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The Hidden Impact of Conspiracy Theories

May 27, 2008

By Douglas, Karen M Sutton, Robbie M

ABSTRACT. The authors examined the perceived and actual impact of exposure to conspiracy theories surrounding the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997. One group of undergraduate students rated their agreement and their classmates’ perceived agreement with several statements about Diana’s death. A second group of students from the same undergraduate population read material containing popular conspiracy theories about Diana’s death before rating their own and others’ agreement with the same statements and perceived retrospective attitudes (i.e., what they thought their own and others’ attitudes were before reading the material). Results revealed that whereas participants in the second group accurately estimated others’ attitude changes, they underestimated the extent to which their own attitudes were influenced. Keywords: attitude change or persuasion, conspiracy theories, self-other bias, thirdperson effect

ON SUNDAY, AUGUST 31, 1997, the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, shocked the world. Almost immediately after the event, people began to question the circumstances surrounding the accident that killed her and her partner, Dodi Fayed. Was the limousine driver, Henri Paul, drunk, and, if so, was his dangerous driving a contributory factor in the crash? Did the paparazzi chase the limousine into the Paris tunnel, forcing Henri Paul to drive too fast? Not surprisingly, people wanted to understand the factors that contributed to the death of the princess. However, in addition to plausible explanations for the crash, there soon emerged a series of less plausible accounts that fall under the banner of the popular term conspiracy theories. Generally, the conspiracy theories surrounding Diana’s death invoke more powerful, complicated, or sinister explanations for the events than most likely occurred. For example, one theory implicates the British secret service (MI6) in a plot to assassinate the princess. Another suggests that Diana staged her death so that she and Dodi Fayed could retreat into isolation (LondonNet, 2005).

Scholars characterize conspiracy theories as attempts to explain the ultimate cause of an event (usually one that is political or social) as a secret plot by a covert alliance of powerful individuals or organizations, rather than as an overt activity or natural occurrence (e.g., McCauley & Jacques, 1979). Attempts to explain why some individuals believe conspiracy theories have focused on people’s need to explain events that are beyond their control. In particular, some researchers view belief in conspiracy theories as a response to powerlessness; in the face of increasingly vast and anonymous bureaucratic forces, conspiracy theories allow people to come to terms with the possibility that these underlying forces shape their future (e.g., Melley, 2002). Similarly, other researchers view conspiracy theories as a means for less powerful individuals to imagine themselves in possession of important or secret information (e.g., Mason, 2002).

The belief in conspiracy theories is often seen as foolish and illogical (e.g., Melley, 2002; Shermer, 1997; Willman, 2002); indeed, the term itself is somewhat dismissive and pejorative. Nonetheless, the popularity of conspiracy theories often grows with time, and theories also become more elaborate over time (McHoskey, 1995). Conspiracy theories surround many other historical and social events, such as the origins of AIDS (e.g., Parsons, Simmons, Shinhoster, & Kilburn, 1999; Simmons & Parsons, 2005) and the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy (e.g., McCauley & Jacques, 1979; McHoskey, 1995). The belief in conspiracy theories is also associated with psychological variables such as perceived power. For instance, Parsons et al. claimed that the more influence African American individuals believe themselves to have over political processes, the less likely they are to believe conspiracy theories against African Americans. Belief in conspiracy theories among African Americans has also been linked to system blame or perceived societal prejudice against them (Crocker, Luhtanen, Broadnax, & Blaine, 1999). Additionally, researchers have linked the belief in conspiracy theories to a general tendency to mistrust other people (Goertzel, 1994). Furthermore, people who believe one conspiracy theory are more likely to believe in others (Goertzel, 1994). Given the popularity of conspiracy theories and the relationships between belief in such theories and psychological variables, it is surprising that little research has been conducted to examine the psychological impact of exposure to conspiracy theories. To what extent do conspiracy theories actually influence people’s attitudes? Are people generally aware of the impact of conspiracy theories on their attitudes, or do they think themselves invulnerable? We addressed these questions in the current study.

