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How You Could Fall Victim To Conspiracy Theories

Written by Tom

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You don’t have to be a Lady Gaga fan to disagree with the Facebook video Alex Jones posted before the pop star’s Super Bowl performance this month.

Jones, a member of the so-called “alt-right” and founder of the conspiracy website InfoWars, told viewers to avoid watching Gaga’s performance because, he claimed, Gaga is part of a totalitarian “new world order.”

“She’s reportedly going to be on top of the Super Bowl, they’re saying she may cancel doing this, on top of the stadium, ruling over everyone with drones everywhere, surveilling them in a big swarm,” says conspiracy theorist Jones in the video. “To just condition them that I am the Goddess of Satan, ruling over you with the rise of the robots in a ritual of lesser magic.”

While this sounds ridiculous to the outside viewer, devotees will see this as yet another example of the powerful elite conspiring to overthrow the government.

In fact, conspiratorial thinking and social exclusion can trigger a vicious cycle that further isolates those who believe false narratives, according to a study published in the March edition of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology that’s already available online.

This can lead to real world consequences, like when an armed man entered a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant to investigate Pizzagate, an outlandish conspiracy theory that some alleged 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and campaign chairman John Podesta were running a child sex ring from the venue. The claim was debunked, but not before people including retired Gen. Mike Flynn, who went on to briefly become National Security Advisor under President Donald Trump’s administration before resigning, tweeting the outrageous claims.

It works like this: You feel socially excluded and begin believing conspiracy theories. Endorsing those theories, unsurprisingly, prompts your family and friends to exclude you even more. You’re left out again and again, so you double down on your conspiratorial beliefs.

The final stage of the cycle: You seek out a like-minded community that accepts and reinforces your conspiratorial beliefs. 

“At that point they become unchangeable,” Study author Alin Coman, assistant professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University, told The Huffington Post.

“Social exclusion leads to search for meaning,” Coman continued. “We believe that this search for meaning ‘overshoots’ in a way that makes people assign meaning to situations that are highly ambiguous and meaningless.”

Part one of the study included 119 participants recruited using Amazon Mechanical Turk. Participants wrote about a unpleasant experience they’d had with a close friend recently, then rated how socially excluded they felt after the event. Next, participants filled out a meaning in life questionaire, which included statements such as “I have discovered a satisfying life purpose.”

Finally, participants assessed how much they believed in the following conspiracy theories:

  • Pharmaceutical companies withhold cures for financial reasons.
  • Governments use messages below the level of awareness to influence people’s decisions.
  • Events in the Bermuda Triangle constitute evidence of paranormal activity.

Part two of the study included 102 Princeton University students aged, on average, 20. The second part of the study mirrored the first, also requiring participants to write descriptions of themselves and the people they wanted to be, in addition to the exercises above.

Researchers concluded that when the participants felt excluded, they were more likely to endorse conspiracy theories.

And intelligent people aren’t immune to conspiracy theories, either.

Even highly educated affluent individuals can fall prey to conspiracy theories and superstitious beliefs.
Study author Alin Coman

Notably, many of the participants in Coman’s study were Ivy League students, a sharp contrast to the popular perception that conspiracy theorists are an uneducated lot. 

“Even highly educated affluent individuals can fall prey to conspiracy theories and superstitious beliefs,” Coman said. “It can happen to anyone.”

And while the new study didn’t specifically address today’s post-factual political climate, Coman did have a few suggestions for disrupting the cycle if a friend or family member falls prey to a conspiracy.

First-line defenses include fostering inclusive environments and disputing unproven facts and conspiracies in group discussions settings.

You can also educate yourself about your own biases and take a critical look at your media consumption, experts believe. If you agree with every political post in your social media feed, as well as all of the pundits in the news shows you watch, you’re setting yourself up for confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias, or seeking out information that supports your previously established beliefs, isn’t just lazy. It’s dangerous.

If you ignore factual or scientific evidence because it is at odds with your worldview, you’re an easy target for conspiracy theories ― regardless of your political affiliation or intelligence (see: anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists against Genetically Modified Organisms, climate change deniers and 9-11 “Truthers”). 

There’s also value in interacting with people on social media, and in the real world, who you disagree with. “Make an effort to connect and interact with individuals who hold dissenting views,” Coman said. “A society in which very few members feel excluded is probably more resistant to the propagation of misinformation.”

This reporting is brought to you by HuffPost’s health and science platform, The Scope. Like us on Facebook and Twitter and tell us your story: scopestories@huffingtonpost.com

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