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Abstract

We hypothesised that belief in conspiracy theories would be predicted by the general tendency to attribute agency and intentionality where it is unlikely to exist. We further hypothesised that this tendency would explain the relationship between education level and belief in conspiracy theories, where lower levels of education have been found to be associated with higher conspiracy belief. In Study 1 (N = 202) participants were more likely to agree with a range of conspiracy theories if they also tended to attribute intentionality and agency to inanimate objects. As predicted, this relationship accounted for the link between education level and belief in conspiracy theories. We replicated this finding in Study 2 (N = 330), whilst taking into account beliefs in paranormal phenomena. These results suggest that education may undermine the reasoning processes and assumptions that are reflected in conspiracy belief.
Belief in conspiracy theories 1
Someone is Pulling the Strings: Hypersensitive Agency Detection and Belief in
Conspiracy Theories
Karen M. Douglas*, Robbie M. Sutton, Mitchell J. Callan,
Rael J. Dawtry and Annelie J. Harvey
Author notes:
* Karen M. Douglas, School of Psychology, University of Kent, Canterbury, CT27NP,
United Kingdom. Ph: +44 1227 824758. Email: k.douglas@kent.ac.uk.
Robbie M. Sutton, School of Psychology, University of Kent, Canterbury, CT27NP,
United Kingdom. Ph: +44 1227 823080. Email: r.sutton@kent.ac.uk.
Mitchell J. Callan, Department of Psychology, University of Essex, Colchester,
CO43SQ. Ph: +44 1206 873817, Email: mcallan@essex.ac.uk.
Rael J. Dawtry, School of Psychology, University of Kent, Canterbury, CT27NP, United
Kingdom. Ph: +44 1227 823181. Email: rd299@kent.ac.uk.
Annelie J. Harvey, Department of Psychology, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge,
CB11PT. Ph: +44 8451 962731, Email: annelie.harvey@anglia.ac.uk.
* Corresponding author
Belief in conspiracy theories 2
Abstract
We hypothesized that belief in conspiracy theories would be predicted by the general
tendency to attribute agency and intentionality where it is unlikely to exist. We further
hypothesized that this tendency would explain the relationship between education level
and belief in conspiracy theories, where lower levels of education have been found to be
associated with higher conspiracy belief. In Study 1 (N=202) participants were more
likely to agree with a range of conspiracy theories if they also tended to attribute
intentionality and agency to inanimate objects. As predicted, this relationship accounted
for the link between education level and belief in conspiracy theories. We replicated this
finding in Study 2 (N=330), whilst taking into account beliefs in paranormal phenomena.
These results suggest that education may undermine the reasoning processes and
assumptions that are reflected in conspiracy belief.
Keywords:
Conspiracy theories, hypersensitive agency detection, intentionality bias, paranormal
beliefs, education
Belief in conspiracy theories 3
Someone is Pulling the Strings: Hypersensitive Agency Detection and Belief in
Conspiracy Theories
Conspiracy theories are attempts to explain the ultimate causes of events as secret
plots by powerful and malevolent groups rather than as overt activities or natural
occurrences (Byford, 2011; McCauley & Jacques, 1979; Sunstein & Vermeule, 2009).
For example, popular conspiracy theories suppose that the 9/11 attacks on the Twin
Towers were an ‘inside job’ (Swami, Chamorro-Premuzic & Furnham, 2010; Wood &
Douglas, 2013), that Princess Diana was murdered by elements within the British
establishment (Douglas & Sutton, 2008; 2011), that climate change is a hoax (Jolley &
Douglas, 2014a; Lewandowsky, Oberauer & Gignac, 2013) and that Lee Harvey Oswald
acted on behalf of the CIA in assassinating U.S. President John F. Kennedy (McCauley
& Jacques, 1979; McHoskey, 1995). Conspiracy theories are a prominent characteristic
of contemporary culture, aided by the ease and speed of Internet communication (Coady,
2006). They capture public interest, typically drawing attention away from official
explanations in favour of elaborate plots and schemes.
Some conspiracy theories may have positive consequences. For example, they
may allow individuals to question social systems and in turn encourage government
transparency (e.g., Clarke, 2002; Fenster, 1999; Swami & Coles, 2010). They may also
reveal inconsistencies in official accounts of events (e.g., Clarke, 2002) uncovering new
information for examination (Miller, 2002). However, recent research suggests that
conspiracy theories may also have detrimental effects on health decisions, political
engagement, and pro-environmental behavior. For example, exposure to anti-vaccine
conspiracy theories decreases people’s intentions to vaccinate (Jolley & Douglas, 2014b),
an effect mediated by feelings of powerlessness, disillusionment and mistrust. Further,
belief in the theory that birth control and HIV/AIDS are forms of genocide against
Belief in conspiracy theories 4
African Americans is associated with negative attitudes toward contraception (Bird &
Bogart, 2003; Bogart & Thorburn, 2006). Also, exposure to anti-government and climate
change conspiracy theories has been found to negatively influence political engagement
and pro-environmental intentions respectively, effects explained by feelings of
powerlessness (Jolley & Douglas, 2014a).
With both the positive and negative consequences of conspiracy theories in mind,
it is important to understand the psychological factors associated with conspiracy belief.
In recent years, psychologists have made significant progress in understanding these
factors. For example, people are likely to believe in a particular conspiracy theory if they
also believe in others (Goertzel, 1994). This phenomenon occurs even when conspiracy
theories contradict each other (Sutton & Douglas, 2014; Wood, Douglas & Sutton, 2012).
