Dr Wood’s research considers to what extent labelling an idea a ‘conspiracy theory’ conditions our responses to it, and whether selective use of this label is an effective trick of rhetoric as employed, for example, by modern politicians.
“I started from the observation that nobody really likes being called a conspiracy theorist – it’s generally seen as derogatory,” said Dr Wood. “If you're a politician and someone accuses you of abusing your power, you may say something along the lines of ‘that's just a conspiracy theory’ or ‘I don't pay much attention to conspiracy theories’ – it can be a way of dismissing allegations and implying there’s nothing to substantiate the claims.
“There was little research into this though, so I set out to explore participants’ responses to theories labelled as ideas, corruption allegations or conspiracy theories.”
Dr Wood’s paper drew some surprising conclusions that challenge the perceived negative effects of conspiracy theory labelling. Across two experiments with a total of 950 participants, people were no less likely to believe a claim when it was called a conspiracy theory than when the same thing was called an idea or corruption allegation.
“This is true not just for standard conspiracy theories about alien contact or secret assassinations, but also for historical events and made-up claims about political scandals,” explained Dr Wood. “I believe some of the negative connotations of the term might be balanced out by the view that conspiracy theories are interesting and generally worth thinking about.”
Some dare call it conspiracy: labelling something a conspiracy theory does not reduce belief in it can be accessed for free online in the Political Psychology journal published by Wiley. The article was edited by Catarina Kinnvall, Department of Political Science, Lund University, Sweden.