Reflections on teaching the ‘Psychology of conspiracy theories’

8 Mar

Just finished another really interesting teaching session looking at the psychology of the belief in conspiracy theories. A number of things came out of it that seem worth of discussion here :

1) The prevalence of belief in at least one conspiracy theory

Initially it was quite surprising how widespread belief in at least one conspiracy theory was amongst my students, and how many of them seemed to have quite detailed knowledge of some of the ‘evidence’ supporting conspiracy theories. However, when you look at recent research things become a bit more explicable. Swami & Coles’ (2010) paper in The Psychologist is a nice summary of the research, and talks about recent studies finding relationships between ‘Big-Five’ personality traits and conspiracy theory belief particularly ‘Openness to experience’. You’d hope that students were high on ‘openness to experience’, and thus maybe their overt interest in conspiracy theories isn’t as inexplicable as it initially looked.

2) Cognitive Dissonance Example

I’ve previously written about US Republican politicians getting themselves in all sorts of trouble when talking about abortion as being a great example of cognitive dissonance at work. I had the chance in this lecture to show students the examples I’d collected. Both videos seemed to work well to illustrate what a very powerful effect cognitive dissonance can be.

3) Historical Background knowledge

Academics make a lot of implicit assumptions about the background general knowledge that their students have, and on more than one occasion this year I’ve questioned quite how reliable these assumptions are. In yesterday’s lecture I showed the ‘Zapruder’ film of Kennedy’s assassination, and was surprised by the number of audible gasps of shock that it elicited. I think it’s pretty safe to say that most academics would assume that this film is so ‘well worn’ that everybody would have seen it many times, and yet yesterday’s evidence would suggest that this is not necessarily the case. It does make me wonder about how many more assumptions we make might be flawed. Sometimes I think we forget that events like the fall of the Berlin Wall occurred 23 years ago i.e. long before the birth of undergraduate students !

4) ‘Conspiracy Theories’ are a great way to engage students in rational thinking

I written before about the habit of some ‘scientists’ of cherry-picking evidence to suit their own pet theory, and conspiracy theories seem like a great way of getting students to see that you have to consider ALL of the available evidence.

All in all it seemed like a really successful teaching session to me, although final ‘proof’ will have to wait until next week’s mid-module feedback and May’s exams !


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