Also, researchers have uncovered a range of individual differences and personality
variables associated with conspiracy belief, such as anomie, distrust in authority, political
cynicism, powerlessness (Abalakina-Paap, Stephan, Craig & Gregory, 1999; Goertzel,
1994; Swami et al., 2011), Machiavellianism (Douglas & Sutton, 2011) and schizotypy
(Darwin, Neave & Holmes, 2011). The growing psychological ‘profile’ of the typical
conspiracy believer therefore appears to be that of a morally deficient, psychologically
deficient and cynical individual (e.g., Groh, 1987; Plomin & Post, 1997).
However, this picture is rather too negative and simplistic given the popularity of
conspiracy theories in the general population. Also, whilst previous research provides
valuable insight into the personality characteristics of people who are prone to
conspiracist ideation, it provides little information about the cognitive mechanisms that
lead to conspiracist ideation, and therefore the cognitive mechanisms that are likely to
enable people to resist the conspiracy theories that may be harmful. Recently, social
scientists have focused more on what these psychological processes, cognitive biases and
Belief in conspiracy theories 5
thinking styles might be. For example, Douglas and Sutton (2011) found that the
psychological process of projection contributes to conspiracy belief, in that people
endorsed conspiracy theories more when they felt they themselves would be willing to
conspire. van Prooijen and Jostmann (2013) found that inducing uncertainty led people
to heightened conspiracy belief. Further, Brotherton and French (2014) found that
people who endorsed conspiracy theories were more likely to commit the conjunction
fallacy the tendency to overestimate the likelihood of co-occurring events (Tversky &
Kahneman, 1983). Belief in conspiracy theories may also be in part a result of the
proportionality bias the tendency to attribute small, mundane causes to insignificant
events, and large, major causes to more significant events (Leman & Cinnirella, 2007;
van Prooijen & van Dijk, 2014). Further, conspiracy beliefs have been consistently
found to be associated with supernatural beliefs such as religious beliefs and beliefs in
the paranormal (e.g., Darwin et al., 2011; Newheiser, Farias & Tausch, 2011; Stieger,
Gumhalter, Tran, Voracek & Swami, 2013; Swami, Coles et al., 2013). Belief in
conspiracy theories therefore appears to be associated with the way people perceive the
world around them, in particular when events are unclear or uncertain.
The view that conspiracy belief can be explained by thinking and reasoning is
further underscored by the fact that belief in conspiracy theories has been found to be
associated with education level, such that people with higher levels of education tend to
be less likely to endorse conspiratorial explanations for events (Bird & Bogart, 2003;
Goertzel, 1994; Oliver & Wood, 2014; Uscinski & Parent, 2014). Improving education
in digital literacy (Bartlett & Miller, 2011) and in health and science (e.g., Bogart &
Thorburn, 2005, 2006) are often cited as methods of overcoming conspiracy theorizing.
Some research also points to the more general cognitive benefits of education. For
example, when controlling for other natural confounds such as self-selection into further
Belief in conspiracy theories 6
education, schooling is a significant predictor of IQ (Brinch & Galloway, 2012). Further,
between-sibling differences in IQ can be partly explained by learning-to-read age
(Ritchie, Bates & Plomin, 2015). Also, some evidence suggests that education correlates
negatively (albeit weakly) with irrational beliefs such as attributions of events to fate and
the belief in karma (Banerjee & Bloom, 2014). Logical errors and biases in thinking
style, including conspiracy belief, may therefore be improved by education.
Another such cognitive bias is hypersensitive agency detection (HAD) the
tendency to attribute agency and intentionality where it does not exist or is unlikely to
exist (Barrett, 2004, 2007). Research has shown that people commonly interpret the
movement of two-dimensional geometric shapes as being intentional and agentic (e.g.,
Heider & Simmel, 1944; Scholl & Tremoulet, 2000). In the absence of typical indicators
of agency such as faces or hands, people describe the movement of shapes as they might
normally explain the intentional actions of human beings. Barrett (2004) argued that
people do this because the brain is hard-wired to be hypersensitive to agency in the
environment. Specifically, since humans have evolved in an environment that contains
many agents (e.g., friends, enemies and dangerous predatory animals) hypersensitivity to
agency may be adaptive because it makes people wary in their interactions with the
environment around them, reducing vulnerability to unexpected outcomes and avoiding
risk from potentially dangerous factors (Barrett, 2004; Guthrie, 1993). Being able to
detect and understand an event and react quickly, or respond quickly to an ambiguous
situation, is important for physical and social survival.
HAD has been used to explain why people believe in the existence of invisible
agents such as spirits and gods, and why people are religious (Barrett, 2007). A general
tendency to overestimate the presence of other agents reinforces the belief in an
omnipresent and invisible supernatural agent (Barrett, 2007). HAD has also been linked
Belief in conspiracy theories 7
to superstition the belief that there is a cause and effect between unconnected events
(e.g., that a particular number brings good luck; Lanman, 2012). Similarly, although
much of human behavior is intentional, researchers have argued that people show a
tendency to judge all actions of other people to be intentional by default (Rosset, 2008).
Further, people are prone to explain natural phenomena (e.g., that some rocks are pointy)
as having a purpose (e.g., so that animals do not sit on them) rather than a natural cause
(e.g., the composition of the rock piled up over time; Kelemen, 1999). Much of the time
individuals are able to override or inhibit these tendencies, but under conditions of
limited processing ability, people commonly attribute intentionality where it does not
exist and see natural phenomena as having some hidden purpose (Kelemen & DiYanni,
2005; Rosset, 2008).