Conspiracy Theories and the Third-Person Effect

Research on the third-person effect provides a starting point for the present study. The third-person effect (TPE; Davison, 1983) is the tendency for people to believe that persuasive media influence others more than themselves. Researchers have documented this finding in a variety of contexts, including politics and news (e.g., Duck, Hogg, & Terry, 1995) and advertising (e.g., David & Johnson, 1998; Duck, Hogg, & Terry, 1998, 1999; Gibbon & Durkin, 1995; Gunther & Thorson, 1992; Innes & Zeitz, 1988). That research indicates that people generally feel that others are more gullible than themselves and that others should therefore be protected from potentially damaging attempts to change their attitudes and behaviors.

Research on the TPE is useful in considering the impact of exposure to conspiracy theories on people’s attitudes. As is the case with persuasive media such as advertising, people may not want to admit that they are influenced by conspiracy theories because this may make them appear vulnerable, easily led astray, or weak- minded (Shermer, 1997). Admitting they are influenced by conspiracy theories may also be threatening to their self-esteem, just as admitting they are vulnerable to persuasive advertising is threatening (Duck et al., 1995; Duck & Mullin, 1995; Perloff, 1989). Therefore, people may be happy to assume that others are influenced by conspiracy theories but not willing to admit to being swayed by these theories themselves.

However, recent research demonstrates that although people may not admit it, they are influenced by persuasive media (Douglas & Sutton, 2004). Even more intriguing, people sometimes appear oblivious to their attitude changes. Douglas and Sutton examined the perceived and actual impact of messages about gun control and global warming. Their results indicated that although people were accurate in judging the attitude changes of others, they significantly underestimated the extent to which their own attitudes were influenced (see also Bem & McConnell, 1970; Markus, 1986; Wixon & Laird, 1976).

In the current study, we used Douglas and Sutton’s (2004) method to examine the perceived and actual impact of conspiracy theories surrounding the death of Princess Diana. We assigned undergraduate student participants to either a control group or an experimental group. We asked participants in the control group to rate their own (baseline self) and their classmates’ (baseline other) perceived agreement with a list of statements about the events surrounding Diana’s death. We asked participants in the experimental group to read some information containing popular conspiracy theories about Diana’s death and then rate their own (current self) and their classmates’ (current other) perceived agreement with the same list of statements as we gave the control group. We also asked them to rate their retrospective attitudes (i.e., what they perceive their attitudes to have been before reading the material; retrospective self) and those of their classmates (retrospective other).

We sampled from the same undergraduate student population for the control and experimental groups and randomly allocated participants to the groups so that they did not differ demographically. Because there were no demographic differences across conditions, we were able to consider the control group’s baseline scores as scores for the experimental group as well. We could thus use the control group as a comparison group, enabling us to identify the accuracy of experimentalgroup participants’ perceptions of their own and others’ views and how those views changed after exposure to the conspiracy theory claims. This strategy has been successfully applied to other self-serving biases (e.g., Krueger & Dunning, 1999) and contrasts with other studies in which participants have been asked to compare themselves to broader, remote groups such as other university students (e.g., Cohen, Mutz, Price & Gunther, 1988; Gunther, 1991; Gunther & Thorson, 1992).1 Using this design, we calculated scores for experimental-group participants’ (a) perceived attitude change for self (current self minus retrospective self), (b) perceived attitude change for others (current other minus retrospective other), and (c) actual attitude change for self (current self minus [control group's] baseline self). If there is indeed a hidden impact of conspiracy theories, then people should perceive their attitudes to be unchanged as a result of exposure to conspiracy theories (i.e., their current self and retrospective self attitude ratings should be the same). However, comparing perceived attitude change for others with participants’ actual attitude change should reveal that although people accurately judge the impact of conspiracy theories on others, they significantly underestimate the theories’ impact on themselves and how it changes their attitudes.

Method

Participants and Design

Participants were 96 undergraduate students (48 men and 48 women) at a British university. Participants’ median age was 20.9 years (M = 20.86 years, SD = 2.30 years). We approached participants while they were at leisure on campus, and we rewarded their participation with sweets.

