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Most Existing Methods to Tackle Conspiracy Beliefs Are Ineffective, Study Finds

The research is the first comprehensive review of the effectiveness of existing methods for tackling conspiracy beliefs

by University College Cork
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A new review of methods for reducing conspiracy beliefs has shown that most methods are ineffective, but that those focused on fostering critical thinking or an analytical mindset show some promise.

Led by researchers at University College Cork (UCC), the study is the first comprehensive review of the effectiveness of various conspiracy interventions. It is published in PLOS ONE

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While holding conspiracy beliefs has been associated with several detrimental social, personal, and health consequences, little research has been dedicated to systematically reviewing the methods that could reduce conspiracy beliefs.

To examine approaches to reducing conspiracy beliefs, UCC researchers conducted a systematic review to analyze 25 previously published studies, with a total of 7,179 participants. Various types of interventions were considered. Some studies employed straightforward counterarguments against conspiracy theories, and others used ways of priming participants to have a more analytical mindset before asking them about their conspiracy beliefs.

The analysis showed that only half of the interventions reported any significant changes in participants’ conspiracy beliefs, and only a handful produced changes with moderate or large effects. The findings suggest that most existing methods for changing conspiracy beliefs are ineffective. Notably, the most effective interventions tend to be presented to participants before the participants were exposed to conspiracy statements—an approach often referred to as “information inoculation.”

According to Cian O’Mahony, UCC School of Applied Psychology and study lead researcher: “While the intuitive solution to countering unfounded conspiracy beliefs is to present facts and arguments that contradict the conspiracy explanation, our review indicates that this approach is among the least effective. Our analysis highlights that fostering analytical mindsets and explicitly teaching critical thinking skills is a more promising method for challenging conspiracy beliefs. While there is no currently silver bullet that can completely mitigate misinformation spread by conspiracy beliefs, our review highlights some promising trends for future research.”

Key findings include:

  • Rational counterarguments that described the factual inaccuracies of conspiracy theories were found to have only very small to small effects.
  • Counterarguments that appealed to participant’s sense of empathy, outlining the damages that can result from conspiracy beliefs was found to have very small effects.
  • Counterarguments that attempted to ridicule those who held conspiracy beliefs also produced only very small effects in terms of reducing conspiracy beliefs.
  • The most effective methods were those that drew attention to the factual inaccuracies of conspiracy beliefs prior to presenting participants with conspiracy statements.
  • An analytical mindset and critical thinking skills are the most effective means of challenging conspiracy beliefs. Participants who were primed to have an analytical mindset were less likely to have conspiracy beliefs than controls.
  • A three-month educational course on differentiating between scientific and pseudoscientific practices was most effective.

“Further research is needed to identify strategies that best counter conspiracy beliefs through critical thinking and analytical mindsets. Our aim is not to tell the public what to believe or disbelieve, but to encourage them through these interventions to critically appraise conspiracy beliefs to determine themselves what they should believe,” Cian O’Mahony said.

Professor John F. Cryan, UCC Vice President for Research and Innovation, said: “Congratulations to Cian and co-workers in the School of Applied Psychology on their published work, which reviews existing methods for reducing conspiracy beliefs. These findings inform us on which interventions are the most effective in terms of changing conspiracy beliefs and will have a positive effect on how society deals with the effects of conspiracy theories in the fake-news era. I look forward to the future development of research in this area.”

- This press release was originally published on the University College Cork website