretty horrific events that were whispered about before they were confirmed, instances like MK-Ultra and the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. Whether that means that lizard people run the government, like 12 million Americans believe, or that the government secretly uses alien technology, is another story.
It’s obvious by now that “fake news” driven by false conspiracies can do significant damage, but what’s not as clear is who is most susceptible to believing these tall tales.
In the past, other researchers posited that what separates more reasonable, vanilla thinkers from conspiracy theorists is their higher cognitive ability or analytic thinking style, but according to a paper released Monday in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, what actually sets the Fox Mulders and Dana Scullys apart is the motivation to exercise rational thinking. Increased cognition is helpful, write Tomas Ståhl, Ph.D., and J.W. van Prooijen, Ph.D., in their new paper — but it’s really being a rational person that’s key.
“We show that reasonable skepticism about various conspiracy theories and paranormal phenomena does not only require a relatively high cognitive ability, but also strong motivation to be rational,” Ståhl, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, explained in a statement.
“When the motivation to form your beliefs based on logic and evidence is not there, people with high cognitive ability are just as likely to believe in conspiracies and paranormal phenomena as people with lower cognitive ability.”
Ståhl and van Prooijen came to this conclusion after asking 300 study participants to fill out two surveys designed to assess their analytic thinking and likelihood of being skeptical of unfounded beliefs. The survey results revealed that people who were less likely to have a conspiracy theorist mentality had an analytic cognitive style and strongly valued forming their beliefs based on logic and evidence.
While general cognitive ability, when paired with rationality, was associated with a weaker belief in conspiracy theories, it was the belief that rational thinking was important that really set the non-believers apart.
“Our findings suggest that part of the reason may be that many people do not view it as sufficiently important to form their beliefs on rational grounds,” says Ståh. “Many of these beliefs can, unfortunately, have detrimental consequences for individuals’ health choices, as well as for society as a whole.”
Unfortunately, just because someone is an intelligent human doesn’t necessarily mean they are rational. Humans are predisposed to find causal connections between events, regardless of whether those connections actually exist.
The good news is that people can train themselves to become more rational thinkers by turning off their intuition and focusing on the cold hard facts. Sure, doing so can make often make the world seem even more inexplicable — but it’s safer to admit we can’t explain something than perpetuate the lie that a false explanation is correct.