As is the case for HAD, there is a robust relationship between conspiracy belief
and belief in supernatural phenomena (Darwin et al., 2011; Newheiser et al., 2011;
Stieger et al., 2013; Swami, Coles et al., 2013). Also, by definition, conspiracy theories
assume purpose, agency and intentionality. Specific human agents are implicated either
when it is unlikely to have been their responsibility, they are likely to have done nothing,
or when the event was most likely the result of an accident. With limited information to
understand events, people are likely to attribute intentionality and agency to attempt to
make sense of what happened. There is some preliminary evidence to suggest that this
indeed occurs. Imhoff and Bruder (2014, Study 4) asked participants to rate their
agreement with conspiracy theories and also to complete a scale of individual differences
in anthropomorphism the tendency to attribute human characteristics to anything other
than a human being as a proxy of the tendency to attribute intentionality and agency
(Waytz, Cacioppo & Epley, 2010). There was a significant positive relationship between
the tendency to anthropomorphize and to believe in conspiracy theories.
Belief in conspiracy theories 8
In the current paper, we aim to replicate and build upon this finding. Specifically,
we argue that the link between HAD and conspiracy belief may have a broader
significance. In particular, this thinking style may enable us to explain why individuals
with lower levels of education tend to be more likely to endorse conspiracy theories.
Specifically, belief in conspiracy theories has been found to be negatively associated with
analytic cognitive style, which reflects the propensity to put aside intuitions when
engaging in problem solving (Swami, Voracek, Steiger, Tran & Furnham, 2014).
Analytic cognitive style, which allows people to reject false inferences that have been
based on instincts and hunches (processes arguably very similar to resisting the automatic
detection of agency), is positively correlated with education level (Pennycook, Cheyne,
Seli, Koehler & Fugelsang, 2012). Further, analytic cognitive style has been found to be
negatively correlated with supernatural belief (Pennycook et al., 2012). We know that
HAD is associated with belief in the supernatural (Barrett, 2007; Riekki, Lindeman &
Raji, 2014) and conspiracy belief (Imhoff & Bruder, 2014), and also that conspiracy
belief is associated with supernatural belief (Darwin et al., 2011; Newheiser et al., 2011;
Stieger et al., 2013; Swami, Coles et al., 2013). Therefore, people with lower levels of
education may be more likely to endorse conspiratorial explanations for events because
they also show a greater tendency to attribute intentionality and agency in general. This
tendency, and in turn conspiracy theorizing, may be somewhat addressed by education.
In two studies, we examined the association between education, HAD and
conspiracy belief. Study 1 (N=202) tested the hypothesis that the tendency to attribute
agency and intentionality would predict conspiracy belief, and that it would also explain
the relationship between education level and belief in conspiracy theories. Study 2
(N=330) tested the hypothesis that these relationships would hold even when beliefs in
paranormal phenomena are taken into account. A range of demographic factors have
Belief in conspiracy theories 9
also been found to be associated with conspiracy theories, such as age (Swami, 2012),
annual income (Bird & Bogart, 2003), religiosity (Furnham, 2013), and political
orientation (Furnham, 2013; Oliver & Wood, 2014). Although effects are not consistent
across studies and it was therefore difficult to form specific hypotheses concerning these
variables, we included them as covariates in our analyses.
Study 1
The first study was designed to replicate Imhoff and Bruder’s (2014, Study 4)
finding that anthropomorphism and beliefs in conspiracy theories are related. We
predicted that the tendency to anthropomorphize would be significantly associated with
the tendency to believe popular conspiracy theories, and would explain the relationship
between education level and conspiracy beliefs.
To extend on this work, we included an additional task to measure the attribution
of intentionality and agency based on the classic study by Heider and Simmel (1944). In
this method, participants were asked to watch a video of shapes moving about a screen
and were asked to rate the extent to which the shapes display human-like characteristics
(e.g., consciousness) and whether their ‘behaviors’ are the result of human-like
characteristics such as free will. This task therefore measures the spontaneous perception
of intentionality in the behavior of inanimate objects rather than more general judgments
about perceived intentionality. Nevertheless, we could expect responses on this task to
be associated with the tendency to anthropomorphize and the tendency to endorse
conspiracy theories. We also tentatively predicted that responses on this task would also
explain the relationship between education and conspiracy belief.
Belief in conspiracy theories 10
Method
Participants and Design
Two hundred and two workers from Amazon’s Mechanical TurkTM were
recruited to complete an online questionnaire (102 women, 99 men, 1 transgender/rather
not say, Mage = 32.4, SD = 12.20). Of this sample, 78% were White/Caucasian, 7%
African American, 7% Asian, 5% Hispanic, 0.5% Pacific Islander and 2.5% Other. Fifty
one percent indicated that they had no religion or were atheist, 39% were Christian (e.g.,
Catholic, Baptist, Protestant, Methodist), 3% agnostic, 3% Jewish, 1% Muslim, 1%
Buddhist, 1% Hindu and 1% Other (including ‘spiritual’ and Wiccan). They were each
paid US $0.75. The design of the study was correlational. The predictor variables were
anthropomorphism, the tendency to attribute intentions to inanimate objects using the
Heider and Simmel (1944) task, and a range of demographic factors. The dependent
variable was belief in conspiracy theories.
Materials and Procedure
The questionnaire was designed and administered using the Qualtrics
questionnaire design software. Participants were first presented with an information page
where they were asked to give their informed consent. They were then asked to complete
a series of measures in random order, except for the demographic measures which always
appeared in the same order at the end of the questionnaire. 1
Belief in conspiracy theories
Participants were asked to read a series of statements related to well-known
conspiracy theories. These were adapted from Douglas and Sutton’s (2011) scale. There
were seven statements (e.g., “Scientists are creating panic about climate change because
it is in their interests to do so”; “The attack on the Twin Towers was not a terrorist action
but a governmental plot”; 1 = strongly disagree, 7 =strongly agree; α = .82).
