Aha! An experiment on insight-based belief formation of conspiracy theories and the optimism bias

Speaker 2023

Belief in conspiracy theories has been examined from different viewpoints (e.g., Clarke, 2019; McHoskey, 1995), and many attributing or exacerbating factors have been found. Lack of perceived control and lack of trust in authority, for example, have been found to increase the belief in conspiracy theories (e.g., Douglas et al., 2019; Wood & Douglas, 2013). In addition, some people may just have a tendency to believe in conspiracy theories, which is called “conspiracy mentality” (e.g., Brotherton et al., 2013). Yet, the research on belief-formation in conspiracy theories still has many gaps. Much of the research is non-experimental, which makes causality claims hard to prove (e.g., Jovančević & Milićević, 2020; Lewandowsky et al., 2013). The current study aims to investigate potential underlying mechanisms of belief in conspiracy theories, and its consequences. The main underlying mechanism that we investigated is the Aha-erlebnis, defined as “an acute positive feeling associated with an epistemic experience (Van de Cruys et al., 2023, p.14). While conspiracists claim to ‘do their own research’ and arrive at subjective discoveries or insights, (experimental) research on information-seeking and subjective insight processes in conspiracists is scarce. Van de Cruys et al. (2023)recently hypothesized that Aha-experiences elicited by epistemic acts play an important role in conspiracy belief-formation. This may explain why misinformation and conspiracy theories are often communicated through questions, clues or puzzles (cf. QAnon) in online environments. The current study is a first attempt to test this hypothesis experimentally. In an online experiment with a 2X2 between subjects design, participants were presented with an article about the Notre Dame fire that was either a conspiracy theory or not (taken from van Prooijen et al. (2022)), and five anagrams were embedded throughout the text to evoke an epistemic experience. With respect to the consequences of conspiracy beliefs, we further tested whether belief in conspiracy theories increased the optimism bias. We know that conspiracy beliefs may increase the feeling of perceived control (van Prooijen & Acker, 2015). Given that one of the main underlying mechanisms of the optimism bias is the illusion of control (van der Meer et al., 2022), we reasoned that conspiracy beliefs, as induced by our procedure, could be predictive of greater optimism bias. Indeed, if conspiracy belief can be induced by our Aha procedure, a greater optimism bias might be due to those experiences of autonomous puzzle-solving (subjective insights). Finally, we also looked at the link between conspiracy beliefs and people’s intention to interact with conspiracy materials online (like, comment or share), to confirm earlier research (European Commission, 2020; Morosoli et al., 2022), and how these are related to optimism and Aha-experiences. Preliminary results show that there are indeed some important correlations to be found between the main variables, but analyses are still on-going.


Brotherton, R., French, C., & Pickering, A. (2013). Measuring Belief in Conspiracy Theories: The Generic Conspiracist Beliefs Scale [Original Research]. Frontiers in Psychology, 4https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00279

Clarke, S. (2019). Conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorizing. In Conspiracy Theories (pp. 77-92). Routledge. 

Douglas, K. M., Uscinski, J. E., Sutton, R. M., Cichocka, A., Nefes, T., Ang, C. S., & Deravi, F. (2019). Understanding Conspiracy Theories. Advances in Political Psychology, 40, 3-35. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1111/pops.12568

European Commission. (2020). Identifying conspiracy theories

Jovančević, A., & Milićević, N. (2020). Optimism-pessimism, conspiracy theories and general trust as factors contributing to COVID-19 related behavior – A cross-cultural study. Personality and Individual Differences, 167, 110216. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2020.110216

Lewandowsky, S., Oberauer, K., & Gignac, G. E. (2013). NASA faked the moon landing–therefore, (climate) science is a hoax: an anatomy of the motivated rejection of science. Psychol Sci, 24(5), 622-633. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797612457686

McHoskey, J. W. (1995). Case Closed? On the John F. Kennedy Assassination: Biased Assimilation of Evidence and Attitude Polarization. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 17(3), 395-409. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15324834basp1703_7

Morosoli, S., Van Aelst, P., & van Erkel, P. (2022). To Convince, to Provoke or to Entertain? A Study on Individual Motivations behind Engaging with Conspiracy Theories Online. Convergence, 28(4), 1030-1059. https://doi.org/10.1177/13548565221105792

Van de Cruys, S., Bervoets, J., Gadsby, S., Gijbels, D., & Poels, K. (2023). Insight in the conspiracist’s mind. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/6ef9u

van der Meer, T. G. L. A., Brosius, A., & Hameleers, M. (2022). The Role of Media Use and Misinformation Perceptions in Optimistic Bias and Third-person Perceptions in Times of High Media Dependency: Evidence from Four Countries in the First Stage of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Mass Communication and Society, 1-25. https://doi.org/10.1080/15205436.2022.2039202

van Prooijen, J.-W., & Acker, M. (2015). The Influence of Control on Belief in Conspiracy Theories: Conceptual and Applied Extensions. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 29(5), 753-761. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1002/acp.3161

van Prooijen, J.-W., Ligthart, J., Rosema, S., & Xu, Y. (2022). The entertainment value of conspiracy theories. British Journal of Psychology, 113(1), 25-48. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1111/bjop.12522

Wood, M., & Douglas, K. (2013). “What about building 7?” A social psychological study of online discussion of 9/11 conspiracy theories [Original Research]. Frontiers in Psychology, 4https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00409


Babette Hermans

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