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Concept: Social psychology


Conspiratorial ideation is the tendency of individuals to believe that events and power relations are secretly manipulated by certain clandestine groups and organisations. Many of these ostensibly explanatory conjectures are non-falsifiable, lacking in evidence or demonstrably false, yet public acceptance remains high. Efforts to convince the general public of the validity of medical and scientific findings can be hampered by such narratives, which can create the impression of doubt or disagreement in areas where the science is well established. Conversely, historical examples of exposed conspiracies do exist and it may be difficult for people to differentiate between reasonable and dubious assertions. In this work, we establish a simple mathematical model for conspiracies involving multiple actors with time, which yields failure probability for any given conspiracy. Parameters for the model are estimated from literature examples of known scandals, and the factors influencing conspiracy success and failure are explored. The model is also used to estimate the likelihood of claims from some commonly-held conspiratorial beliefs; these are namely that the moon-landings were faked, climate-change is a hoax, vaccination is dangerous and that a cure for cancer is being suppressed by vested interests. Simulations of these claims predict that intrinsic failure would be imminent even with the most generous estimates for the secret-keeping ability of active participants-the results of this model suggest that large conspiracies (≥1000 agents) quickly become untenable and prone to failure. The theory presented here might be useful in counteracting the potentially deleterious consequences of bogus and anti-science narratives, and examining the hypothetical conditions under which sustainable conspiracy might be possible.

Concepts: Scientific method, Mathematics, Epistemology, Hypothesis, Theory, Logic, Social psychology, Conspiracy theory


Persuasion is at the core of norm creation, emergence of collective action, and solutions to ‘tragedy of the commons’ problems. In this paper, we show that the directionality of friendship ties affect the extent to which individuals can influence the behavior of each other. Moreover, we find that people are typically poor at perceiving the directionality of their friendship ties and that this can significantly limit their ability to engage in cooperative arrangements. This could lead to failures in establishing compatible norms, acting together, finding compromise solutions, and persuading others to act. We then suggest strategies to overcome this limitation by using two topological characteristics of the perceived friendship network. The findings of this paper have significant consequences for designing interventions that seek to harness social influence for collective action.

Concepts: Psychology, Sociology, Perception, Social psychology, Philosophy of perception, Friendship, Social influence, Persuasion


Every day, thousands of polls, surveys, and rating scales are employed to elicit the attitudes of humankind. Given the ubiquitous use of these instruments, it seems we ought to have firm answers to what is measured by them, but unfortunately we do not. To help remedy this situation, we present a novel approach to investigate the nature of attitudes. We created a self-transforming paper survey of moral opinions, covering both foundational principles, and current dilemmas hotly debated in the media. This survey used a magic trick to expose participants to a reversal of their previously stated attitudes, allowing us to record whether they were prepared to endorse and argue for the opposite view of what they had stated only moments ago. The result showed that the majority of the reversals remained undetected, and a full 69% of the participants failed to detect at least one of two changes. In addition, participants often constructed coherent and unequivocal arguments supporting the opposite of their original position. These results suggest a dramatic potential for flexibility in our moral attitudes, and indicates a clear role for self-attribution and post-hoc rationalization in attitude formation and change.

Concepts: Addition, Change, Morality, Social psychology, Argument, Magic, Reversal, Arguments


Understanding of the psychology of tyranny is dominated by classic studies from the 1960s and 1970s: Milgram’s research on obedience to authority and Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment. Supporting popular notions of the banality of evil, this research has been taken to show that people conform passively and unthinkingly to both the instructions and the roles that authorities provide, however malevolent these may be. Recently, though, this consensus has been challenged by empirical work informed by social identity theorizing. This suggests that individuals' willingness to follow authorities is conditional on identification with the authority in question and an associated belief that the authority is right.

Concepts: Stanford prison experiment, Social psychology, Milgram experiment, Philip Zimbardo, Stanley Milgram, Archives of the History of American Psychology, Strip search prank call scam, Group processes


The study of social identity and crowd psychology looks at how and why individual people change their behaviour in response to others. Within a group, a new behaviour can emerge first in a few individuals before it spreads rapidly to all other members. A number of mathematical models have been hypothesized to describe these social contagion phenomena, but these models remain largely untested against empirical data. We used Bayesian model selection to test between various hypotheses about the spread of a simple social behaviour, applause after an academic presentation. Individuals' probability of starting clapping increased in proportion to the number of other audience members already ‘infected’ by this social contagion, regardless of their spatial proximity. The cessation of applause is similarly socially mediated, but is to a lesser degree controlled by the reluctance of individuals to clap too many times. We also found consistent differences between individuals in their willingness to start and stop clapping. The social contagion model arising from our analysis predicts that the time the audience spends clapping can vary considerably, even in the absence of any differences in the quality of the presentations they have heard.