Belief in conspiracy theories 11
Perceived intentionality and agency
Participants completed the individual differences in anthropomorphism scale
(IDAQ; Waytz et al., 2010). Individual differences in anthropomorphism predict the
amount of responsibility that is placed on an agent (Waytz et al., 2010) and as such
provide a measure of the extent to which individuals afford animals, objects and
situations with the ability to perform actions intentionally. There were 15 questions (e.g.,
“To what extent does the average mountain have free will?”; “To what extent does the
environment experience emotions?”; 1 = not at all, 10 = very much; α = .88).
Participants were also asked to view the animation used by Heider and Simmel
(1944) in which three shapes (a large triangle, a small triangle and a small circle) moved
around the screen and in and out of an opening and closing rectangular box. The
animation was 1:30 minutes long. In the original study using this animation, Heider and
Simmel found that the majority of participants described the movement of shapes as they
would describe the purposeful behavior of animals and humans. In this original work,
participants often created a story about the shapes (e.g., a person chasing another person),
the emotions they experienced (e.g., fear, frustration), and their personal characteristics
(e.g., bravery, aggression). This task therefore provides an additional opportunity to
measure individuals’ tendency to perceive intentionality and agency. After viewing the
animation, participants were asked to answer some questions about the shapes and the
behavior’ of the shapes. Five questions were asked about the shapes (e.g., “To what
extent did you think the shapes were purposeful”; “To what extent did you think the
shapes were conscious?”, α = .87) and five were asked about the ‘behavior’ of the shapes
(e.g., “Did you think the behavior of the shapes was intentional?”; “Did you think the
behavior of the shapes was the result of conscious decisions?”, α = .95; in each case 1 =
not at all, 5 = very much). The two types of questions were significantly correlated,
Belief in conspiracy theories 12
r(202) = .72, p <.001. Using oblique rotation (promax), an exploratory factor analysis
revealed one factor explaining 65.15 per cent of the variance. Several of the items cross-
loaded onto a smaller second factor (eigenvalue = 1). We therefore combined the two
types of questions into a single 10-item scale (α = .94). Note however that the two
measures of HAD (anthropomorphism and perceived intentionality) were not
significantly correlated, r(202) = .11, p = .202.
Education level
Participants rated their education level on a five-point scale (1 = no formal
education, 2 = primary level education, 3 = secondary level education, 4 = college
education, bachelor’s degree, 5 = college education, graduate degree).
Demographics
Finally, participants were asked to provide some demographic details. In addition
to age, gender, ethnicity and religion, participants were asked to rate their religiosity (1 =
not at all religious, 2 = somewhat religious, 3 = moderately religious, 4 = very religious).
Note that this is a measure of the degree to which participants feel that they are religious
(which may include religious practices and behaviors) rather than a measure of religious
belief. They also rated their political orientation (1 = very left-wing, 2 = moderately left-
wing, 3 = slightly left-wing, 4 = center, 5 = slightly right-wing, 6 = moderately right-
wing, 7 = very right-wing) to give a measure of political conservatism. They also rated
their annual household income within 11 brackets ranging from <$10,000 to $100,000 or
more. Finally, they rated their perceived socioeconomic status (1 = working class, 8 =
upper class). At the completion of the questionnaire, participants were debriefed,
thanked and paid.
Belief in conspiracy theories 13
Results and Discussion
Only one person indicated that they were transgender or would rather not say.
We therefore examined if there was a gender difference in conspiracy belief between
females and males. No such gender difference existed, t(199) = .81, p = .418 and gender
was therefore not included as a factor in further analyses. We also did not analyse results
for ethnic or religious differences since numbers were too unequal. Means and standard
deviations for all measures, and correlations between variables, are presented in Table 1.
There were significant positive correlations between conspiracy belief and
anthropomorphism, perceived intentionality, and political conservatism. Conspiracy
belief and age were negatively correlated. Conspiracy beliefs were also marginally
negatively correlated with education level and annual household income. 2
We entered all variables into a step-wise regression where Step 1 included
demographic variables (R2 change = .12, F(5,196) = 6.31, p < .001), Step 2 further
included education level (R2 change = .12, F(1,195) = 1.40, p = .239), and Step 3 further
included anthropomorphism and perceived intentionality (R2 change = .19, F(2,193) =
9.60, p < .001). There was no evidence of collinearity (all tolerances > .70 and all VIF <
1.5). Findings of the final model are presented in Table 2. The overall regression model
was significant F(8, 201) = 6.89, p < .001 and accounted for 22% of the variance. As
hypothesized, anthropomorphism and perceived intentionality each significantly
predicted belief in conspiracy theories. With all variables entered into the regression, age
and political conservatism also remained as significant predictors.
The predicted relationship between education level and belief in conspiracy
theories was present across the two studies reported in this paper. We proceeded to test
whether this was mediated by HAD. To do so, bootstrapped mediation analyses (10,000
resamples) examined the indirect effect of education level on conspiracy belief via
Belief in conspiracy theories 14
anthropomorphism and perceived intentionality using the PROCESS macro for SPSS
(model 4; see Hayes, 2013). Bootstrapping procedures have several advantages over
traditionally used parametric approaches such as regression. They make no assumptions
about distribution and are more robust up to sample sizes of approximately 1,000.
