Most methods to tackle conspiracy beliefs don’t work, study finds

6 Apr 2023

Image: © Berit Kessler/

The UCC study claims an analytical mindset and critical thinking skills are the most effective means of challenging conspiracy beliefs.

A new study claims that traditional fact-based counterarguments to counter conspiracy beliefs are ineffective.

Conspiracy theories have been highlighted in multiple studies for the negative consequences they can create, such as spreading misinformation on issues like the Covid-19 pandemic.

But while multiple studies have attempted to counter conspiracy theories, the team behind this new study claim little research has been dedicated to reviewing the methods that can reduce conspiracy beliefs.

The study, led by researchers at University College Cork (UCC), analysed 25 previously published studies that employed different interventions against conspiracy theories. The goal of the study was to create a comprehensive review of the different interventions.

The analysis showed that only half of the interventions reported any significant changes in the participants’ conspiracy beliefs, while only a small amount produced changes with moderate or large effects. The 25 studies examined had a total of 7,179 participants.

Critical thinking is key

The review study found that rational counterarguments that highlight the inaccuracies of conspiracy theories only had a small to very small impact in reducing these beliefs.

Counterarguments that appealed to a participant’s sense of empathy – by highlighting the damage these conspiracy theories can cause – also had very small effects. Arguments that attempted to ridicule those who held these beliefs were also shown to be ineffective counters.

“While the intuitive solution to countering unfounded conspiracy beliefs is to present facts and arguments that contradict the conspiracy explanation, our review indicates that this approach is among the least effective,” said Cian O’Mahony, the study’s lead researcher.

The study claims the most effective methods were those that drew attention to the factual inaccuracies of conspiracy beliefs prior to the participants being presented the conspiracy statements.

The researchers said that an analytical mindset and critical thinking skills are the most effective means of challenging conspiracy beliefs. Participants who were “primed” to have an analytical mindset were less likely to have conspiracy beliefs than control groups.

The study also found that a three-month educational course differentiating between scientific and pseudoscientific practices was the most effective counter to conspiracy beliefs.

“Further research is needed to identify strategies that best counter conspiracy beliefs through critical thinking and analytical mindsets,” O’Mahony said.

“Our aim is not to tell the public what to believe or disbelieve, but to encourage them through these interventions to critically appraise conspiracy beliefs to determine themselves what they should believe.”

UCC VP for research and innovation Prof John F Cryan praised the team for their review and said he looks forward to the “future development of research in this area”.

“These findings inform us on which interventions are the most effective in terms of changing conspiracy beliefs and will have a positive effect on how society deals with the effects of conspiracy theories in the fake-news era,” Cryan said.

The study was funded by the Irish Research Council in a partnership with Google, through the Online Content Safety Scholarship.

Last month, ISD Global’s Ciarán O’Connor explained how decentralised platforms are being used to store and spread conspiracy and extremist content, along with the difficulties presented in tackling this content.

10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.

Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic