Project Information

Kurt Lewin Instituut
Heidelberglaan 1
Room Number H1.42
3584 CS UTRECHT
The Netherlands
T: +31 (0)30 - 253 3027

Project Information

Project Title
"The Relationship between Conspiracy and Supernatural Beliefs: An Integrated Account of Cognition and Motivation"

Institute
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam - Department of Social and Organizational Psychology

PhD Student
Mengchen Dong

Supervisor(s)
Dr. Jan-Willem van Prooijen
Prof. dr. Paul A.M. van lange

Period
1 September 2016 - 31 August 2020

Funding
China Scholarship Council


Summary

Belief in conspiracy theories and belief in the supernatural are prevalent topics of discussion in contemporary human society, and both belief systems substantially influence people’s emotions, perceptions, ideologies, and behaviors. Although these two belief systems seem conceptually unrelated and disparate, many researchers have found evidence that these beliefs are strongly correlated (e.g., Darwin, Neave, & Holmes, 2011; Franks, Bangerter, & Bauer, 2013; van der Tempel & Alcock, 2015). Franks and colleagues (2013) further proposed a quasi-religious hypothesis for conspiracy theories, in which the contents that the forms and functions of such theories parallel those of institutionalized religions. However, the causal and reciprocal processes underlying both belief systems have been barely investigated in previous studies. The main aim of the present project is to investigate the causal processes underlying beliefs in conspiracy theories and in the supernatural, and to

establish why these seemingly different beliefs are strongly interrelated.

Based on previous theories, we suggest that the common function of beliefs in the

supernatural and conspiracies is to provide simplified causal explanations for complex

phenomena, thus satisfying the fundamental human need to view the world as orderly and nonrandom. Belief in supernatural agents and belief in conspiracy theories both emerge from relatively intuitive processes as stipulated in dual-process system of cognition

(Brotherton & French, 2014; Gervais & Norenzayan, 2012; Shenhav, Rand, & Greene, 2012;

Swami, Voracek, Stieger, Tran, & Furnham, 2014). Furthermore, the endorsement of

supernatural beliefs and conspiracy theories may both function to satisfy the psychological demands for certainty and control, and to provide compensatory control when such feelings are deprived (Kay et al., 2009, 2010; van den Bos, 2009; Whitsom & Galinsky, 2008). Lacking control or certainty leads people to perceive random or unconnected events into nonrandom cause-and-effect relationships—ranging from forming superstitious rituals to endorsing conspiracy theories—to satisfy their need to believe in an orderly and structured world (Whitsom & Galinsky, 2008).


Belief in conspiracy theories and belief in the supernatural are prevalent topics of discussion in contemporary human society, and both belief systems substantially influence people’s emotions, perceptions, ideologies, and behaviors. Although these two belief systems seem conceptually unrelated and disparate, many researchers have found evidence that these beliefs are strongly correlated (e.g., Darwin, Neave, & Holmes, 2011; Franks, Bangerter, & Bauer, 2013; van der Tempel & Alcock, 2015). Franks and colleagues (2013) further proposed a quasi-religious hypothesis for conspiracy theories, in which the contents that the forms and functions of such theories parallel those of institutionalized religions. However,

the causal and reciprocal processes underlying both belief systems have been barely

investigated in previous studies. The main aim of the present project is to investigate the causal processes underlying beliefs in conspiracy theories and in the supernatural, and to establish why these seemingly different beliefs are strongly interrelated.

Based on previous theories, we suggest that the common function of beliefs in the

supernatural and conspiracies is to provide simplified causal explanations for complex

phenomena, thus satisfying the fundamental human need to view the world as orderly and nonrandom. Belief in supernatural agents and belief in conspiracy theories both emerge from relatively intuitive processes as stipulated in dual-process system of cognition (Brotherton & French, 2014; Gervais & Norenzayan, 2012; Shenhav, Rand, & Greene, 2012;

Swami, Voracek, Stieger, Tran, & Furnham, 2014). Furthermore, the endorsement of

supernatural beliefs and conspiracy theories may both function to satisfy the psychological demands for certainty and control, and to provide compensatory control when such feelings are deprived (Kay et al., 2009, 2010; van den Bos, 2009; Whitsom & Galinsky, 2008). Lacking control or certainty leads people to perceive random or unconnected events into nonrandom cause-and-effect relationships—ranging from forming superstitious rituals to endorsing conspiracy theories—to satisfy their need to believe in an orderly and structured world (Whitsom & Galinsky, 2008).


Our aim is to integrate the underlying cognitive processes (e.g., intuitive thinking) and

motivational factors (e.g., needs for control, structure, closure) that contribute to

supernatural and conspiracy beliefs, and examine the causal relationships between these two belief systems as well as their reciprocal processes. Also, we will explore how supernatural beliefs and transcendent experiences impact secular attitude and behavior (e.g., prosociality, morality), and how these effects differ for people with different religious ideologies (religious, atheists and agnostics). Human belief systems are major drivers of social cognition, emotion, and behavior. Hence,

the study of supernatural beliefs—ranging from religiosity to new-age beliefs—have been part of the scientific discipline of social psychology for decades. In recent years, the scientific study of belief in conspiracy theories has been an emerging topic in our discipline, and has been found to be a topic with far-ranging societal implications including public protest, maladaptive health behaviors (e.g., vaccine refusal), and radicalization. By integrating these fields and examining the common psychological processes underlying these various types of belief, the present project will lean heavily on basic social-psychological knowledge and methods. The present project is therefore strongly connected to the research mission of the KLI.


 


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