One way politicians deflect charges of wrongdoing is by uttering the words "conspiracy theory." The term suggests a certain level of looniness, conjuring images of paranoid people struggling to find sinister patterns in random events.
Or does it? University of Winchester psychologist Michael Wood decided to test whether the widely disparaged two-word phrase is really as pejorative as most of us assume.
To his surprise, he found it is not.
In two experiments, Wood found labeling an assertion a conspiracy theory had no significant effect on whether people believed it to be true. This held for generic statements about cover-ups and abuses of power, actual historical events, and a fictional incident set in a foreign country.
"It is possible that the conspiracy-theory label has simply lost some of the power it once had," Wood writes in the journal Political Psychology.
"Even when someone's very first exposure to an allegation of political corruption is seeing it branded as a conspiracy theory, they are no less likely to take it seriously than if it is instead called a corruption allegation."
Wood's first experiment featured 150 American residents recruited online. They were presented with a series of 15 "nonspecific statements regarding abuses of power and cover-ups," and another five that referred to actual historical incidents. Participants were asked to rate each on a five-point scale ranging from "not at all likely" to "extremely likely" to be true.
Approximately half the participants had these assertions framed as "conspiracy theories," while the others had them labeled as "ideas."
For example, those in the first group were asked "How likely is the conspiracy theory that the government permits or perpetuates acts of terrorism upon its own soil, disguising its involvement?" For those in the second group, the term "conspiracy theory" was replaced by "idea."
Wood reports that "Calling something a conspiracy theory failed to have any effect on people's evaluation of it. This was an unexpected result, and it runs counter to a longstanding assumption both within and outside academia."
He decided to perform a second experiment to see if labeling an assertion a conspiracy theory has an impact if it refers to "something the participant does not yet have a strong opinion on." To that end, he created a fictitious news article about a scandal in Canada, in which the ruling party was accused of misappropriating public funds to fund an election campaign.
This was then evaluated by 802 Americans. For half of the participants, the headline on the story read "Conspiracy Theories Emerge in Wake of Canadian Election Result." For the others, "Corruption Allegations" was substituted for "Conspiracy Theories." Participants were asked the degree to which they found the accusations likely, plausible, and convincing.
Once again, Wood found using the term "conspiracy theory" did not significantly alter people's opinions. "Even when someone's very first exposure to an allegation of political corruption is seeing it branded as a conspiracy theory, they are no less likely to take it seriously than if it is instead called a corruption allegation," he writes.
So how did the term lose its negative sting? Wood speculates this may reflect the "romanticized image of conspiracy theories in popular media," such as films in which the lone hero takes on a sinister cabal. Or perhaps the meaning of the term has been diluted "to include mundane speculation regarding corruption and political intrigue," he adds.
In any case, his findings suggest that, if you want to discredit an allegation, simply calling it a "conspiracy theory" won't do the trick. Unless, of course, his nearly 1,000 participants were all in on a devious scam and trying to fool us. But to what end? Hmmm....
Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.