Why Education (Sometimes) Protects People From Conspiracy Theorizing

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One of the more persistent beliefs about “fake news” and false beliefs in general is that if only people were more educated and knew more about the world around them, they wouldn’t fall victim to these viral ideas. People often take this claim a bit too far, as though an educating magic wand could rid the world of conspiracy theorizing, when in reality people always have and always will believe in conspiracy theories — this is a deeply embedded part of who we are as a species — and plenty of people who do are highly educated.

That said, there is some sort of connection between education level and one’s susceptibility to conspiratorial beliefs. It’s just complicated, as an interesting new paper shows.

Summing up two new survey experiments conducted by the psychologist Jan-Willem Van Prooijen of VU Amsterdam and published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, Christian Jarrett of the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest explains that in both the studies, Van Prooijen found an inverse link between level of education and belief in conspiracy theories like the idea that the moon landing was a hoax.

Here’s where many people would stop and say, Of course — people with more education have more critical-thinking skills and knowledge to draw upon, so it’s easier for them to see through nonsense. But whatever’s going on here actually seems more complicated than that. Jarrett notes that “this [link] seemed to be explained in part by more educated participants feeling more in control, having less belief in simple solutions, and having stronger analytical skills.” So part of it, in this study at least, had to do with analytical skills, but there also appears to be a connection between education and one’s broader sense of one’s place in the world, and understanding of how it works. That is, if you feel like you’re not really in control of what’s going on and desire simple solutions, it’s natural some conspiracy theories will appeal to you. This ties into past research showing that people with high need for closure, or a desire for the world to exist in simple, black-and-white terms, are more likely to fall for certain sorts of conspiratorial beliefs. But, again, it’s complicated — this was a correlational study, and it may well be the case that people who favor complicated views of the world are more likely to seek out extensive education, and/or are more likely to be from the sorts of families that value education and pressure them to pursue it.

Jarrett excerpts Van Prooijen writing that “the relationship between education and belief in conspiracy theories cannot be reduced to a single psychological mechanism but is the product of the complex interplay of multiple psychological processes.” This is important to keep in mind when considering the causal story here, both because we know that in most cases, simply giving someone more education or information is unlikely to change their strongly held beliefs, and because, again, plenty of educated people believe in conspiracy theories, too. People who fall for conspiracy theories often desire simple explanations for complex events; we shouldn’t fall for the same trick in trying to understand conspiracy theorists.

Why Education (Sometimes) Prevents Conspiracy Theorizing