This shows an eye,
They also have a greater tendency to find profound messages in nonsense sentences. Credit: Neuroscience News

Truth Relativism and its Ties to Conspiracy Theory Beliefs

Summary: Researchers explored the link between the belief that truth is relative and susceptibility to conspiracy theories. Two studies, involving Swedes and Brits, evaluated participants’ perspectives on truth and their responses to conspiracy theories and nonsensical sentences.

Results revealed that those believing truth to be subjective were more inclined towards conspiracy beliefs and resisting contradictory facts. This subjective truth approach paradoxically tied with dogmatism.

Key Facts:

  1. A strong correlation was found between truth subjectivism and the acceptance of conspiracy theories.
  2. Those who saw truth as subjective often disregarded factual contradictions and found meaning in nonsense sentences.
  3. Surprisingly, the belief in subjective truth was linked with dogmatism, suggesting these individuals often reject others’ truths.

Source: Linkoping University

People who primarily use their own gut feeling to determine what is true and false are more likely to believe conspiracy theories. That is the conclusion of researchers at Linköping University, Sweden, who have investigated the relationship between susceptibility to misleading information and the conviction that the truth is relative

“I think many people who emphasise a more relativistic view of what truth is mean well. They believe that it’s important that everyone should be able to make their voice heard. But these results show that such a view can actually be quite dangerous,” says PhD student Julia Aspernäs at the Department of Behavioural Sciences and Learning in Linköping. 

In two studies reported in an article in the Journal of Research in Personality, she and two colleagues have investigated the relationship between so-called truth relativism and the risk of falling victim to incorrect or fraudulent information.

The first study involves approximately one thousand Swedes. In an online survey, participants were asked to answer questions about their views on what truth is. They then had to take a position on various conspiracy theories and also assess the content of a number of nonsense sentences. 

The researchers also collected information on factors previously found to be related to belief in misleading information, such as the ability to reason analytically, political orientation, age, gender and educational level.

In the second study, more than 400 people from the UK participated. Here the number of questions was expanded and the participants’ degree of dogmatism and willingness to adapt their perceptions when faced with new facts were also measured.

From the material, the researchers unearthed two types of truth relativism. One that comprises those who are convinced that what you personally feel to be true is true, that is to say, that truth is subjective.

And one including those who believe that truth depends on which culture or group you belong to, so-called cultural relativism.

The results clearly show that those who believe that the truth is subjective are more likely to believe conspiracy theories and to hold on to their beliefs even when faced with facts that contradict them. They also have a greater tendency to find profound messages in nonsense sentences. 

Even when the researchers investigated other possible explanations, such as the ability for analytical thinking or political orientation, subjectivism remained as an independent, explanatory factor.

The connections were not as clear for those who believe that truth is culture-bound and the results there point partly in different directions.

To the researchers’ surprise, the data collection from the UK also showed a link between subjectivism and dogmatism. Thus, someone who claims that the truth is personal can, paradoxically, often at the same time reject other people’s right to their own truth.

Julia Aspernäs thinks that the results are useful when listening to political debates, such as those concerning schooling. People may have different opinions on matters of fact, but behind this may lie a fundamental disagreement about how the world works and what even exists.

“I got the idea when listening to debates about whether students should learn factual knowledge or be encouraged to themselves seek out what they think is true. It sounded like the debaters had completely opposite assumptions about what truth is and argued that their own approach was the best way to help students become critical thinkers.

“Although our study did not investigate causality, we see that truth relativism seems to be linked to a greater belief in misleading information. It may be important to keep that in mind,” she says.

Funding: The research has been financed by the Swedish Research Council.

About this psychology and conspiracy theory research news

Author: Jonas Roslund
Source: Linkoping University
Contact: Jonas Roslund – Linkoping University
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Misperceptions in a post-truth world: Effects of subjectivism and cultural relativism on bullshit receptivity and conspiracist ideation” by Julia Aspernäs et al. Journal of Research in Personality


Misperceptions in a post-truth world: Effects of subjectivism and cultural relativism on bullshit receptivity and conspiracist ideation

This research investigated whether belief in truth relativism yields higher receptivity to misinformation. Two studies with representative samples from Sweden (Study 1, N = 1005) and the UK (Study 2, N = 417) disentangled two forms of truth relativism: subjectivism (truth is relative to subjective intuitions) and cultural relativism (truth is relative to cultural context).