Unlike the traditional approach to testing mediation (Baron and Kenny, 1986), the
decision to undertake these tests is not contingent upon observation of significant effects
in preliminary tests (see Hayes, 2009, p. 414). This procedure calculates the total and all
possible specific indirect effects of the IV on the DV. In this procedure, an indirect
effect is estimated as being significant if zero is not contained within the 95% lower
(LLCI) and upper (ULCI) confidence intervals. Results are presented in Table 3.
Including age, religiosity, political conservatism, annual household income and perceived
SES as covariates, there was an indirect effect of education level on belief in conspiracy
theories via anthropomorphism but not responses on the Heider and Simmel task.
This study therefore first replicates the finding observed by Imhoff and Bruder
(2014) that belief in conspiracy theories are predicted by hypersensitive agency detection
in the form of anthropomorphism. In this study, both anthropomorphism and HAD as
measured using the Heider and Simmel task predicted the extent to which participants
endorsed conspiracy theories. We also found support for the hypothesis that HAD
mediates the relationship between education level and belief in conspiracy theories.
Individuals with higher levels of education were less likely to be hypersensitive to
agency (but only in the form of anthropomorphism) and were therefore less likely to
believe in conspiracy theories.
It should be explained why the effect was observed for anthropomorphism but not
for perceived intentionality as measured by the Heider and Simmel task. It may be the
case that although they both provide a measure of HAD that is associated with
Belief in conspiracy theories 15
conspiracy belief, they are nevertheless measuring subtly different phenomena.
Crucially, the tendency to attribute intentionality to the movement of shapes was not
associated with education and did not mediate the relationship between education level
and conspiracy belief. There is one reason why this may be the case. In contrast to
anthropomorphism, the Heider and Simmel task asks respondents to make an immediate
judgment of causality about behavior they have just observed, rather than a more general
judgment about hidden intentionality. Perhaps education suppresses more immediate
judgments of causality but not teleological thinking more generally (Kelemen, 2004).
Specifically, it may be the case that the Heider and Simmel task taps into people’s
tendency to impute intention onto a specific, concrete situation. Judgments on this task
may reflect errors in reasoning less so than responses to the anthropomorphism scale,
which measures judgments of dispositions possessed by many features of the non-human
world (e.g., the weather, animals). The broader set of judgments may be a clearer
reflection of thinking that can be influenced by long-term educational benefits. 3
Study 2
In Study 2, we aimed to replicate and extend these findings. We again examined
the extent to which HAD mediates the link between education and belief in conspiracy
theories. We also examined the extent to which HAD predicts conspiracy belief
independently of a specific type of irrational belief the belief in paranormal
phenomena. If education simply makes people more equipped to be rational thinkers,
then education should negatively predict conspiracy belief. Also, the effect of education
on conspiracy belief should be mediated by both HAD and paranormal belief. However,
if the attribution of intentionality reflects a unique aspect of thinking style that predicts
conspiracy belief, we would expect only HAD (and not paranormal belief) to mediate the
relationship between education and conspiracy belief.
Belief in conspiracy theories 16
Like conspiracy belief, belief in the paranormal partly reflects a rejection of
conventional or rational understandings of causality. As several studies have shown, just
like conspiracy belief (Swami et al., 2014), belief in the paranormal is negatively
associated with analytical thinking style (Gervais & Norenzayan, 2012; Pennycook et al.,
2012; Shenhav, Rand & Greene, 2012). Further, paranormal beliefs strongly correlate
with endorsement of conspiracy theories (Darwin et al., 2011; Newheiser et al., 2011;
Stieger et al., 2013). It is therefore possible that the relationships observed in Study 1 are
spurious because the tendency to attribute agency and intentionality in the environment is
a specific example of a paranormal belief.
However, we argue that there is a crucial difference between conspiracy and
paranormal beliefs. Specifically, unlike belief in the paranormal, belief in conspiracy
theories does not depend on magical associations. People may be predisposed to invoke
intentional, teleological explanations of natural phenomena and find these explanations
satisfying (Kelemen, 2004) but this does not mean that these explanations must be about
magical or supernatural occurrences. Therefore, whilst the preference for agency and
intentionality explanations may be a specific example of a broader set of beliefs, it may
be a unique type of cognitive error associated with education and belief in conspiracy
theories. The tendency to attribute agency and intentionality may therefore explain the
link between education and conspiracy belief whilst taking into account broader
paranormal belief. Study 2 was therefore designed to examine whether the attribution of
intentionality and agency uniquely accounts for the relationship between education level
and conspiracy belief when taking into account the extent to which people generally
believe in paranormal phenomena.
The study followed a similar procedure to Study 1. Participants were asked to
complete the anthropomorphism scale (Waytz et al., 2010), the adapted Heider and
Belief in conspiracy theories 17
Simmel (1944) task and a measure of agreement with well-known conspiracy theories
(Douglas & Sutton, 2011). Finally, participants completed a scale measuring the extent
to which they show belief in paranormal phenomena such as superstition, clairvoyance,
telepathy and a ‘6th sense’ (Eckblad & Chapman, 1983) and were asked to complete the
same demographic measures as in Study 1.
Method
Participants and Design
Three hundred and thirty workers from Amazon’s Mechanical TurkTM were
recruited to complete an online questionnaire (170 women, 158 men, 2 transgender/rather
not say, Mage = 35.45, SD = 13.05). Of this sample, 79.5% were White/Caucasian, 7%
African American, 7% Asian, 3% Hispanic, 1% Native American, 0.5% Pacific Islander
and 2% Other. Forty five per cent indicated that they were Christian (e.g., Catholic,
Baptist, Protestant, Methodist), 42% had no religion or were atheist, 3.5% agnostic, 2.5%
Jewish, 2% Buddhist, 1% Hindu and 4% Other (e.g., ‘spiritual’ and wiccan). They were
each paid US $1 for their time. The design of the study was correlational. The predictor
variables were anthropomorphism, the tendency to perceive intentionality in inanimate
shapes, paranormal beliefs, and a range of demographic factors as measured in Study 1.
