Uncommon Knowledge

All the conspiracies are true!

And more surprising insights from the social sciences

All the conspiracies are true!

Is Osama bin Laden still alive? Or was he already dead before the US raid that supposedly killed him? These two conspiracy theories appear to contradict each other, but psychologists in Britain have found that such logical problems don’t deter conspiracists from believing both. When people were asked about the Osama bin Laden raid, endorsing one of these theories didn’t preclude endorsing the other. Likewise, when asked to evaluate various theories about the death of Princess Diana, even people who arguably should’ve known better — British students in a psychology research methods class — had trouble sorting things out. Believing that Diana faked her own death was significantly associated with also believing that she was killed by business enemies of the Fayeds, which was, in turn, strongly associated with believing that she was killed by a rogue cell of the British secret service. The simultaneous acceptance of these conflicting theories seems to be motivated by an overarching belief in deceptive coverups by authorities.

Wood, M. et al., “Dead and Alive: Beliefs in Contradictory Conspiracy Theories,” Social Psychological and Personality Science (forthcoming).

Still mindlessly inhumane after all these years

In the infamous Milgram electric-shock and Stanford prison experiments, “normal” people were shown to behave inhumanely in the service of authority. Those experiments were conducted some decades ago, so one might be tempted to think we’ve since learned from those disturbing results. A recent experiment suggests otherwise. Dutch college students were confronted by a researcher who said he wanted to conduct a harrowing experiment that would subject people to prolonged sensory deprivation. The researcher wanted students to write a message that could be used to recruit fellow students for the experiment. The researcher also indicated that the research oversight committee had not yet approved the experiment and that the students could submit an anonymous form objecting to the experiment. Out of the 149 students who were solicited, only 21 refused to write the message, and only 14 bothered to submit the form. Moreover, only five of the 14 who submitted the form also refused to write the message. Ironically, when another sample of students was asked what they’d do in the same situation — but only from a hypothetical standpoint — only a few percent thought they’d comply.

Bocchiaro, P. et al., “To Defy or Not to Defy: An Experimental Study of the Dynamics of Disobedience and Whistle-Blowing,” Social Influence (forthcoming).

Hate me on Facebook

Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter help people cultivate “friends” and “followers.” That’s obviously a bonus for confident extroverts, but you might guess it would be even more helpful for people with low self-esteem, who have trouble sharing their lives with other people offline. In fact, however, a new study suggests that people with low self-esteem shouldn’t be too optimistic about social networking — for the very reason that they’re not optimistic about anything else. Researchers found that people with low self-esteem are indeed more likely to view Facebook as a safer place to socialize, but their status updates tend to be more negative than the status updates of people with high self-esteem. As a result, they’re liked (and “Liked”) less.

Forest, A. & Wood, J., “When Social Networking Is Not Working: Individuals with Low Self-Esteem Recognize but Do Not Reap the Benefits of Self-Disclosing on Facebook,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

What would Jesus do? Same as me


What would Jesus do? Many people have asked that question to help guide them in various situations, but, according to researchers at Stanford, the answer they get has a lot to do with what they believe in the first place. In a survey, Christians guessed that Jesus would hold views on contemporary political issues remarkably similar to their own views. Liberal Christians guessed that Jesus would strongly support illegal immigrants and redistribution of wealth, while conservative Christians guessed that Jesus would lean the opposite way on these issues and be especially conservative on issues like abortion and gay marriage. However, each side seemed to recognize a little bit of their own bias. Liberal Christians guessed that Jesus would be more conservative on abortion and gay marriage than they were, while conservative Christians guessed that Jesus would be more liberal than themselves on redistribution and illegal immigration.

Ross, L. et al., “How Christians Reconcile Their Personal Political Views and the Teachings of Their Faith: Projection as a Means of Dissonance Reduction,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (forthcoming).

Autistic engineers, depressive French majors

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When you pick a major in college, you may think your choices are wide open — but in fact, subtle factors in your background or mental makeup may be exerting control over your academic future. A survey of the incoming class of 2014 at Princeton found that students’ family psychiatric history was strongly associated with their intended majors. There was a significantly higher incidence of autism spectrum disorders among siblings of those interested in technical majors, while there was a significantly higher incidence of bipolar disorder, depression, and substance abuse among family members of those interested in humanities majors.

Campbell, B. & Wang, S., “Familial Linkage between Neuropsychiatric Disorders and Intellectual Interests,” PLoS ONE (January 2012).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at