Distrust and paranoia about government has a long history in the U.S and can lead to suspicion about claims made by authorities and belief in conspiracies.
Now, a new study suggests that the attraction to conspiracy theories can lead some to endorse entirely contradictory beliefs.
Researchers discovered people who endorse conspiracy theories see authorities as fundamentally deceptive. This belief that the “official story” is untrue can lead people to believe several alternative theories – despite contradictions among them.
“Any conspiracy theory that stands in opposition to the official narrative will gain some degree of endorsement from someone who holds a conspiracist worldview,” according to Drs. Michael Wood, Karen Douglas and Robbie Sutton of the University of Kent’s psychology department.
To see if conspiracy views were strong enough to lead to inconsistencies, the researchers asked 137 college students about the death of Princess Diana.
The more people thought there “was an official campaign by the intelligence service to assassinate Diana,” the more they also believed that “Diana faked her own death to retreat into isolation.”
By the way, Diana cannot be simultaneously dead and alive.
The researchers wanted to know if the contradictory beliefs were due to suspicion of authorities, so they asked 102 college students about the death of Osama bin Laden.
People who believed that “when the raid took place, Osama bin Laden was already dead,” were significantly more likely to also believe that “Osama bin Laden is still alive.”
Researchers found this contradiction was associated with the belief that “actions of the Obama administration indicate that they are hiding some important or damaging piece of information about the raid.”
Thus, belief in a conspiracy is so strong that it blinds individuals who can then believe completely inconsistent ideas.
“For conspiracy theorists, those in power are seen as deceptive – even malevolent – and so any official explanation is at a disadvantage, and any alternative explanation is more credible from the start,” said the authors.
It is no surprise that fear, mistrust, and even paranoia can lead to muddled thinking; when distrust is engaged, careful reasoning can fall by the wayside.
“Believing Osama is still alive,” they write, ‘is no obstacle to believing that he has been dead for years.”
The research is found in the current issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science.