The dependent variable was belief in well-known conspiracy theories.
Materials and Procedure
As in Study 1, the online questionnaire was designed using the Qualtrics
software and first presented participants with an information page where they were asked
to give their informed consent. Participants then completed the measures in random
order, except for the demographic measures which always appeared in the same order at
the end of the questionnaire. 4 They were asked to read a series of statements related to
Belief in conspiracy theories 18
conspiracy theories as in Study 1, but this time there were 17 statements in total (Douglas
& Sutton, 2011; α = .87). 5
As in Study 1, participants also completed the individual differences in
anthropomorphism scale (IDAQ; Waytz et al., 2010; α = .89). They were also asked to
view the animation used by Heider and Simmel (1944) and answer the same questions as
in Study. As in Study 1, the two types of questions used in the Heider and Simmel task
were significantly correlated, r(330) = .80, p <.001 and an exploratory factor analysis
using oblique rotation (promax) revealed one factor explaining 69.62 per cent of the
variance. As in Study 1, we therefore combined the two types of questions into a single
10-item scale (α = .95). In contrast to Study 1, we note here that the two measures of
HAD (anthropomorphism and perceived intentionality) were significantly correlated,
r(330) = .25, p <.001.
Participants also completed a scale of paranormal beliefs (Eckblad & Chapman,
1983). Here, they read a series of 30 statements (e.g., “Some people can make me aware
of them just by thinking about me”, “I have sometimes felt that strangers were reading
my mind”) and were asked to rate their agreement on a five-point scale (1 = strongly
disagree, 5 = strongly agree; α = .87). Finally, participants were asked to provide the
same demographic details as in Study 1. At the completion of the questionnaire,
participants were debriefed, thanked and paid.
Results and Discussion
Only two people indicated that they were transgender or would rather not say.
We therefore examined if there was a gender difference in conspiracy belief between
females and males. No such gender difference existed, t(326) = -0.47, p = .641. There
was also no relationship between age and belief in conspiracy theories, r(328) = -.08, p =
Belief in conspiracy theories 19
.155. Gender and age were therefore not analysed further. As in Study 1, we also did not
analyse results for ethnic or religious differences since numbers were too unequal.
Means and standard deviations for all variables, and correlations between
variables, are presented in Table 4. Beliefs in conspiracy theories were positively
correlated with paranormal beliefs, anthropomorphism, perceived intentionality,
religiosity, and political conservatism. They were negatively correlated with education
level, annual income and socioeconomic status. Also, paranormal beliefs were positively
correlated with the two different measures of agency detection.
We entered all variables into a step-wise regression where Step 1 included
demographic variables (R2 change = .13, F(5,321) = 10.88, p < .001), Step 2 further
included education level (R2 change = .17, F(1,322) = 14.69, p < .001), and Step 3 further
included anthropomorphism, perceived intentionality and paranormal belief (R2 change =
.40, F(3,318) = 43.20, p < .001). Findings of the final model are presented in Table 5.
There was no evidence of collinearity (all tolerances > .60 and all VIF < 1.7). The overall
regression model was significant, F(9, 327) = 25.46, p < .001 and accounted for 40.2% of
the variance in conspiracy belief. As in Study 1, anthropomorphism was a significant
predictor, but this time perceived intentionality was a marginal predictor (p = .06).
Paranormal beliefs, political conservatism, education level and socioeconomic status also
remained as significant predictors. Crucially however, despite the inclusion of
paranormal beliefs and demographic variables that significantly predicted conspiracy
belief, anthropomorphism and perceived intentionality remained significant predictors.
That is, hypersensitivity to agency appears to be a unique predictor of beliefs in
conspiracy theories.
To test the predicted pattern of mediation between education level and belief in
conspiracy theories via attributions of intentionality, bootstrapped mediation analyses
Belief in conspiracy theories 20
(10,000 resamples) again examined the indirect effect of education level on conspiracy
belief via anthropomorphism and perceived intentionality using the PROCESS macro for
SPSS (model 4; see Hayes, 2013). Including age, religiosity, political conservatism,
annual household income and perceived SES as covariates, there was an indirect effect of
education level on belief in conspiracy theories via anthropomorphism but not responses
on the Heider and Simmel task or paranormal belief (see Table 6). These results mirror
those of Study 1.
As in Study 1, anthropomorphism and perceived intentionality were significant
predictors of belief in conspiracy theories. Again, anthropomorphism accounted for the
relationship between education level and belief in conspiracy theories. Crucially
however, despite the inclusion of paranormal beliefs, anthropomorphism still uniquely
accounted for the relationship between education level and belief in conspiracy theories.
General Discussion
The current studies demonstrate that education level predicts the extent to which
people endorse conspiracy theories and that this relationship is mediated by the general
tendency to attribute intentionality and agency where it does not exist, or is unlikely to
exist. In Study 1, people with lower levels of education were more likely to endorse
conspiratorial explanations for well-known events, and this occurred because they were
also more likely to attribute agency and intentionality to inanimate objects. In Study 2,
we replicated this effect and showed that it occurred even when taking into account more
general beliefs in the paranormal. The current findings therefore suggest that conspiracy
theorizing may partially be a consequence of a specific thinking style assuming that
events have an underlying intentional cause when they most likely do not and that this
thinking style may be somewhat changed by education.
