Why are some people inclined to believe in various conspiracies and paranormal phenomena with no regard for skepticism?
“Our findings suggest that part of the reason may be that many people do not view it as sufficiently important to form their beliefs on rational grounds,” notesTomas Ståhl, a University of Illinois at Chicago social psychologist.
While previous work in this area has indicated that people with higher cognitive ability – or a more analytic thinking style – are less inclined to believe in conspiracies and the paranormal. Ståhl wanted to know if other factors might influence a person’s tendency toward skepticism.
Working with Jan-Willem van Prooijen of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, he conducted two online surveys with more than 300 respondents each to assess analytic thinking and the reliance on logic to form beliefs.
The first survey found that an analytic cognitive style was associated with weaker paranormal beliefs, conspiracy beliefs and conspiracy mentality. However, this was only the case among participants who strongly valued forming their beliefs based on logic and evidence (Ståhl et al., 2017).
“Reasonable skepticism about various conspiracy theories and paranormal phenomena does not only require a relatively high cognitive ability, but also strong motivation to be rational,” explains Ståhl.
“When the motivation to form your beliefs based on logic and evidence is not there, people with high cognitive ability are just as likely to believe in conspiracies and paranormal phenomena as people with lower cognitive ability” (Ståhl, 2017).
In the second survey, Ståhl and his team examined whether these effects were uniquely attributable to having an analytic cognitive style or whether they were explained by more general individual differences in cognitive ability. Results were more consistent with a general cognitive ability (Ståhl et al., 2017).
Interestingly, Ståhl notes that despite a century of better educational opportunities and increased intelligence scores in the U.S. population, unfounded beliefs remain pervasive in contemporary society. Moreover, from linking vaccines with autism to climate change skepticism, these widespread conspiracy theories and other unfounded beliefs can lead to harmful behavior, according to Ståhl.
“Many of these beliefs can, unfortunately, have detrimental consequences for individuals’ health choices, as well as for society as a whole,” he explains.
Whether in balancing theories that vaccines cause autism or in decreasing our tendency to endorse the paranormal, skepticism is what keeps our thinking checked by logic and free from unhinged, and in many cases, damaging beliefs.
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The history of health care abounds with treatments that persisted (although they didn’t work) for many years without ever being seriously challenged. How did this happen? More to the point, how is it that this continues to happen today? At least a part of the answer can be found in a very long list of cognitive errors, fallacies, and biases that seem to be part of human nature. Human beings are endowed with the ability to reason and the need to find connections between things and events. The problem is that we have such a strong need to find connections that we sometimes see them even when they are not there. In health care, arriving at the wrong conclusion can be an error of life and death proportions.
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