Interview with Prof Karen Douglas
Karen Douglas is a professor of social psychology at the University of Kent. She studies why people believe in conspiracy theories, and what the consequences of conspiracy theories are for individuals, groups, and societies.
As a social psychology scholar, what brought you to conspiracy theories as a research subject in the first place?
I have always been interested in the psychology of attitudes and attitude change. I have also studied how people’s behaviour is influenced by new communication technologies. A few years ago, I came across some conspiracy theories online while looking for study materials on another topic, and I became intrigued by them. I was interested to learn more about how persuasive they are and why people are drawn to these ideas. My first project on this topic was an investigation of how much people are persuaded by conspiracy theories, and my research went from there.
You have mentioned that conspiracy theories are partly influenced by people’s epistemic need to find an explanation that is proportional to the event itself. Do you think that is attributed to a lack of education and awareness of how complex and flawed human decision-making and the world is?
I would argue that people’s belief in conspiracy theories is driven by three important psychological needs (epistemic, existential, and social). Specifically, people need knowledge and certainty (epistemic), to feel safe, secure and in control (existential), and to feel good about themselves and the groups they belong to (social). When these important needs are not being met, conspiracy theories seem to hold some appeal. Much more research has linked conspiracy beliefs to the epistemic needs compared to others, and one of the key predictors of conspiracy beliefs is indeed education. Specifically, more educated people tend to believe in conspiracy theories less. This points to the possibility that education could provide people with valuable skills enabling them to spot conspiracy theories when they see them, and then reject them.
You also talked about the lack of trust in experts leading to people believing in conspiracy theories. Do you think the attacks on experts and the ongoing issue of disinformation created the circumstances for the recent conspiracy theories to thrive?
Trust is generally a strong predictor of belief in conspiracy theories. If people do not trust experts, then they are more likely to think that these groups are conspiring against them. Over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic there has been a lot of negative commentary about experts, and a downplaying or outright rejection of expert advice. This confuses people and further fuels uncertainty and mistrust. It creates perfect circumstances for conspiracy theories.
I am also interested in one of your studies that showed a correlation between people believing the world is unjust and conspiracy beliefs. Do you think inequality also contributes to conspiratorial thinking?
Some studies have demonstrated that people with lower levels of income are more prone to conspiracy beliefs, and others have shown that people from ethnic minority groups are also more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. This suggests that some level of disadvantage may be predicting a tendency to believe in conspiracy theories. However, more research needs to be done to understand why these relationships exist.
Are there any master narratives in the conspiracy theories universe?
The most common feature of a conspiracy theory is that something is being covered up. Most conspiracy theories can be boiled down to this single feature. This common feature is also a reason why people can believe in several different conspiracy theories about the same event at the same time. As long as they all cohere with the general idea that something isn’t right, then the exact details themselves matter less.
Some of the conspiracy theories have really weird focus, like 5G. The idea of ICT systems affecting public health is not new, but with 5G it escalated to attacks on staff and infrastructure. Can you talk about what’s specific about 5G related conspiracy theories?
As you mentioned, perceived links between technology and negative health outcomes are not new. However, the unique feature of the 5G-Covid conspiracy theories is that people seem prepared to act on them. Not a lot of people believe this conspiracy theory, but those who do seem prepared to commit acts of violence based on those beliefs.