Belief in conspiracy theories 21
Researchers have put forward a variety of suggestions for dealing with the
influence of conspiracy theories, when negative consequences are anticipated (e.g.,
radicalization). For example, Sunstein and Vermeule (2009) proposed that governments
may wish to ban conspiracy theories or impose a tax upon people who release material
about conspiracy theories into the public domain. Alternatively, governments may put
forward counterarguments or hire private parties for help, or to communicate
counterarguments. Finally, officials could engage in “cognitive infiltration” by entering
conspiracist groups and planting ideas to tempt people away from conspiracy theories.
However, we know that conspiracy theories are resistant to correction (Sunstein &
Vermeule, 2009; Jolley & Douglas, 2014b), so many of these suggestions may be in
addition to being arguably undemocratic and somewhat impractical ineffective in
addressing the consequences of conspiracy theories.
Although the correlations between education level and conspiracy belief were
modest in the current studies, and therefore many other factors must predict belief in
conspiracy theories, the current findings suggest that education may be one alternative
factor in addressing any negative influence of conspiracy theories. Specifically, in the
current studies individuals with higher levels of education were less likely to see
intentionality everywhere and less likely to believe in conspiracy theories. Consistent
with this finding, Swami et al. (2014) have recently proposed that making people more
analytical thinkers may be one way to address potentially harmful conspiracy theories.
They provide evidence that encouraging analytical thinking in a laboratory setting
reduces conspiracy belief at least temporarily. There is also some evidence that time
spent in education decreases susceptibility to the reasoning bias known as the ‘myside
bias’ in which people evaluate, generate and test hypotheses in a way that is biased
toward their own prior opinions and attitudes (Toplak & Stanovich, 2003).
Belief in conspiracy theories 22
However, education may not only equip people with analytical thinking skills. If
this was the case in our research, we could perhaps expect the link between education
and conspiracy belief to be mediated also by paranormal belief. Instead, education may
equip people with the unique skills to understand non-intentional causality that not
everything happens intentionally, or for a purpose. What these exact tools may be is an
important subject of future research. One potential approach may be to target critical
thinking skills, which involve the ability and willingness to analyze, synthesize and
evaluate arguments or evidence. Critical thinking skills allow individuals to determine
whether conclusions follow logically from evidence, and to consider alternative
explanations (e.g., Griggs, Jackson, Marek & Christopher, 1998). Perhaps critical
thinking skills would enable individuals, long-term, to separate realistic, non-intentional
causal explanations from those that attribute blame to others with little or no justification.
Further research is needed to understand exactly why and how higher levels of education
predict lower levels of conspiracy belief. Research may also consider ways in which
other distal predictors of conspiracy belief may be intervened upon to reduce conspiracy
beliefs that are potentially harmful.
Douglas, Sutton, Jolley and Wood (in press) propose such a proactive method of
allaying the potentially harmful effects of conspiracy theories. As Douglas et al. noted,
many of the known predictors of conspiracy belief are alterable. One of these predictors
is the tendency to make errors in logical and probabilistic reasoning (Brotherton &
French, 2014), and another is the tendency toward magical thinking (e.g., Darwin et al.,
2011; Newheiser et al., 2011; Stieger et al., 2013; Swami, Coles et al., 2013). It is not
clear whether these tendencies can be corrected (Eckblad & Chapman, 1983; Peltzer,
2003), but evidence suggests that they can be reduced by training in logic and in
probability specifically (e.g., Agnoli & Krantz, 1989; Sedlmeier & Gigerenzer, 2001).
Belief in conspiracy theories 23
The current findings suggest that interventions targeting the automatic attribution of
intentionality may be effective in reducing the tendency to believe in conspiracy theories.
In conclusion, it is important to note that addressing conspiracy theories in a
broader educational context does not necessarily encourage people to reject conspiracy
theories completely. Whilst some conspiracy theories may cause problems, some hold
true and play an important part in making authorities responsible for their actions. It is
therefore somewhat a value judgment whether intervening on conspiracy theories is ever
appropriate. Rather, addressing conspiracy theories in an educational context may allow
people to learn the tools to critically examine information about the causes of events and
make informed rather than automatic judgments that the causes must have been
intentional.
Belief in conspiracy theories 24
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Table 1. Means, (standard deviations) and correlations between all variables measured in Study 1.
Measures
M (SD)
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
6.
7.
8.
9.
1. Conspiracy
belief
2.75 (1.28)
--
.35**
.17*
-.20**
-.09
.27**
-.13+
-.13+
-.06
2. Anthropo-
morphism
3.67 (1.55)
--
.11
-.28***
-.36***
.12
-.21**
-.11
-.09
3. Perceived
intentionality
3.23 (1.18)
--
.02
-.02
.12+
.03
-.02
.05
4. Age
32.4 (12.20)
--
.23**
.12+
.21**
.21**
.04
5. Religiosity
1.74 (.90)
--
.34***
.19**
-.02
.16*
6. Political
conservatism
3.46 (1.46)
--
.02
-.01
.07
7. Education level
3.68 (0.78)
--
.28***
.29***
8. Annual
household
income
5.08 (2.98)
--
.46***
9. Socioeconomic
status
2.96 (1.73)
--
* p < .05, ** p < .01, *** p < .001, + p < .10
Conspiracy theories 35
Table 2. Regression coefficients for the analyses of Study 1 (dependent variable is
conspiracy belief)
_______________________________________________________________________
Predictor variable β t
_______________________________________________________________________
Anthropomorphism .249 3.65***
Perceived intentionality .130 2.00*
Age -.160 -2.27*
Religiosity .078 1.10
Political conservatism .224 3.26**
Education level -.051 -.73
Annual household income .030 .40
Socioeconomic status -.037 -.50
_______________________________________________________________________
* p < .05
** p < .01
*** p < .001
Conspiracy theories 36
Table 3. Simple mediation of the indirect effects of education level on belief in
conspiracy theories through anthropomorphism, and responses on the Heider and Simmel
task (Study 1).
