How to Inoculate Your Team Against Conspiracy Theories

By Matt Dallisson, 22/10/2020

Illustration by Franziska Barczyk

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This year, we have had to protect ourselves not only from a deadly virus, but also from some very dangerous ideas. Around the world, conspiracy theories have flourished, claiming that the virus is everything from a hostile attack, a hoax perpetuated by Big Pharma, or even a side effect of 5G networks. And while these theories may seem ridiculous, they can cause serious harm. Belief in these views undermines people’s trust in established organizations and tested, scientific solutions, and can lead to destructive behavior such as rejecting medical recommendations in favor of unproven treatments, or burning cell towers out of fear of 5G technology.

While it’s easy to dismiss those who believe in these theories as a minority fringe, our research suggests that certain conditions can make anyone (and yes, we mean anyone) more susceptible. Specifically, we’ve found that feeling a lack of control makes people much more likely to believe in conspiracies — a revelation that’s particularly significant against the backdrop of the Covid-19 crisis. As the global pandemic rages on, we have all lost liberties we once took for granted. Our freedom to travel and connect with others has been severely limited, and we all face uncertainty about the economy, our health, and when we will have our normal lives back.

Why does this loss of control make conspiracy theories so appealing? Research shows that when people experience loss of control, they tend to search for illusory patterns in their environment. These patterns are appealing because they reduce the environment’s randomness, uncertainty, and disorder — even if the certainty they offer is both ludicrous and unpleasant (such as governments or tech companies plotting to infect the world).

Luckily, it’s possible to inoculate yourself — and others — from susceptibility to these dangerous conspiracy theories. Our work shows that how people think about control determines their vulnerability to these theories. Specifically, we found that individuals with a “promotion-focused” mindset (i.e., those who tend to focus on achieving their goals and aspirations) are more resistant to conspiracy theories than those with a “prevention-focused” mindset (i.e., those who focus on protecting what they already have), because the promotion focus on shaping their own futures involves a greater sense of control.

We ran several studies to explore the relationship between control and openness to conspiracy theories. In the first, we surveyed 278 online participants who were randomly assigned three different writing assignments that we expected would shift their sense of control. In the promotion condition, participants wrote about a hope or goal; in prevention, they wrote about an obligation; and in the neutral condition, they were simply asked to write about the daily activities of an acquaintance. Participants then evaluated various conspiracies. We found that the participants who had been primed to adopt a promotion mindset were more likely to reject conspiracies than those in the neutral condition, whereas those in the prevention and the neutral conditions did not differ. A follow up study with 202 college students confirmed these priming effects again: the writing tasks shifted people’s feeling of control, which in turn reduced their susceptibility to conspiracy theories.

Finally, we surveyed 202 soldiers on an army base — individuals who face significant uncertainty every day. Rather than shifting their mindsets through writing tasks, we surveyed them to assess their preexisting beliefs about control. We found that soldiers who reported more promotion-oriented beliefs and a greater sense of control over their lives (i.e., statements such as “what happens in the future depends on me”) were less likely to endorse conspiracy theories.

So, if a greater sense of control makes people less vulnerable to conspiracy theories, what can we do in a time of widespread uncertainty to help ourselves — and those around us — feel that sense of structure and control without resorting to conspiracies? Our work suggests a few strategies.

What you can do as an individual

Understand what is — and isn’t — in your control. Research shows that understanding your locus of control can help avoid feelings of powerlessness. Try visualizing three concentric circles: the smallest is what you can control directly, the next is what you can influence, and the largest is what is out of your control. Which areas are commanding most of your attention? Direct your focus and effort to the areas where you can experience more control and influence.

Embrace Complexity. Conspiracies are appealing because they offer the simplicity of a “single story,” in contrast to our messy, nuanced reality. While complex stories involving intricate interactions between people, their situations, and random chance often feel less satisfying, becoming more comfortable with complexity will prepare us to better understand and cope with the challenges of real life. Consider whether you tend to seek out sources of information (such as television, the internet, and your friends) which feel comforting, but might also make your single stories more extreme.

What you can do as a leader

Create structure. While micromanagement can be harmful, too many leaders end up “macromanaging:” providing their teams with too little order, structure, and norms. Especially in these chaotic times, leaders should strive to create structure by engaging in open conversation and setting clear expectations. Recent work from Gianpiero Petriglieri described this phenomenon as “holding,” or leaders’ responsibility to help their people interpret their environments and stay oriented through a crisis, thwarting these negative psychologies.

Use promotion-focused language. Emphasize the things that people do have control over, and empower them to proactively influence their own situations. For example, some leaders have been reluctant to mandate masks (despite definitive scientific evidence that they reduce the transmission of Covid-19) because these mandates can feel like a threat to people’s freedom. A more effective approach might be to reframe masks as a source of freedom and control, since wearing a mask empowers people to more safely interact with others (at appropriate social distance) and return to something that resembles normalcy. While it can be tempting to simply force people to follow scientific or common-sense guidelines, messages which make people feel powerless and take away their choices often backfire, unintentionally weakening their sense of control and make conspiracies more appealing.

The Covid-19 crisis has limited our freedom to choose, move, and interact in our environments — freedoms that many of us have long taken for granted — and we must prepare for the psychological distress that inevitably results from this loss of control. While there’s no avoiding this loss, we can inoculate ourselves and our people against the threat of conspiracy theories by helping them to cope with uncertainty and regain a sense of control — wherever they can.

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This content was originally published here.