Why Do People Believe in Conspiracy Theories? Maybe They Aren't Very Smart, Science Warns

If you think that people who believe in conspiracy theories and political know-it-alls have a bit in common, new research suggests you might be onto something. The study found that those who overestimate their knowledge of political issues and those who believe in conspiracy theories are likely to be one and the same.

It’s human nature to believe we know far more about a subject than we actually do. This phenomenon is known as the illusions of explanatory depth, and it's a pitfall we all face. In the new study, published online in the Journal for Social Psychology, researchers specifically looked at this illusion in the context of political knowledge during the 2016 presidential election. The team used a sample of 394 U.S citizens for their research.

To measure their political knowledge, the team asked the volunteers to rate how well they understood six political policies, PsyPost reported. The team then asked the volunteers to explain these policies as well as they could. To measure how much they believed in conspiracy theories, they were asked how much they believed certain conspiracies, both related to the election and general theories, such as that the U.S. government created AIDS.

Results revealed that individuals who overestimated their knowledge of political policies were also more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. This applied to both political parties, although slightly more for those who belonged to the part of the losing candidate. For example, Hillary Clinton supporters who overestimated their political knowledge were also more likely to express that they thought her defeat was due to a conspiracy, the study revealed.

06_12_hillary Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton arrives onstage during a primary night rally at the Duggal Greenhouse in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, June 7, 2016, in Brooklyn, New York. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

“Our findings are consistent with several lines of research demonstrating that losses in the political realm encourage conspiracy thinking,” study author Joseph A. Vitriol, a postdoctoral research associate at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, told Psy Post.

The team suggested that this relationship could have an adverse effect on elected officials’ ability to run the government.

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“This [conspiracy theories] can undermine the ability of elected officials to address problems in society with evidence-based public policy and governance,” said Vitriol, Psy Post reported.

However, according to Vitriol, this research also may suggest a way to address this problem. “We are also better able to identify strategies for informing or educating the public and combating the influence of false and fabricated information on political psychology and behavior,” Vitriol added.