Positive contact with diverse groups reduces conspiracy theories

July 30, 2023

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Positive contact with diverse groups reduces conspiracy theories

Having positive interactions with people from diverse groups can reduce the amount of harmful conspiracy beliefs about those groups – according to new research.

Conspiracy theories about minority groups are common and can potentially lead to everything from misinformed voting to extreme expressions of prejudice. But a new study reveals that bringing people from diverse backgrounds together can reduce the endorsement and tolerance of conspiracy theories.

The team say that their findings could help educators and policy makers create a more harmonious society.

What the researchers say: “Some conspiracy beliefs are about things like the moon landing, or more seriously about things like the nature and effectiveness of vaccines,” the lead author explained. “We know from past research that simply being exposed to conspiracy beliefs, even without endorsing them, can have detrimental effects, such as a decreased willingness to engage in politics,” he continued.

“But a lot of conspiracy beliefs are about groups of people. Specifically, people often have conspiracy beliefs about disadvantaged or minority groups such as Jewish people or immigrants. These beliefs can take the form of believing that these groups of people are involved in secret plots and schemes or are attempting to harm the fabric of society at large.

“These sorts of conspiracy beliefs are associated with increased prejudice towards those groups, and it can be argued that intergroup violence and genocide are fueled by unwarranted conspiracy beliefs. We wanted to find out whether friendly interactions with other groups of people can reduce conspiracy beliefs.”

The research team carried out three studies with more than 1,000 people. They explored whether positive inter-group contact helps combat conspiracy theories about other social groups.

The first two studies explored relationships, where British participants were asked about their experience of contact with immigrants or Jewish people and their belief in conspiracy theories in relation to them.

In a third study, participants were asked to think about a positive contact experience with a Jewish person and then report their conspiracy beliefs held about this group. Participants also reported their feelings of prejudice towards the target group in each study.

“We found that people who had experienced friendly interactions with Jewish people or immigrants, or even imagined a positive contact experience, were less likely to believe conspiracy theories about them,” the researchers said. “Importantly, these effects remained even beyond the prejudice reducing effects we know such interactions to have.”

Conspiracy theories seem to be escalating in society, perhaps due to social media. There are complex reasons for why people believe conspiracy theories about different groups, and conspiracy theories are notoriously hard to correct.

“Providing accurate information often does not work. Therefore, it is exciting that this intervention shows promise in reducing conspiracy beliefs,” the lead author said. “Our research suggests that bringing people from diverse backgrounds together can reduce the endorsement and tolerance of conspiracy theories.

“This could be used as a useful tool for educators, policy makers, and those invested in promoting a more harmonious society.”

So, what? The mechanisms which separate people and lead to conspiracy theories are well known and are built into our DNA—we instinctively distrust those who do not look like us and with whom we have little in common with.

The purpose of bringing people together as the research suggests is to establish commonalities. The more you find you have in common with someone, the more likely you are to trust them—they become, in a sense, part of your tribe. Our own research in the area of trust and commonality would seem to back that up.

However, if this new-found commonality is the only element of trust (there are five prime elements of trust) that exists between you, it can be fragile.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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