As our team was conducting a recent social media analysis on a jury pool, one particular potential juror stood out. He was, as he proudly proclaimed in his public online messages, a “flat-earther.” And this belief of his, that we live on a flat plane rather than on a globe, wasn’t just a casual belief. It was something he was frequently posting about and wanting to start discussions over. So, naturally, we and the client wondered what something like that tells us about the potential juror. Our case didn’t depend on proving the earth is a sphere, of course, but when someone believes that the whole scientific consensus since the ancient Greeks is an elaborate hoax, what does that say about the person’s other views, attitudes about evidence, and intelligence? My own speculation was that this says more about the individual’s identity than their cognitive abilities: They want to see themselves as an iconoclast, independent from the strings of majority belief. To see whether I was right or not, I looked into what the social science has to say about the psychological make-up of a conspiracy theorist.
It turns out that the question has been researched quite a bit, creating a number of different, and not always, consistent threads. One recent study (Hart & Graether, 2018) had the goal of integrating these threads into one consistent picture. Using 1,253 online research participants, the authors looked at a number of different psychological factors to come up with relative strength of each in contributing to conspiracy thinking. They speculated that there might be situational factors that make conspiracy thinking more prevalent — for example, feelings of being out of control, or being sensitized to risk or mortality — but they did not find support for that. Instead, they found that conspiracy thinking is a matter of personality. So in this post, I’ll take a look at four of those personality factors and how they inform our understanding of the flat-earther in the jury pool, and others like him.
There are four main threads that contribute to conspiracy thinking.
Distrust and Eccentricity
The strongest psychological factor that accompanies conspiracy thinking is something called “Schizotypy.” It means interpersonal suspiciousness, social anxiety, and isolation. It characterizes those who distrust what they’re told, believe that events are controlled by others, feel ill at ease with the world, and see themselves as “having special insight into the machinations of these malevolent actors.” In a courtroom, that attitude can translate into a skepticism that goes well beyond the proper expectations of burden of proof. A schizotypic juror would likely form their own idiosyncratic beliefs that end up being immune to both the evidence and the law.
Belief in a Dangerous World
A second psychological factor characterizing conspiracy thinking is a belief in a lack of safety. Conspiracy thinkers are committed to the view that “the world is a dangerous place full of bad people.” As the authors point out, that is a relatively strange worldview to adopt because, typically, people will chose a worldview that makes them feel more comfortable (e.g., a “belief in a just world” would be at the other end of the spectrum). Belief in a dangerous world, however, might also add comfort in providing a ready explanation for everything. As the authors, not conspiracy thinkers, “may, ironically, find solace in a worldview that casts hidden villains as responsible for life’s disappointments and miseries.” You might think that those focused on a “dangerous world” might be more susceptible to a plaintiff’s persuasive approach emphasizing fear, like “The Reptile,” however, the belief that “no one is ever truly safe,” may be more likely to help the defense.
Gullibility… and the Best-Named Psychological Scale Ever
The scale is called “Receptivity to Bullshit” (Pennycook et al., 2015). Yes, that is the actual, official, academically acknowledged and used name for this psychological scale, And it is exactly what it sounds like: A measure of how readily a person will accept something that is meaningless or unsupported. It is, the authors write, a “tendency to perceive profundity in nonsensical but superficially meaningful ideas,” or an “eagerness to seek or find meaning or patterns in ambiguous or random information.” It is measured by getting reactions to statements that seem to have come from a random-quote generator: “Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena,” or “Imagination is inside exponential space time events.” Bullshit indeed. But receptivity to it predisposes conspiracy-minded thinkers to “see the pattern” and to find meaning in what may be meaningless events. In assessing evidence, that mindset might condition jurors to accept what “feels true” (see “truthiness“) rather than what is supported. The authors also note that those with higher bullshit receptivity are also less prone to use analytical thinking and more likely to rely on “heuristics” or mental shortcuts to a decision.
Belief in Agency
The final factor, belief in agency, was found to lack a strong independent connection to conspiracy thinking, with most of the associated variation being explained by “Receptivity to Bullshit.” However, the factor seems likely to be more meaningful to litigators and relevant in a courtroom context. A belief in agency refers to the psychological tendency to see intention behind actions and events. In other words, instead of saying “shit happens,” they are more likely to see purpose, reason, and motives even when, potentially, there aren’t any. For example, in a medical malpractice trial, they could be less likely to focus on “what happened” and more likely to focus on “what the doctor did,” and in a commercial case, they could be less likely to attribute events to the abstract hand of the market and more likely to focus on the intentions and choices of the parties.
In any given case, conspiracy thinkers could be more likely to help one side or the other, or could be a wild card posing a danger to both. Fortunately, the current social media environment has made it a lot easier to find out. Or perhaps, that is just what they want us to think!
Hart, J., & Graether, M. (2018). Something’s Going on Here: Psychological Predictors of Belief in Conspiracy Theories. Journal of Individual Differences, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3176533
Pennycook, G., Cheyne, J. A., Barr, N., Koehler, D. J., & Fugelsang, J. A. (2015). On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit. Judgment and Decision making.
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