New research published in Applied Cognitive Psychology provides evidence that critical thinking skills are negatively related to belief in conspiracy theories. In other words, the study suggests that people with greater critical thinking skills are less likely to believe that terrorist attacks are being covertly directed by a country’s own government or that mind-control technology is secretly being used to control the population.
“Regularly, different private and public actors provide homemade tools such as ‘critical thinking skills training programs’ that are supposed to be an effective way of reducing the spread of conspiracy theories,” said study author Anthony Lantian, an associate professor of social psychology at Paris Nanterre University.
“The issue is that essential steps have been skipped. Not only have these tools mostly not been scientifically tested, but to our knowledge, the idea that people who believe more in conspiracy theories have less developed critical thinking ability had never been properly tested. This opportunity came about because, due to circumstances, one of my co-authors took the time to translate a critical thinking ability test in French.”
In two studies, 338 undergraduate students completed a French version of the Ennis-Weir Critical Thinking Essay Test, which assessed their ability to understand an argument and formulate a written response to it. They also completed a questionnaire that assessed their general tendency to believe in conspiracy theories. In addition, the participants were asked if they thought there was a relationship between belief in conspiracy theories and critical thinking ability.
The researchers found that those who scored lower on the test were more likely to agree with statements such as “Certain significant events have been the result of the activity of a small group who secretly manipulate world events” and “The power held by heads of state is second to that of small unknown groups who really control world politics.”
“Two things can be learned from our two studies. First, the more people believe in conspiracy theories, the worse they perform on a critical thinking ability test. This test is characterized by an open-ended format highlighting several areas of critical thinking ability in the context of argumentation,” Lantian told PsyPost.
“Second, if we look at the subjective feeling of being a critical thinker (rather than the critical thinking ability evaluated more objectively by the test mentioned earlier) we did not find any evidence for a higher (or lower) subjective critical thinking ability among those who subscribe more to conspiracy theories. This is not in line with the cliché of the conspiracy theorists who see themselves as critical thinkers.”
But the study — like all research — includes some caveats.
“Like any other studies, there are limitations. First, the methodological design of our studies prevents us from concluding that a lack of critical thinking ability plays a causal role in the increase of belief in conspiracy theories. We can only state that there is a negative association between these two variables,” Lantian explained.
“Another limitation is the difficulty of generalizing these results to other contexts. Whether this result can be extrapolated beyond French-speaking psychology students would require further study.”
The study, “Maybe a Free Thinker but not a Critical One: High Conspiracy Belief is Associated With low Critical Thinking Ability“, was authored by Anthony Lantian, Virginie Bagneux, Sylvain Delouvée, and Nicolas Gauvrit.