Concepts: Scientific method, Psychology, Mathematics, Sociology, Observation, Empiricism, Social psychology, Applause


Humans are thought to possess a unique proclivity to share with others - including strangers. This puzzling phenomenon has led many to suggest that sharing with strangers originates from human-unique language, social norms, warfare and/or cooperative breeding. However, bonobos, our closest living relative, are highly tolerant and, in the wild, are capable of having affiliative interactions with strangers. In four experiments, we therefore examined whether bonobos will voluntarily donate food to strangers. We show that bonobos will forego their own food for the benefit of interacting with a stranger. Their prosociality is in part driven by unselfish motivation, because bonobos will even help strangers acquire out-of-reach food when no desirable social interaction is possible. However, this prosociality has its limitations because bonobos will not donate food in their possession when a social interaction is not possible. These results indicate that other-regarding preferences toward strangers are not uniquely human. Moreover, language, social norms, warfare and cooperative breeding are unnecessary for the evolution of xenophilic sharing. Instead, we propose that prosociality toward strangers initially evolves due to selection for social tolerance, allowing the expansion of individual social networks. Human social norms and language may subsequently extend this ape-like social preference to the most costly contexts.

Concepts: Human, Evolution, Interaction, Sociology, Motivation, Preference, Social psychology, Toleration


Social networks show striking structural regularities, and both theory and evidence suggest that networks may have facilitated the development of large-scale cooperation in humans. Here, we characterize the social networks of the Hadza, a population of hunter-gatherers in Tanzania. We show that Hadza networks have important properties also seen in modernized social networks, including a skewed degree distribution, degree assortativity, transitivity, reciprocity, geographic decay and homophily. We demonstrate that Hadza camps exhibit high between-group and low within-group variation in public goods game donations. Network ties are also more likely between people who give the same amount, and the similarity in cooperative behaviour extends up to two degrees of separation. Social distance appears to be as important as genetic relatedness and physical proximity in explaining assortativity in cooperation. Our results suggest that certain elements of social network structure may have been present at an early point in human history. Also, early humans may have formed ties with both kin and non-kin, based in part on their tendency to cooperate. Social networks may thus have contributed to the emergence of cooperation.

Concepts: Sociology, Networks, Social psychology, Social network, Human evolution, Network theory, Complex network, Six degrees of separation


Debates on the origin and function of music have a long history. While some scientists argue that music itself plays no adaptive role in human evolution, others suggest that music clearly has an evolutionary role, and point to music’s universality. A recent hypothesis suggested that a fundamental function of music has been to help mitigating cognitive dissonance, which is a discomfort caused by holding conflicting cognitions simultaneously. It usually leads to devaluation of conflicting knowledge. Here we provide experimental confirmation of this hypothesis using a classical paradigm known to create cognitive dissonance. Results of our experiment reveal that the exposure to Mozart’s music exerted a strongly positive influence upon the performance of young children and served as basis by which they were enabled to reconcile the cognitive dissonance.

Concepts: Evolution, Cognition, Experiment, Knowledge, Cognitive dissonance, Music, Social psychology, On the Origin of Species


Choices not only reflect our preference, but they also affect our behavior. The phenomenon of choice-induced preference change has been of interest to cognitive dissonance researchers in social psychology, and more recently, it has attracted the attention of researchers in economics and neuroscience. Preference modulation after the mere act of making a choice has been repeatedly demonstrated over the last 50 years by an experimental paradigm called the “free-choice paradigm.” However, Chen and Risen (2010) pointed out a serious methodological flaw in this paradigm, arguing that evidence for choice-induced preference change is still insufficient. Despite the flaw, studies using the traditional free-choice paradigm continue to be published without addressing the criticism. Here, aiming to draw more attention to this issue, we briefly explain the methodological problem, and then describe simple simulation studies that illustrate how the free-choice paradigm produces a systematic pattern of preference change consistent with cognitive dissonance, even without any change in true preference. Our stimulation also shows how a different level of noise in each phase of the free-choice paradigm independently contributes to the magnitude of artificial preference change. Furthermore, we review ways of addressing the critique and provide a meta-analysis to show the effect size of choice-induced preference change after addressing the critique. Finally, we review and discuss, based on the results of the stimulation studies, how the criticism affects our interpretation of past findings generated from the free-choice paradigm. We conclude that the use of the conventional free-choice paradigm should be avoided in future research and the validity of past findings from studies using this paradigm should be empirically re-established.

Concepts: Scientific method, Psychology, Affect, Effect size, Meta-analysis, Cognitive dissonance, Choice, Social psychology


We investigated the moral stereotypes political liberals and conservatives have of themselves and each other. In reality, liberals endorse the individual-focused moral concerns of compassion and fairness more than conservatives do, and conservatives endorse the group-focused moral concerns of ingroup loyalty, respect for authorities and traditions, and physical/spiritual purity more than liberals do. 2,212 U.S. participants filled out the Moral Foundations Questionnaire with their own answers, or as a typical liberal or conservative would answer. Across the political spectrum, moral stereotypes about “typical” liberals and conservatives correctly reflected the direction of actual differences in foundation endorsement but exaggerated the magnitude of these differences. Contrary to common theories of stereotyping, the moral stereotypes were not simple underestimations of the political outgroup’s morality. Both liberals and conservatives exaggerated the ideological extremity of moral concerns for the ingroup as well as the outgroup. Liberals were least accurate about both groups.

Concepts: Right-wing politics, Social psychology, Political philosophy, Conservatism, Political spectrum, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Positive liberty