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Conspiracy Beliefs vs. Critical and Analytical Thinking

A lack of certain thinking skills can contribute to beliefs in conspiracies.

Key points

  • Studies indicate boosting critical and analytical thinking helps mitigate or dispel beliefs in conspiracy theories.
  • Conspiracy-prone people share three motivations.
  • Improving critical and analytical thinking skills should be easy and beneficial for anyone.
Source: comfreak566/ixabay

Anthony Lantian and colleagues recently published an article which gained wide media attention: “Maybe a free thinker but not a critical one: High conspiracy belief is associated with low critical thinking.” The results of their research indicate that conspiracy believers have less developed critical thinking abilities and that when these skills are developed, conspiracy beliefs are reduced. The findings have been seen as an explanation for the rapid bloom of conspiracy beliefs around the world.

Several years ago, an international team of psychologists led by Viren Swami searched for a solution to the problem. Over time, they conducted four studies to examine belief in conspiracy theories and what might mitigate or dispel such thinking. Their results highlight that supporting and promoting analytical thinking counters the widespread acceptance of conspiracy theories.

With this important information, we can work toward boosting our own critical and analytical thinking skills to help us be problem-solvers and ensure we won’t fall for conspiracy theories.

What are conspiracy theories and why do people believe in them?

Simply put, a conspiracy theory is a belief that an influential or covert organization is responsible for an event or circumstance. Conspiracy-prone people share three motivations:

  • Epistemic motives, or the need for knowledge and certainty or desire for information. Some psychological evidence suggests that people are drawn to conspiracy theories when they feel uncertain about specific situations or in general. People with lower levels of education tend to be drawn to conspiracy theories. It’s not that people aren’t intelligent, rather that they may not have the tools to allow them to differentiate between credible and non-credible sources. In our own informal research, we’ve noted that many people who get their news through social media — no matter their education level — do not think to check sources and unwittingly accept them, and then pass on bad information.

  • Existential motives, such as the need to feel safe and secure in their world as well as having a sense of power or autonomy over what happens to them. When something happens, people don’t want to feel powerless. Conspiracy theories may allow them to feel they have the information that explains why they don’t have the control that they want. Research indicates that people who feel powerless and disillusioned tend to be more likely to gravitate toward conspiracy theories.

  • Social motives. The need to feel good about oneself and have high self-esteem, as an individual as well as in groups, is part of being human. One way to boost self-esteem is to feel like you have access to information that others don’t, which can give one a sense of superiority. Studies indicate that a need to feel unique, both individually and as a group, is associated with belief in conspiracy theories. An overinflated sense of importance in conspiracy groups leads to the belief that you and your group are good while outsiders are evil. According to several studies, people who tend to be more narcissistic are drawn to conspiracy theories as a means of gaining social capital.

The difference between critical and analytical thinking

While these two ways of thinking are similar, there are differences. In a nutshell, critical thinking is careful thinking directed at a goal; in other words, seeking and analyzing information in order to form conclusions or opinions. Analytical thinking is the ability to tackle complicated issues by evaluating information you’ve gathered and organized. Both critical and analytical thinking require skills:

  • Key critical thinking skills are analysis, interpretation, inference, explanation, self-regulation, open-mindedness, and problem-solving.
  • Key analytical thinking skills are communication, creativity, critical thinking, data analysis, and personal research.

How to improve critical and analytical thinking skills

You don’t have to go back to school to learn these skills. And boosting them isn’t hard, but it does take a little determination. Here are some ways to improve both critical and analytical thinking:

  1. Become more aware, about yourself and your life space. Consider your morals, values, and ethics. What do you believe and how does this reflect your values? Knowing yourself will help you understand why you act/react to situations from a personal perspective. Equally important is to be more aware and observant about the people in your life as well as your surroundings.
  2. Understand your mental process. Identify and evaluate how you receive and process information. Realize that your own prejudices may influence your decisions. Analyzing your mental process before making decisions helps you be more objective.
  3. Develop foresight. Consider how others might feel or react to a situation or decision you make. What are the possible outcomes and what might change positively or negatively if you change your decision? Having the foresight to imagine possible outcomes will help you make the right decisions.
  4. Practice active listening. Active listening is one of the most important facets of critical/analytical thinking. Listen carefully to others and practice empathy in order to understand their perspective. This can lead to more right results.
  5. Ask questions. If you’re not sure, ask! Consider rephrasing what you’re told in your own words (an active-listening technique to make sure you understand.) Asking questions can help develop better problem-solving skills, retention, and memory of a subject. Ask follow-up questions if necessary.
  6. Evaluate existing evidence. Have you had a similar situation or problem before? What did you learn from the experience? Researching, sorting facts, and using previous experience can help you arrive at a more effective solution today.
  7. Keep your mind active. Reading, learning how things work, and playing brain games such as Sudoku, puzzles, chess or crosswords help keep your mind bright and ready to implement critical/analytical thinking when it’s required.
Source: pixabay

Where do we go from here?

It’s difficult to grasp the entirety of what’s happening to our democracy, or the extent of the damage political players and certain media persons are wreaking by creating and promoting conspiracy theories, much less what will happen in the future. But by honing our own critical and analytical thinking skills, we’ll be in a better position to make decisions now which will affect our future. And although these skills may be taught less and less in schools, we can certainly pass them on to our children and grandchildren so in their future, they will be clear-thinking, future-oriented problem-solvers. Our personal and national well-being depends upon this righteous transfer of wisdom.


Lantian, A., Bagneux, V., et al. (2021). Maybe a free thinker but not a critical one: High conspiracy belief is associated with low critical thinking ability. San Francisco, CA: Applied Cognitive Psychology - Wiley Online Library

Swami, V., et al. (2014). Analytic thinking reduces belief in conspiracy theories. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Elsevier online journal.

Imhoff, R., Lamberty, P.K. (2017). Too special to be duped: Need for uniqueness motivates conspiracy beliefs. Berlin, Germany: European Journal of Psychology.