Washington DC [US]: New UEA research suggests that positive interactions with members of other groups can reduce the amount of baseless conspiracy theories about those organisations.
Conspiracy theories about minority groups are common and can potentially lead to everything from misinformed voting to extreme expressions of prejudice. But a new study published today reveals that bringing people from diverse backgrounds together can reduce the endorsement and tolerance of conspiracy theories.
The team say that their findings could help educators and policymakers create a more harmonious society.
Dr Charles Seger, from UEA’s School of Psychology, said: “Some conspiracy beliefs are about things like the moon landing, or more seriously about things like the nature and effectiveness of vaccines.
“We know from past research that simply being exposed to conspiracy beliefs, even without endorsing them, can have detrimental effects, such as a decreased willingness to engage in politics.
“But a lot of conspiracy beliefs are about groups of people. Specifically, people often have conspiracy beliefs about disadvantaged or minority groups such as Jewish people or immigrants.
“These beliefs can take the form of believing that these groups of people are involved in secret plots and schemes or are attempting to harm the fabric of society at large.
“These sorts of conspiracy beliefs are associated with increased prejudice towards those groups, and it can be argued that intergroup violence and genocide are fuelled by unwarranted conspiracy beliefs.
“We wanted to find out whether friendly interactions with other groups of people can reduce conspiracy beliefs.”
The research team carried out three studies with more than 1,000 people. They explored whether positive inter-group contact helps combat conspiracy theories about other social groups.
The first two studies explored relationships, where British participants were asked about their experience of contact with immigrants or Jewish people and their belief in conspiracy theories in relation to them.
In a third study, participants were asked to think about a positive contact experience with a Jewish person and then report their conspiracy beliefs held about this group. Participants also reported their feelings of prejudice towards the target group in each study.
Dr Seger said: “We found that people who had experienced friendly interactions with Jewish people or immigrants or even imagined a positive contact experience, were less likely to believe conspiracy theories about them.
“Importantly, these effects remained even beyond the prejudice-reducing effects we know such interactions to have.
“Conspiracy theories seem to be escalating in society, perhaps due to social media There are complex reasons for why people believe conspiracy theories about different groups, and conspiracy theories are notoriously hard to correct.
“Providing accurate information often does not work. Therefore, it is exciting that this intervention shows promise in reducing conspiracy beliefs.
“Our research suggests that bringing people from diverse backgrounds together can reduce the endorsement and tolerance of conspiracy theories.
“This could be used as a useful tool for educators, policymakers, and those invested in promoting a more harmonious society.
Dr Daniel Jolley, from the University of Nottingham, said: “The research findings offer a promising potential starting point for developing tools to bring diverse groups of people together who may not usually have contact and try to foster positive conversations to help reduce potentially harmful conspiracy theories from taking hold.
“Whilst the problems are often very complex, and positive contact will not solve all the issues surrounding conspiracy theories towards certain groups, the fact that this work offers a potential tool to reduce intergroup conspiracy theories is a notable breakthrough.
“Our work offers a framework that, along with future research, might lead to the reduction of conspiracy beliefs in the general population,” he added.
This research was led by the University of Nottingham in collaboration with UEA.
More than a prejudice reduction effect: Positive intergroup contact reduces conspiracy theory beliefs’ is published in the European Journal of Social Psychology.