Friday 15 March 2024

Disentangling the relationship between conspiratorial beliefs and cognitive styles

This post is by Biljana Gjoneska, who is is a national representative and research associate from the Macedonian Academy of Sciences and Arts. Here, she discusses her paper in the Psychology of Pseudoscience special issue introduced last week, and is the second post this week in this series on papers in this special issue. 

Biljana investigates the behavioural aspects (conspiracy beliefs) and mental health aspects (internet addiction) of problematic internet use. She has served in a capacity as a national representative for the EU COST Action on “Comparative Analysis of Conspiracy Theories” and has authored, reviewed and edited numerous scientific outputs on the topic. The most recent topical issue can be seen here.

Biljana Gjoneska

In my article for this special issue in Frontiers, I offer an integrated view on the relationship between conspiratorial beliefs (that secret and malevolent plots are forged by scheming groups or individuals) and three distinct cognitive styles (analytic thinking, critical thinking and scientific reasoning). To best illustrate my reasoning and the theoretical conceptualizations, I will draw from personal experience and contemplate one (seemingly) unrelated situation:

Prior to writing this post, I received another invitation to summarize my study for a popular outlet. The invitation was sent by email from an unknown address. The sender claimed to be a freelancer journalist, who is writing a piece for the New York Times Magazine, and is interested to learn more about the reasons why some people seem more prone to endorse conspiracy theories.

As scientists, we receive various sorts of daily invitations that are related to our work (to review articles, contribute to special issues, join editorial boards among others), many of which prove to be false, or seven predatory. So, I first aimed to to understand whether the person and the invitation are real, realistic and reliable. Hence, I employed my analytic thinking (which is slow, deliberate and effortful) to conduct a comprehensive search and gather information from verifiable sources. In essence, analytic thinking helped me to discern fact from fiction in my everyday processing of information.

Once I realized that the invitation seems credible, I needed to make decision whether to accept it. For this, I had to remain open and willing to (re)consider, (re)appraise, review and interpret facts, as a way to update my prior beliefs associated with similar experiences (e.g., with seemingly exaggerated claims and invitations received by email), In short: I employed critical thinking, as a way to decide whether to believe or not certain information. Critical thinking is essential when making judgments and daily decisions. It is only then, that I proceeded to accept the invitation.

Once I made the decision to accept the invitation, I started to anticipate the topics of discussion, as a way to improve the overall quality of the planned conversation. In doing so, I employed my scientific reasoning competencies (relying on induction, deduction, analogy, causal reasoning), for the purposes of scientific inquiry (hypothesizing on the cause for the invitation, and the possible outcomes of the conversation). In short, I relied on my scientific reasoning in an attempt to gain wholesome understanding of the observed subject matter by solving problems and finding solutions.

With this, I conclude my presentation on the three cognitive styles that are covered in my perspective article. Analytic thinking, critical thinking and scientific reasoning, are all guided by rationality and goals for reliable information processing, decision making, and problem solving. All three rely to a different extent, on our thinking dispositions, metacognitive strategies, and advanced cognitive skills. As such they comprise a tripartite model of the reflective mind (that builds on the tripartite model of mind by Stanovich & Stanovich. 2010).

Importantly, a failure in any of these domains might be associated with an increased tendency to endorse conspiratorial beliefs or other pseudoscientific claims. This explains why, in certain instances, people with high cognitive abilities, or even advanced analytic thinking capacities, remain ‘susceptible’ toward conspiratorial beliefs. At the moment, there is ample evidence to support the link between the analytic thinking and the (resistance to) conspiratorial beliefs, while the literature on the latter two categories remains scarce.

In closing of this post, I will refer back to the original story that served to illustrate my key points. Namely, a poignant piece of writing stemmed from the conversations with the scientists who contributed to this special issue, and was published in the New York Times Magazine. It tells a story of verified scientists who became proponents of a disputed theory, using scientific means (arguments but also publishing venues) to advance their claims. This piece contemplates on the possibilities for a failed scientific reasoning, and highlights the associated risks. Needless to say, they are quite dangerous, because they might heavily blur the lines between fact and fiction, leaving a sense of shattered reality in so many people.

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