Cognitive Distortions and Conspiracy Theories


This report reviews research describing the formation of conspiracy theories in adolescents using the telephone to jam the signal of tracking devices. It is shown that teleological thinking, belief in the low probability of an incident, and patterns of representational thinking prove to be predictors for the development of conspiracy theories. Among the most vulnerable groups are those with underdeveloped analytical and emotional intelligence, prone to anxiety and feelings of powerlessness. The college principal’s interest in creating a safe driving culture is suggested to be realised through groups of students with sceptical thinking and public popularity.


Cognitive distortions and biases that induce people to engage in dangerous behaviour because of faulty mental constructs are a severe problem for humanity. Cognitive distortions are a sign of general underdevelopment of the human cognitive apparatus, in which any ideas, even those deemed wrong, are taken as truth (Hardman, 2021). In the context of this report, such distortions and conspiracy theories are examined in college students who use a phone to jam the signal of a tracking device. Such a solution is based on conspiracy facts and threatens public safety, so this scenario needs to be carefully examined. This report will answer how conspiracy theories are formed, which groups find themselves more vulnerable to them, and who should be the facilitators to disrupt these theories in college.

The Formation of Conspiracy Theories

Teleological Thinking

The reasons for the formation of conspiracy theories and cognitive distortions in the minds of individuals have been widely explored in academic discourse. One of the fundamental reasons for their formation is considered by Kelemen, Rottman and Seston (2013) to be the presence of teleological thinking as a cognitive default in which individuals tend not to use analytical or critical thinking skills to discover cause and effect relationships. Closely related to this theory is the phenomenon of apophenia as a cognitive distortion in which individuals can see connections where there are none (Hardman, 2021). In the case of inexperienced adolescents, this may mean that their lack of analytical thinking creates a knowledge deficit that is covered by simple but not always correct answers. For example, teenage drivers do not try to find an answer to what dangerous driving can lead to but instead use the unverified information that the phone jams the signal of tracking devices, as this proves easier knowledge to use in their attitudes.

Belief in Low Probability

Individuals do not always interpret statistical data correctly, leading to poor judgement. Although car accidents are not uncommon, teenage drivers may be convinced that these statistics will never affect them. In reality, unlikely events are widespread when viewed on an overall scale (Diaconis and Mosteller, 1989). It cannot be certain that any particular teenager will create a dangerous traffic situation because of mobile phone use, but on a broad scale, such accidents will still occur, and thus the threat to their health remains relevant.

Representational Thinking

The formation of conspiracy theories is based on representational heuristics to create judgements and conclusions based on available information. In their study, Kahneman and Tversky (1972) concluded that representational thinking is formed when individuals refer to past experiences in which mental prototypes exist when learning about information. In the context of representational research, an essential factor in the formation of conspiracy theories is the base rate fallacy, which occurs when one falsely focuses on only a fragment of information. As a manifestation of representational thinking, this fallacy is based on using only information the individual has had prior experience (Hardman, 2021). In the case of dangerous drivers, this fallacy can lead to an understanding of specific information published about road accidents — for example, which car was used, why the car crashed, and whether there were any fatalities. This information appears closer to the young people concerned, so they may ignore important published statistics on how often phone use leads to road accidents.

The belief in defence against probability statistics described in the previous paragraph may be due to the Gambler’s fallacy. This fallacy represents a distortion in representational thinking, in which individuals tend to associate multiple independent events (Hardman, 2021). For example, if an adolescent has previously demonstrated careful driving using a phone, this fallacy will lead him or her to a distortion about whether it will be safe to do so on the following occasions. In addition, there may be uncertainty in the minds of teen drivers as to why it is dangerous to use phones while driving, and instead of sorting this out, they will look to their past experiences and those of their peers who are driving unmistakably while using a phone. This creates a distorted causal link whereby adolescents do not look for answers to real questions but rather pay attention to extraneous causes. Consequently, the belief that the driving experience is error-free leads to overconfidence and carelessness, which leaves teenagers at risk of negligent driving.