The experiment consisted of a 2 (rated person: self vs. other) x 2 (attitude rating: retrospective vs. current) within-subjects design for the experimental group. In the control group, rated person (self vs. other) was manipulated within subjects. We randomly assigned participants to either the control group (n = 48) or the experimental group (n = 48). As would be expected given the random assignment, there were no significant differences in the distribution of age and gender across conditions.

Materials and Procedure

We informed participants in the control group that they were going to be asked to read some statements about the incidents surrounding the death of Princess Diana. We also informed them that they would be asked to rate (a) their own agreement with each statement and (b) how much they thought other undergraduate students at their university would agree with each statement. The term conspiracy theory was not mentioned. We then presented participants with five statements relating to five popular conspiracy theories about Diana’s death. These were taken from a news archive on the LondonNet (2005) Web site.

The statements were as follows:

1. One or more rogue “cells” in the British secret service constructed and carried out a plot to kill Diana.

2. There was an official campaign by MI6 to assassinate Diana, sanctioned by elements of the establishment.

3. Diana faked her own death so she and Dodi could retreat into isolation.

4. Business enemies of Dodi and his father Mohammed Al Fayed assassinated Dodi, with the death of Diana a cover-up for their operation.

5. Diana had to be killed because the British government could not accept that the mother of the future king was involved with a Muslim Arab.

We asked participants to rate their own and others’ agreement with each statement on a 7-point Likert-type scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). We asked those participants who rated their own attitudes first to rate others’ attitudes second, and vice versa, so that order was counterbalanced. The scale reliabilities for self (alpha = .73) and others (alpha = .85) were both acceptable in accordance with Nunnally’s (1977) recommendation that a scale alpha of .70 should be considered acceptable in social psychological research. On completion, participants were debriefed and thanked for their participation.

We informed participants in the experimental groups that they would be asked to read material about the incidents surrounding the death of Princess Diana and then answer some questions. At this point, we gave participants a paper outlining some points about the circumstances surrounding Diana’s death. This was prefaced with the following statement:

Many believe that Princess Diana’s death was not an accident. Additional information has been discussed that casts doubt on the conclusion that Diana’s death was accidental. Some of this information is presented below.

The term conspiracy theory was not mentioned.

The information that followed was a series of eight points outlining arguments for the position that Diana’s death was not an accident. These were popular conspiracy theories such as the concern over the rapid burial of Diana and Dodi’s bodies, the missing Fiat Uno that was said to be involved in the accident, and the suggestion that witnesses heard a bomb blast immediately prior to the crash. For example, one conspiracy theory was worded as follows:

Immediately after the crash news was broadcast, witnesses appeared on U.S. TV saying that they heard an explosion or bang before they heard the car crash. Was this a gunshot, or a bomb?

After participants read the information, they were presented with the same five statements as for the control group. We asked participants to respond to these items four times by rating (a) how much they currently agreed or disagreed with each statement (current self; alpha = .82), (b) how much they agreed or disagreed with each statement before reading the material (retrospective self; alpha = .81), (c) how much they thought their classmates would agree or disagree with each statement after reading the material (current other; alpha = .86), and (d) how much they thought their classmates would have agreed or disagreed with each statement before reading the material (retrospective other; alpha = .79). Participants responded to each item on the aforementioned 7-point Likert-type scale. Question order was blocked for self and other and then alternated across time (retrospective or current) so that there were four different versions of the questionnaire, with ratings requested in the following orders:

1. Current self, retrospective self, current other, retrospective other

2. Retrospective self, current self, retrospective other, current other

3. Current other, retrospective other, current self, retrospective self

4. Retrospective other, current other, retrospective self, current self

We randomly assigned each participant to one of the four questionnaires; there were no differences in the distribution of participants’ age and gender across conditions. On completion, participants were debriefed and thanked for their participation.

