Whether we believe them or not, conspiracy theories do influence our behaviour

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  • Conspiracy theories have been around since long before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic
  • A team of researchers wanted to know how conspiracy theories affect people, even if they don't believe them
  • Results of the study show that conspiracy theories do influence our behaviour

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has sparked a variety of conspiracy theories on a number of different platforms. What makes conspiracy theories problematic is the fact that they spread mistrust among people, especially towards governmental structures. But what if you don’t necessarily believe such theories? Do they still affect your behaviour?

A recent study addressed these questions with the aim of revealing how conspiracy theories affect people, even when they are only briefly exposed to such materials and do not believe them. 

“Our study shows that subjects who were exposed to a conspiracy theory for just three minutes acted differently in a subsequent behavioural experiment than subjects from the control group,” said Professor Loukas Balafoutas.

Financial rewards

The study involved 144 participants. Half of the group were exposed to a conspiracy theory where they were shown a three-minute video suggesting that the first moon landing was fake. The other half, acting as the control group of the study, watched an equally long documentary on the space shuttle programme. 

After watching the videos, both groups were asked questions related to the clips and were rewarded with money for correct answers, with the purpose of increasing their attention to the videos.

More strategic behaviour

The main part of the experiment was a game the participants played called the money game, where players were divided into pairs and had to bid amounts between five and 14 Euros simultaneously. Those who made the smallest bid received the bid amount and an additional 10 Euros, whereas players who made a larger bid received only the amount they bid. And when there was a tie in bids, both participants would also receive only the amount they bid. 

Balafoutas explained: “In this experiment, we found that subjects who had previously watched the conspiracy theory video bid smaller amounts. This shows that these test persons act more strategically. On the one hand, this approach can possibly lead to a higher profit in the game, but at the same time it also carries the risk of incurring a loss.

“So our aim here is not to evaluate this behaviour as better or worse, but simply to show that people who were exposed to a conspiracy theory shortly beforehand display different behaviour than the control group in a subsequent situation that is completely different in terms of content. From this we conclude that the conspiracy theory has an influence on how someone perceives the world and other people.”

The team noted that experiments like these should be done with caution, and that doing it in a lab was important, as it allowed them to debrief the participants afterwards because they do not want to contribute to the spread of conspiracy theories. 

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