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Conspiracy theorists may not be so critical, after all.

Conspiracy theorists may not be so critical, after all.

In a recent paper published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, Anthony Lantian and colleagues present evidence from a (pre-registered) study that critical thinking ability is negatively associated with belief in conspiracy theories (Lantian et al., 2020). This may not sound surprising, but research on the association has been limited, presumably because “critical thinking” is a collection of skills and attitudes and is therefore a) hard to measure and b) not given priority by cognitive psychologists who like to focus on more narrow psychometric constructs.

Lantian is quite explicit about how much of a container concept critical thinking is:

Critical thinking is defined as “reasonable, reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do” and as “the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.”

There’s a lot stowed away in that definition and it may very well be that people who display ‘conspiracist ideation’, as it sometimes called, score highly on some aspects of critical thinking. For example, considering alternative explanations is a large part of critical reasoning and I’d intuit this is well-developed among conspiracy theorists.

In the study, the researchers focused on argumentation, as assessed by the so-called Ennis-Weir Essay Test. Their motivation for this choice is the fallacious reasoning that can be seen when conspiracy theories are promoted, which hints at argumentative weakness among individuals displaying conspiracist ideation. Using the essay test is a neat operationalization of critical thinking for several reasons:

  1. It reduces the complexity of critical thinking to a skill that affords formal description without sacrificing ecological validity.
  2. It is associated with, but not identical to fluid intelligence, which has been suggested not to relate to conspiracist ideation.
  3. It is one of the few components of critical thinking that is demonstrably teachable (van Gelder, 2015).

Conspiracist ideation was measured using the Generic Conspiracist Beliefs Scale (GCBS, introduced in Brotherton et al., 2013), which aims to measure the higher-order belief systems that are conducible to conspiracist ideation, instead of subscription to specific conspiracy theories.

The authors show, through two independent experiments, that scores on the essay test are negatively associated with conspiracist ideation. They also tested whether conspiracy thinkers are prone to rate themselves as critical thinkers anyway. This turned out not to be the case, in contrast to qualitative evidence from an ethnography of Dutch conspiracy thinkers (Harambam & Aupers, 2017).

The mechanisms for the effect remain unclear, and it could very well be that argumentative skills are not themselves influencing conspiracist ideation. If this is the case, then training such skills would not be useful to inoculate individuals against irrational conspiracy theories. However, the study opens up the possibility of argumentation and critical thinking training making a dent in the prevalence of conspiracy theories.


Brotherton, R., French, C. C., & Pickering, A. D. (2013). Measuring belief in conspiracy theories: The generic conspiracist beliefs scale. Frontiers in psychology, 4, 279.

van Gelder, T. (2015). Using argument mapping to improve critical thinking skills. In The Palgrave handbook of critical thinking in higher education (pp. 183-192). Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

Harambam, J., & Aupers, S. (2017). ‘I am not a conspiracy theorist’: Relational identifications in the Dutch conspiracy milieu. Cultural Sociology, 11(1), 113-129.

Lantian, A., Bagneux, V., Delouvée, S., & Gauvrit, N. (2020). Maybe a Free Thinker but not a Critical One: High Conspiracy Belief is Associated With low Critical Thinking Ability. Applied Cognitive Psychology.