Results

We analyzed the data using Douglas and Sutton’s (2004) procedure. We entered results for the experimental group into a 2 (rated person: self vs. other) x 2 (attitude rating: retrospective vs. current) repeated measures analysis of variance (ANOVA). There was no main effect for rated person: After collapsing the data across attitude rating (retrospective and current), we found that participants did not rate their classmates as endorsing the statements about Diana’s death significantly more than themselves (M = 2.77, SD = 0.92 vs. M = 2.61, SD = 1.05, respectively), F(1, 47) = 1.35, p > .05, eta^sup 2^ = .03. Results did, however, reveal a main effect for attitude rating: After collapsing across rated person (self and other), we found that mean ratings of agreement with the statements increased from retrospective (M = 2.48, SD = 0.94) to current (M = 2.90, SD = 1.03), F(1, 47) = 38.91, p < .001, eta^sup 2^ = .45. As predicted, the interaction between rated person (self or other) and attitude rating was significant, F(1, 47) = 11.4, p < .01, eta^sup 2^ = .20. Table 1 displays all means, standard deviations, and significant between-cell differences.

Perceived Attitude Change for Self and Others

We compared current and retrospective attitudes and found that participants perceived attitude changes for both others, t(47) = 5.02, p < .001, d = 0.76, and themselves, t(47) = 2.52, p < .05, d = 0.14. As expected, participants judged others to have had greater attitude changes (M = 0.71, SD = 0.98) than themselves (M = 0.15, SD = 0.40), t(47) = 3.38, p < .01, d = 0.75.

Actual Attitude Change

As predicted, participants in the experimental group agreed more with the statements about Diana’s death than did participants in the control group, t(47) = 5.23, p < .001, d = 1.07. Also as expected, experimental-group participants’ perceptions of their own attitude change (current self minus retrospective self; M = 0.15, SD = 0.40) were significantly lower than their actual attitude change (current self minus baseline self; M = 0.93, SD = 0.84). A test of the difference between participants’ perceived and actual attitude change scores revealed that they underestimated the extent to which they were influenced by the conspiracy theory information, t(47) = 13.52, p < .001, d = 0.87.

Accuracy of Attitude Change Perceptions

The actual attitude change for participants in the experimental group (current self minus baseline self) was no different than the attitude change they attributed to their classmates (current other minus retrospective other), t(47) = 1.57, p < .05, d = 0.20. This outcome, coupled with the finding that participants significantly underestimated their actual attitude change, provides further evidence that participants are more accurate about others’ attitude changes than their own (Douglas & Sutton, 2004).

The retrospective-self ratings of participants in the experimental group indicate that they agreed with the statements about Diana’s death more than did participants in the control group (measured by baseline-self scores), t(47) = 4.52, p < .001, d = 0.91. This result suggests that participants did not accurately remember their original attitudes (cf. Bem & McConnell, 1970; Markus, 1986; Wixon & Laird, 1976).

Discussion

The current results indicate that a hidden impact of conspiracy theories may exist. Although participants in our study were prepared to admit to being influenced by conspiracy theories surrounding the death of Princess Diana (as indicated by the significant difference between current-self and retrospective-self scores), they significantly underestimated the extent of their own attitude change. Participants were therefore unaware of how much conspiracy theories impacted their own attitudes. In contrast, their estimates of how much others’ attitudes had changed were accurate. This finding is in line with the results of previous TPE research indicating that people underestimate the extent of their own persuasibility, rather than overestimating the extent of others’ persuasibility (e.g., Cohen et al., 1988; Douglas & Sutton, 2004). Our results also replicate Douglas and Sutton’s finding that people are sometimes unaware that, upon exposure to information, their previous attitudes changed (see also Bem & McConnell, 1970; Markus, 1986; Wixon & Laird, 1976). The discrepancy between the retrospective-self scores given by participants in the experiment group and the baseline-self scores given by participants in the control group suggests that participants in the experimental group not only may have been unaware of the extent of their attitude change, but also may have misremembered what their original attitudes were. In other words, it is likely that participants in the experimental group inaccurately judged-and reported-their retrospective attitudes. Akin to hindsight bias (Fischhoff, 1975; Hawkins & Hastie, 1990), participants seemingly misremembered their previous attitudes so that they appeared closer to their current attitudes. However, they did not make a similar adjustment for the attitudes of others. This revision of previous attitudes perhaps creates the illusion for participants that attitude change occurred less for them than for others. Taken together, these findings suggest that the conspiracy theories about the death of Princess Diana influenced participants without their awareness: Whereas participants perceived themselves to be relatively invulnerable to persuasion when they clearly were not, they suggested that other members of their class were more influenced.

