PhD Student Blog: Attending the Conspiracy Theory Research Training School

By Darel Cookson (PhD Student in Psychology; Staffordshire Centre for Psychological Research).

This summer I was lucky enough to attend a training school in Canterbury (at the University of Kent), organised by the COST Comparative Analysis of Conspiracy Theories action group, which focussed on quantitative methods in conspiracy theory research. My PhD research is investigating belief in conspiracy theories and exploring how understanding why people believe in conspiracy theories could help us develop interventions to reduce harmful beliefs. Therefore, this training school was an invaluable opportunity to develop my understanding of the research area and to work with both pioneers and fellow postgraduate students in the field.

The week did not disappoint! Each day was jam-packed with seminars from experts in the field, group-work with peers and challenging discussions and debates. Everyone was completely engaged with the topics, meaning that discussions often ended with new and exciting research opportunities we are now working on. The social schedule was bursting too, with several ideas being developed over fish and chips and a can of pop!

The social schedule also included a walking tour where we visited Canterbury Cathedral

The week kicked off with an introduction to the Psychology of Conspiracy Theories from the training school organiser, Professor Karen Douglas. Professor Douglas discussed the developments in the field, summarising that conspiracy beliefs are often a natural response to psychological needs and threats. For example our epistemic, existential and social needs can all drive people towards conspiracy theories. However, research has found that adopting these beliefs may ultimately be self-defeating.

Professor Sutton then led a seminar discussing the measurement of conspiracy beliefs and some of the pros and cons to using survey measures – extremely relevant to my work! This was followed by our first group work session, where myself and my group learned about each other’s research interests and so began our first discussion session.

The following day Dr Nefes delivered a brilliant seminar discussing his recent research using Rational Choice Theory, demonstrating how conspiratorial theorising can be used rationally in line with people’s political opinions and perceptions of threat. As I am from a psychological, rather than sociological, background it was really interesting to learn about sociological theories and my group were particularly fond of our research ideas developed in this session! We also had an engaging seminar in the afternoon by Dr Cichocka, about conspiracy theories and intergroup relations. We discussed theory development and mediation and moderation models which I think helped everyone with their current research ideas!

Dr Krouwel delivering his seminar on conspiracy beliefs and political orientation

On Wednesday, Dr Krouwel led a session focussing on politics and conspiracy beliefs; specifically the comparisons of left and right and moderate and extreme political views. Dr Krouwel was extremely generous with his time, answering all of our questions and helping us develop interesting and testable hypotheses. On Thursday we had the privilege of listening to Dr van-Prooijen discuss his recent paper on using evolutionary psychology to explain the origins of conspiracy beliefs. This new perspective is fascinating and the ideas bred from this session were definitely innovative and exciting.

By Friday I was feeling inspired but also quite sad that the week was almost over as the research group had become friends. The final seminar was led by Professor Uscinski and this focussed on the politics of conspiracy theories. Here we learned a lot about the role of partisanism in belief in conspiracy theories. Discussions then continued into Kent University’s excellent student union bar!

The training school was extremely useful for my research, particularly the focus on current research and methodological issues within the field. It was also great to collaborate with other postgraduate students and discuss and refine our research ideas. I am extremely grateful to the COST research group and Professor Douglas for organising the summer school and I am looking forward to working with the research group in the future.

The Department of Psychology at Staffordshire University offers a range of undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in Psychology at the University’s £30 million Science Centre in Stoke-on-Trent.

Interested in a Psychology degree? Come to an Open Day – for further details and to book your place at an open day please click here.

For more information about the Psychology degrees on offer at Staffordshire University please visit the below pages: