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The Connection Between Conspiracy Theories and Ambivalence

2014 April 2
by Eric Horowitz

It’s a good time to be in the conspiracy theory business, and not just because the birthplace of the U.S. President has been verified only 72 times. Thanks to the internet, it’s easier than ever to track down potentially suspicious information and discuss it with like-minded gumshoes.

While certain people may be predisposed to believing in certain kinds of conspiracy theories, there are surely short-term contextual factors that influence whether somebody is likely clear out their living room in order to build a giant cork-board with pieces of yarn connecting various photos and documents. According to a new study by a group of researchers from the University of Amsterdam, one of these factors is the feeling of ambivalence. The reasoning is that feeling conflicted about something is unpleasant. We then attempt to compensate by seeking out order, and that can lead us to find meaning or purpose in ambiguity.

Ambivalence is a presumably unpleasant experience, and coming to terms with it is an intricate part of human existence. It is argued that ambivalent attitude holders cope with their ambivalence through compensatory perceptions of order. We first show that ambivalence leads to an increase in (visual) perceptions of order (Study 1). In Study 2 we conceptually replicate this finding by showing that ambivalence also increases belief in conspiracy theories, a cognitive form of order perception. Furthermore, this effect is mediated by the negative emotions that are elicited by ambivalence. In Study 3 we show that increased need for order is driving these effects: Affirmations of order cancel out the effect of as well as societal implications are discussed.

In the headline-grabbing 2nd experiment participants wrote about a subject they were either ambivalent or univalent about. They were then told to imagine themselves in two ambiguous scenarios. In the first, they hold a job that involves tracking office email use, and the day before unexpectedly getting turned down for a promotion they notice an increase in the number of emails between their boss and the co-worker who sits next to them. In the second scenario, they notice owners of rival businesses leaving a bed and breakfast together. Later, all the businesses increase their prices, leading to higher profits. Participants are told that they own stock in these businesses, and so unlike in the first scenario, the potential collusion benefits them.

The key finding is that participants who wrote about conflicted or ambivalent feelings were more likely to believe that other people’s actions (the co-worker emails and the B&B meeting) were connected to their personal outcomes (not getting a promotion and earning investment profits.) To say that ambivalence therefore increases beliefs in conspiracy theories as they are colloquially defined may overstate things a tad, but it’s fair to conclude that ambivalence at least increases our attribution of outcomes to specific actions and motivations.

More broadly, the study highlights an important point about the necessity of groups and polarization. Having such a nuanced understanding of something that you’re genuinely conflicted about it is great in the abstract. If all of our politicians understood both sides of a policy well enough to feel genuine discomfort we’d probably have much better public policy.

But in practice a nuanced understanding can feel terrible. You see the drawbacks to both sides of the issue. You become marginally more unsure of yourself and your beliefs, and you become driven to find order in places where it might not exist. And so it can feel better to convince yourself that the world exists in black and white. If taxes always hurt economic growth, you don’t have to worry about people without health insurance because raising taxes to expand healthcare has no chance of raising well-being.

The motivation to find order in ambiguity is one striking consequence of ambivalence. But if you examine human beliefs and behavior the need to avoid conflicting feelings may frequently come into play.
van Harreveld, F., Rutjens, B., Schneider, I., Nohlen, H., & Keskinis, K. (2014). In Doubt and Disorderly: Ambivalence Promotes Compensatory Perceptions of Order. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General DOI: 10.1037/a0036099

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