Effect Boot SE BootLLCI BootULCI
_____________________________________________________________________
TOTAL -.0566 .0436 -.1573 .0174
Anthropomorphism -.0631 .0369 -.1593 -.0075
Heider and Simmel .0066 .0171 -.0212 .0504
______________________________________________________________________
Conspiracy theories 37
Table 4. Means, (standard deviations) and correlations between all variables measured in Study 2.
* p < .05, ** p < .01, *** p < .001, + p < .10
Measures
M (SD)
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
6.
7.
8.
9.
10.
1. Conspiracy
belief
2.40 (1.19)
--
.41**
.22*
-.08
.19**
.28**
-.26**
-.12*
-.16
.52***
2. Anthropo-
morphism
3.64 (1.59)
--
.25***
-.23**
.09+
.07
-.19**
-.07
-.05
.49***
3. Perceived
intentionality
2.95 (1.26)
--
.03
.03
.00
-.05
.02
-.01
.22***
4. Age
35.45 (13.05)
--
.26***
.20***
.09
.08
-.01
-.25***
5. Religiosity
2.01 (1.07)
--
.33***
.00
-.04
-.04
.14*
6. Political
conservatism
3.58 (1.67)
--
.03
.13*
.10
.02
7. Education level
3.71 (0.80)
--
.31***
.27***
-.15**
8. Annual
household
income
5.39 (3.04)
--
.59***
-.16**
9. Socioeconomic
status
3.34 (1.60)
--
-.09
10. Paranormal
belief
3.93 (0.68)
--
Conspiracy theories 38
Table 5. Regression coefficients for the analyses of Study 2 (dependent variable is
conspiracy belief).
_______________________________________________________________________
Predictor variable β t
_______________________________________________________________________
Anthropomorphism .166 3.21**
Perceived intentionality .085 1.89+
Age .007 .144
Religiosity .021 .45
Political conservatism .263 5.68***
Education level -.134 -2.77**
Annual household income .050 .919
Socioeconomic status -.150 -2.77**
Paranormal belief .394 7.71***
_______________________________________________________________________
+ p = .060
* p < .05
** p < .01
*** p < .001
Conspiracy theories 39
Table 6. Simple mediation of the indirect effects of education level on belief in
conspiracy theories through anthropomorphism, responses on the Heider and Simmel
task, and paranormal belief (Study 2).
Effect Boot SE BootLLCI BootULCI
_____________________________________________________________________
TOTAL -.1055 .0479 -.2036 -.0143
Anthropomorphism -.0444 .0221 -.1028 -.0121
Heider and Simmel -.0084 .0095 -.0380 .0030
Paranormal belief -.0526 .0344 -.1234 .0122
______________________________________________________________________
Conspiracy theories 40
Footnotes
1 The current study was part of a larger-scale investigation including measures that form
part of a separate project. These were the extent to which participants felt that they
themselves would take part in real-world conspiracies if placed in the situation of the
alleged conspirators (Douglas & Sutton, 2011), personal need for structure
(Thompson, Naccarato & Parker, 1989), desirability of control (Burger & Cooper,
1979), just world beliefs (Rubin & Peplau, 1975), trust (Goertzel, 1994; Yamagishi &
Yamagishi, 1994), the dark triad of personality (Jonason & Webster, 2010), and
immanent justice reasoning based on ambiguous scenarios (Callan, Sutton, Harvey &
Dawtry, 2014). We also included paranormal beliefs in this study (Eckblad &
Chapman, 1983) but due to an error in the randomization of scales, we were not able
to analyse the results.
2 A meta-analysis showed that the weighted mean correlation between conspiracy belief
and education level across Studies 1 and 2 (fixed effects) was significant, r = -.21,
95% CI = [-.29, -.13], Z = 4.93, p < .001 (Lipsey & Wilson, 2001).
3 We measured these variables again in Study 2, and in contrast to Study 1 they were
significantly correlated. Note however that a Fisher r-to-z transformation revealed
that the coefficients for Study 1 and Study 2 were not significantly different (z = -.161,
p = .107). Therefore, the different finding across the two studies could simply be due
to variation around conventional p-values.
4 As was the case for Study 1, Study 2 was part of a larger-scale investigation including
measures that form part of a separate project. These were uniqueness-seeking (Snyder
& Fromkin, 1977), preference for intentional causes as attributions (McClure et al.,
2007), social capital (Cozzolino, 2011; Welzel, Ingelhard & Deutsch, 2005), just
Conspiracy theories 41
world beliefs (Rubin & Peplau, 1975), and immanent justice reasoning based on
ambiguous scenarios (Callan et al., 2014).
5 Participants also completed a scale of generic conspiracist ideation (Brotherton,
Pickering & French, 2013) where they were asked to rate the extent to which they
think that 10 statements are true (e.g., “The government is involved in the murder of
innocent citizens and/or well-known public figures, and keeps this a secret”, 1 =
definitely not true, 5 = definitely true; α = .95). Brotherton et al. have argued that
measuring conspiracy beliefs via agreement with popular conspiracy theories can be
problematic because many conspiracy theories are culture-specific. However, the
patterns of results were the same as for the well-known conspiracy theories scale we
report so we do not report the results for the Brotherton et al. (2013) scale here.
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