There's a causal claim in this journalist's story about research on people who believe conspiracy theories. First, here's the causal headline:
a) What are the two variables in this claim?
b) Draw a diagram of this causal claim, using this form: A ---> B. (That is, which variable comes first, according to the wording the journalist used?)
Now that you've established the claim, does the research support it? The journalist reports on several studies conducted by researchers at the University of Mainz. Here's one:
The researchers first asked a sample of 238 US participants recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk survey website to complete a self-reported “Need For Uniqueness” scale (they rated their agreement with items like “being distinctive is extremely important to me”) and a Conspiracy Mentality scale (e.g. “Most people do not see how much our lives are determined by plots hatched in secret.”) before indicating whether or not they believed in a list of 99 conspiracy theories circulating online....[The results showed that] participants’ self-reported Need For Uniqueness ... correlated with their stronger endorsement of the conspiracy beliefs.
c) In the study above, sketch a scatterplot of the results they described. Label your axes mindfully.
d) Is the study above correlational or experimental? Why or why not?
e) Does this study support the claim that the journalist assigned to it? That is, does it show that believing conspiracy theories causes people's need for uniqueness to be satisfied? As you explain your answer, pay careful attention to possible third variables. That is, what third variables ("C"s) might be reasonably correlated with both need for uniqueness and belief in conspiracies?
Here's another study in the series:
The second study replicated this finding with a further 465 Mechanical Turk participants based in the US, but this time half the sample read a list of the five most well known conspiracy theories and the five least known ones, whereas the other half of the group read the five most popular conspiracy theories and the five least popular. Again, self-reported Need For Uniqueness correlated with stronger agreement with the various conspiracy theories.
f) Is the second study correlational or experimental? Why? Sketch the results in a well-labeled scatterplot.
g) Does this second study rule out any of the third variables you came up with when answering question e) above?
Here's a final study:
Note, the conspiracy theory that featured in this final experiment was entirely made-up by the researchers. ...The conspiracy theory was about smoke detectors and the claim was that they produce dangerous hypersound. The researchers led half of 290 participants on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to believe that this was a popular conspiracy theory in Germany where it was alleged to be believed by 81 per cent of Germans. The rest of the participants were led to believe that the theory was doubted by 81 per cent of Germans.
While information about the popularity of the theory didn’t affect participants overall, it did impact those who said that they tended to endorse a lot of conspiracy theories. Among these conspiracy-prone participants, their belief in the made-up smoke detector conspiracy was enhanced on average when the conspiracy was framed as a minority opinion.
h) Is the above study correlational or experimental? Why?
i) Sketch the results of the study--Hint: you might need to use a bar graph that also includes two colors of bars.
j) To what extent does this final study support the claim that believing "conspiracy theories causes people's need for uniqueness to be satisfied"?
k) If the study doesn't support the claim given in j), is there another, modified causal claim that the study can support? What is it?
In the final section of the story, the journalist concludes, "Taken together, the findings provide convincing evidence that some people are motivated to agree with conspiracy theories with an aura of exclusiveness."
l) Should this final claim be classified as causal or association? To what extent is this claim supported by the studies?
My thanks to Marianne Lloyd of Seton Hall University for sharing this story!
d) This is a correlational study because both need for uniqueness and belief in conspiracy theories were measured variables.
e) In this correlational study, we can't know for sure whether Need for Uniqueness --> Belief in C0nspiracy Theories, whether Belief in Conspiracy Theories --> Need for Uniqueness, or whether some third variable is associated with both. One possible third variable might be social anxiety: Perhaps socially anxious people believe more conspiracy theories and socially anxious people are also high on need for uniqueness. Being highly educated is associated with lower belief in conspiracy theories (according to this study), and if highly educated people are also low in need for uniqueness, then education is a potential third variable as well.
f) Both variables were measured again, so....correlational study!
g) You could raise the same objections here that you did in e)
h) This study is experimental because they manipulated the proportion of people who supposedly believed in the theory. There are two measured variables in this study as well; one is the tendency to believe in conspiracy theories (high or low), and the other is the extent of belief in the smoke detector theory.
j) No; in fact need for uniqueness wasn't reported by the journalist as a variable at all, so it probably can't support that claim.
k) I believe this study can support the following claim: Telling people that only a minority of Germans support a conspiracy theory causes people to believe it more, only if they already are the type of person who believes in conspiracy theories.
l) The final statement is an association claim. Because most of the studies were correlational, the studies do support it!