In Study 1, subjectivism was more strongly associated with receptivity to pseudo-profound bullshit and conspiracy theories than cultural relativism was.

In Study 2 (preregistered), subjectivism predicted higher receptivity to both forms of misinformation over and above effects of analytical and actively open-minded thinking, profoundness receptivity, ideology, and demographics; the unique effects of cultural relativism were in the opposite direction (Study 1) or non-significant (Study 2).

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  1. Interesting. I’d be interested in seeing what the actual survey questions were.

    As a philosophical pragmatist, I do believe truth is relative-to a degree. It is relative to a purpose, to an analysis, to a context. But truth is not free-floating. It is constrained by the state of affairs that obtains irrespective of the analysis. I do not believe in strong forms of personal truth-subjectivity or cultural relativism. (Re. the latter, cultures are NOT incommensurate. People can, and do, learn more than one, and translate back-and-forth). I wonder if the research questions would have captured that view? Perhaps not.

  2. I wish to say that it’s easier to detect falsehoods if we are anchored in truth-hoods (subjectively, culturally or detached objectively). Like having a control and a variable group in an experiment.
    Firstly, true and false are inverses/opposites of each other which makes it easier to understand and differentiate; usually it’s one or the other, not both. Also both refer to our understanding of reality. While external reality can be agreed upon internal reality is personally subjective but still potentially uncovered through objectification.
    So to detect falsehoods try comparing the sense with known truths or simple test truth.
    But when it’s personal or interpersonal, I suppose depersonalization and objectification might help. Sometimes secrets, lies, power, debts, fear or common goals keep ppl together.
    I’m not sure anyone likes conspiracies; there is an antisocial/manipulative element to them. Organisms become suspicious for their own reasons maybe for not having access to [conclusive] information, trusting authority or being discounted.

  3. There are [apex] predators, even in society and communities. Sometimes they are called, referred to or thought of as ‘alpha, sigma, leader, sir, excellency, reverend, CEO, etc’.
    Usually they are male as females seem not as direct. Female-male predation is a bit different, often sexual and contextual.
    This is extrapolatible to nation-states as well.
    Ppl can sense/feel/perceive other ppl and even exchange these due to context changes.

  4. Few ppl are even aware of [anti]social predation.
    Moreover ppl forcibly removed from their natural environment/community and/or who have difficulty adapting to a non-native environment (or one having gone through unexpected power changes) my find ways to stereotype/generalize and differentiate between friendly and emnitous persons/groups or at least their perceptions/sense of them, which are 100% valid & real to them.

  5. Every organism has its own views/perceptions of reality as is relative to their survival needs/interests.
    Con-spiracy: together-breathing (in unison); eating, sleeping, singing, thinking, reading etc. in unison/synchrony as well (the more together, the stronger the bonds).

    Regarding conspiracies, I think some who are suspicious of others come up with hypotheses b/c the are not part of the group (they are outsiders) in order to make sense of their view of reality. Then there might be some who aren’t even aware they are part of a conspiracy (born into or desensitized).
    There could be also some who are part of a group but deny it deceitfully.
    We all know access to information or person is restricted even in so-called free & open societies. This is b/c everyone needs their security, comfort and to feel in control (at least of their self).

  6. I think that most people find it difficult to face up to reality and therefore find it difficult to be convinced of alternative ideas.

    1. I think perception of reality is subjective (and objectively subjective from individuals pov) but aggregate subjective views become more objective.

      1. Yeah, that’s the way it is. Individual reality is subjective. The only objective reality is by consensus, but it’s still an aggregate of subjective reports. All any of us knows is what little trickles up through our brains processing to our conscious awareness, and that awareness is a very small subset of the information and stimuli our brain processes. By the time it reaches out attention, stuff way outside of our awareness has already made decisions and predictions about what’s relevant, what patterns it fits under, and what it is. I like to tell people that everything you see is actually upside-down as a simple example.

    2. Once again, it appears that the evolution of the human brain’s ability to process information lags behind our ability to disseminate it…

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