The Most Susceptible Groups

Concerning conspiracy theories and cognitive distortions, an important issue remains to identify vulnerable groups who are more susceptible to such constructs. As already mentioned, one of the characteristics of such groups is underdeveloped analytical thinking and knowledge deficits, which lead to the search for simpler answers (Kelemen et al., 2013). From this perspective, adolescents are highly vulnerable because they may not have sufficient experience or knowledge of particular issues — the lack of this experience gives rise to a tendency to believe in incorrect but convenient theories. A different characteristic is identified by Douglas, Sutton, and Cichocka (2017), which address the perception of individuals’ powerlessness, superstition, and anxiety. An excellent example of this powerlessness is the COVID-19 pandemic, during which, due to the uncertainty around them, large numbers of people began to believe in conspiracy theories, as shown in Figure 1. Anxiety combined with feelings of powerlessness can also be true for adolescents whose stable emotional intelligence is still developing (Wen et al., 2021). Underdeveloped analytic thinking combined with underdeveloped emotional stability become strong predictors for exposure to conspiracy theories.

Awareness of uncertainty causes panic and shapes conspiracy theories
Figure 1. Awareness of uncertainty causes panic and shapes conspiracy theories (Byford, 2021).

The Disruptive Message

Interested in disrupting conspiracy theories associated with mobile phone use, a college principal must carefully select individuals who will not only be critical of the information but who will also be agents of quality, verified knowledge. Thus, the motivation for selecting such individuals should be viewed from two perspectives. First, the selected individuals must have sufficient analytical thinking skills and emotional intelligence to know what theories should be seen as conspiracy theories (Kelemen et al., 2013). They are adolescents who are critical of information and tend to verify it through multiple sources. Individuals with developed healthy scepticism may be suitable for the role of adherents of conspiracy theories destruction (Byford, 2021). Second, such adolescents need to enjoy public popularity and peer approval so that the information conveyed can be received. Adolescents engaged in social, creative or sporting activities may evoke more trust from their peers, which is necessary to accept and understand the information being conveyed intelligently. It would be helpful to consider creating a multidisciplinary group of students who fit the above criteria, which would promote knowledge that is disruptive to conspiracy theories through training, discussion and debate.


Conspiracy theories are an acute problem for humanity: lack of qualitative information, analytical and emotional underdevelopment and faulty assumptions about probabilities lead to conspiracy theories. College adolescents are a vulnerable group to promote such theories because, due to their age, they tend to have limited qualitative knowledge, and they may feel anxious about information about tracking devices in cars. Consequently, there is a need to deconstruct the destructive idea of using a mobile phone to jam a signal, as this idea is based on conspiracy speculation. Using a group of adolescents with developed critical thinking and public popularity would be the right solution to help promote the necessary ideas amongst their peers.

Reference List

Byford, J. (2021) ‘Chapter 12: conspiracy theories’, in in Strathie, A., Turner, J. and Barker, M. J. (eds.) Living psychology: from the everyday to the extraordinary. Milton Keynes: The Open University.

Diaconis, P. and Mosteller, F. (1989) ‘Methods for studying coincidences’, Journal of the American Statistical Association, 84(408), pp. 853–861.

Douglas, K. M., Sutton, R. M. and Cichocka, A. (2017) ‘The psychology of conspiracy theories’, Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26(6), pp. 538–42.

Hardman, D. (2021) ‘Chapter 11: everyday errors in making sense of the world’, in Strathie, A., Turner, J. and Barker, M. J. (eds.) Living psychology: from the everyday to the extraordinary. Milton Keynes: The Open University.

Kahneman, D. and Tversky, A. (1972) ‘Subjective probability: a judgment of representativeness’, Cognitive Psychology, 3, pp. 430–54.

Kelemen, D., Rottman, J. and Seston, R. (2013) ‘Professional physical scientists display tenacious teleological tendencies: purpose-based reasoning as a cognitive default’, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 142(4), pp. 1074–1083.

Wen, Y., et al. (2021) ‘Cognitive impairment in adolescent major depressive disorder with nonsuicidal self-injury: evidence based on multi-indicator ERPs,’ Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 15, pp. 81-93.

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