The Center for Science, Society, and Public Policy (CSSPP) at Caltech mounted its first research conference on September 14–15, 2023, to address the phenomenon of conspiratorial thinking from disciplines as diverse as English literature, political science, economics, neuroscience, and psychiatry. Mike Alvarez, co-director of CSSPP and professor of political and computational social science, sees this initiative as characteristic of what CSSPP aims to do. "We keep trying to identify topics that connect with research that Caltech faculty are doing but that also connect to broader policy conversations that are going on outside," he says.
Caltech's interest in conspiratorial thinking has its intellectual roots in the COVID-19 pandemic. "The pandemic was a weird time when we were all sitting at home trying to figure out how we could do our work and what we might be able to do to help," Alvarez says. "Ralph Adolphs [PhD '93 and Bren Professor of Psychology, Neuroscience, and Biology] began a study called the COVID-Dynamic Longitudinal Study that put together these really fascinating batteries of questions to ask people about how they were doing emotionally during lockdown. This dovetailed with work that I was doing with two of my graduate students on vaccine acceptance back before covid vaccines were even available."
What began with more narrowly focused questions related to the pandemic became more general concerns for Caltech faculty about misinformation and conspiratorial thinking. "I began a collaboration with Ramit Debnath, a sustainability fellow at the University of Cambridge, looking at misinformation on climate change and what leads to the dissemination of misleading information, especially on social media," Alvarez explains. "Meanwhile, John O'Doherty's lab [O'Doherty is Caltech's Fletcher Jones Professor of Decision Neuroscience] moved into researching the potential psychological determinants of people who might be susceptible to conspiratorial thought—things like aversion to ambiguity or being less willing to seek uncertainty."
"As we started to poke around the literature on conspiratorial thinking, we found a lot of fantastic research on this and decided to bring some of the leading scholars in humanities, social sciences, psychology, neuroscience, and political science to Caltech, under the auspices of CSSPP, so that we could let the Caltech community see the cutting-edge research on this topic," Alvarez says. "When we reached out to people to ask if they'd be interested in participating in a conference, they were all really excited to come to Caltech for this event. So, we assembled an amazing all-star cast."
The conference kicked off on September 14 with a presentation by Elise Wang, assistant professor of English at Cal State Fullerton on medieval European blood libel conspiracies. (Blood libel is a belief that Jews use the blood of Christian children for ritual purposes. It is false, of course, but such charges led to the persecution of Jewish communities in Europe, and the belief is still found in anti-Semitic literature today.) Wang set the initial terms of discussion for the conference by asserting that conspiracy is its own narrative genre with a consistent set of characteristics that have persisted over time and across a very wide variety of conspiratorial theories. Key to this genre is a certain flexibility and resilience that allows believers to fill in details, connect the dots in various ways, and talk their way around even logical contradictions.
Wang's talk was followed by a philosophical/epistemological take on conspiracy thinking, and then presentations of new research from Alvarez's group by Yimeng Li (PhD '22), now a postdoc at Florida State University, and Debnath.
In the afternoon, Adam Berinsky of MIT presented on "The Root of False Beliefs," a topic he has been working on for more than a decade and which is now gathered into his just-published book from Princeton University Press, Political Rumors: Why We Accept Misinformation and How to Fight It. Additional talks were given by political scientists Betsy Sinclair (MS '04, PhD '07) of Washington University in St. Louis and former student of Alvarez's, and Joanne Miller of the University of Delaware, both experts in conspiratorial thinking. Sinclair spoke about her research into identification with partisan political groups and the extent to which individuals are willing to adopt false beliefs if those beliefs preserve their partisan identity. Miller reviewed the secret plots that are so often the essential backdrop of conspiracy theories, calling back to Wang's notion of the narrative structure of conspiracies to better understand when and why "not seeing is believing."
The second day of the conference turned toward psychological questions that probe the precise dispositions of those who favor conspiracy theories. Nadia Brashier of UC San Diego began her talk by asking if conspiracy theorists think too much or too little, concluding that the answer is both: some supply incredible detail and craft intricate conspiratorial worldviews; others seem content to take a lot on faith, endorsing a conspiratorial worldview without worrying too much about the fine points. Gordon Pennycook, a professor of psychology at Cornell University, shared his results that show that conspiracy believers are "dispositionally overconfident" and greatly overestimate the number of those who agree with their views; often, he noted, these individuals claim that more than 50 percent of people share conspiratorial beliefs that are actually confined to 5–15 percent of the population. Lisa Kluen, who moved to the Laboratory for Brain and Cognitive Health Technology at McLean Hospital after a postdoctoral fellowship at Caltech in O'Doherty's lab, presented research on the "cognitive attributes" of those who most readily champion conspiracy theories. "What we found," Kluen says, "is that individuals who subscribe to conspiracy beliefs more readily attribute outcomes to the involvement of hidden agents. Also, they seem to seek less information before making decisions, and their decision-making seems less guided by reward."
Perspectives from clinical psychology and psychiatry rounded out the afternoon, with speakers offering additional thoughts on the cognitive traits of conspiracy believers and explaining the ways in which conspiracy belief can be clearly distinguished from delusional thinking and from the paranoia experienced by schizophrenics.
The conference closed with a presentation by Dutch social psychologist Sander van der Linden of the University of Cambridge, who researches fake news and seeks to "inoculate" people against conspiracy theories through a variety of online and interpersonal games and exercises. How to work against socially destructive conspiracy theories was a through line in the conference. "How do we prevent the spread of conspiracy theories? How can we help prevent them from going down the rabbit hole? And if they have gone down these rabbit holes, are there ways we can persuade them to at least be open to new information?" are all questions Alvarez hoped to raise when designing this conference.
"By having an event like this, we want to highlight the kind of research that we do [at Caltech] in the social sciences, ranging from the quantitative and more observational work to the really detailed psychological neuroscience work that John O'Doherty's group does, and frame it in the context of all the other work that's going on in the area of conspiratorial thinking," Alvarez says.