Implications and Suggestions for Future Research

In replicating the results of Douglas and Sutton (2004) in the domain of conspiracy theories, we have extended previous research on unconscious persuasion to a different form of social influence. In the present study, the information we gave to participants is unlikely to change how they act. However, participants still underestimated the extent to which they were influenced. Previous researchers demonstrated this bias only for blatant attempts to influence behavior, such as messages about global warming that attempt to persuade people to conserve fuel (Douglas & Sutton, 2004) and defamatory messages about politicians that attempt to influence voting decisions (Cohen et al., 1988). From the present results, we can conclude that the underestimation of personal influence extends beyond intentionally persuasive content domains. Perhaps people more generally assume (inaccurately) that they are resistant to attempts to persuade them.

How far might this bias extend? Future researchers should examine other areas in which people may be unaware of the extent to which they are being influenced, such as new media. For example, the Internet is a venue of many concerted attempts to influence the public, by interests ranging from companies attempting to sell products to right-wing and racist groups attempting to recruit members. Research indicates that people are concerned about the influence of this material (e.g., Beckles, 1997; Zickmund, 1997) and respond strongly to it (e.g., Douglas & McGarty, 2001, 2002). However, psychologists have not extensively researched whether popular beliefs about the impact of harmful Internet messages on self and others reflect the actual impact of this material on people.

Researchers might also investigate the underlying mechanisms that lead people to underestimate the extent to which they are influenced by conspiracy theories and other forms of persuasion. Some previous researchers studying the TPE have linked the assumption that others are more influenced than oneself to a motivation to maintain positive self-esteem (e.g., Duck et al., 1995; Duck & Mullin, 1995; Perloff, 1989). Thus, denying the true extent of influence on oneself may protect one from losing face with others or feeling gullible, both of which are likely to negatively impact one’s views of oneself. The extent to which it is normatively acceptable to be influenced by media content has also been linked with the TPE (Duck et al., 1999). It may be normatively unacceptable to admit to being influenced by elaborate and illogical conspiracy theories, which could explain why people do not acknowledge the full extent of it.

Last, our findings call into question current theorizing about the function of conspiracy theories. If conspiracy theories are a means to provide explanations for uncertain events (Melley, 2002) or are a response to powerlessness (e.g., Mason, 2002; Melley, 2002), then it is surprising that people are not prepared to accept that they have been influenced by them. We may expect people to be reluctant to agree that they are influenced by advertising because it has a material impact on their lives, but if conspiracy theories are adaptive, then why are they widely dismissed as foolish and controversial? Researchers could attempt to uncover other reasons why people overtly reject conspiracy theories but privately accept them as true. It would similarly be useful for researchers to examine the potential impact of conspiracy beliefs on other socially significant variables such as locus of control (Rotter, 1966) and just world beliefs (e.g., Lerner, 1980; Lipkus, Dalbert, & Siegler, 1996; Sutton & Douglas, 2005).

The authors thank Lisa Huggins, who collected the data for this study.

NOTE

1. Douglas and Sutton (2004) used both a cross-sectional design (control and experimental groups), as in the current study, and a longitudinal design in which one group of participants was tested in two phases. Their findings were the same using both methods.

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Received July 28, 2006

Accepted January 5, 2007

KAREN M. DOUGLAS

ROBBIE M. SUTTON

University of Kent

Address correspondence to Karen M. Douglas, Department of Psychology, University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent, CT2 7NP, United Kingdom; k.douglas@kent.ac.uk (e-mail).

AUTHOR NOTES

Karen M. Douglas is a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England. Her research interests are communication processes, social influence, and social cognition. Robbie M. Sutton is also a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Kent. His research interests are communication processes, social cognition, and social justice.

Copyright Heldref Publications Apr 2008

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