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Speaking (Un–)Truth to Power: Conspiracy Mentality as A Generalised Political Attitude

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  • German Institute for Development Evaluation (DEval)

Abstract and Figures

Conspiracy theories explain complex world events with reference to secret plots hatched by powerful groups. Belief in such theories is largely determined by a general propensity toward conspirational thinking. Such a conspiracy mentality can be understood as a generalized political attitude, distinct from established generalized political attitudes like right-wing authoritarianism (RWA) and social dominance orientation (SDO) (Study 1a, N = 497) that is temporally relatively stable (Study 1b & 1c, total N = 196). Three further studies (combined N = 854) show that in contrast to RWA and SDO, conspiracy mentality is related to prejudice against high-power groups that are perceived as less likeable and more threatening than low-power groups, whereas SDO and RWA are associated with an opposite reaction to perceptions of power. Study 5 (N = 1,852) investigates the relationship of conspiracy mentality with political behavioral intentions in a specific catastrophic scenario (i.e., the damage to the Fukushima nuclear reactor after the 2011 tsunami in Japan) revealing a hitherto neglected role of conspiracy mentality in motivating social action aimed at changing the status quo.
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Running head: Conspiracy Mentality 1
Speaking (Un-)Truth to Power:
Conspiracy Mentality as a Generalized Political Attitude
Roland Imhoff
University of Cologne
Martin Bruder
University of Konstanz
Accepted for publication in European Journal of Personality
This is the authors’ version. For the authoritative final version please refer
to the published article in the journal.
Correspondence regarding the article should be addressed to:
Roland Imhoff
Sozialpsychologie: Social Cognition
University of Cologne
Richard-Strauss-Str. 2
50931 Köln
Germany
rimhoff@uni-koeln.de
Running head: Conspiracy Mentality 2
Abstract
Conspiracy theories explain complex world events with reference to secret plots
hatched by powerful groups. Belief in such theories is largely determined by a general
propensity toward conspirational thinking. Such a conspiracy mentality can be understood as
a generalized political attitude, distinct from established generalized political attitudes like
right-wing authoritarianism (RWA) and social dominance orientation (SDO) (Study 1a, N =
497) that is temporally relatively stable (Study 1b & 1c, total N = 196). Three further studies
(combined N = 854) show that in contrast to RWA and SDO, conspiracy mentality is related
to prejudice against high-power groups that are perceived as less likeable and more
threatening than low-power groups, whereas SDO and RWA are associated with an opposite
reaction to perceptions of power. Study 5 (N = 1,852) investigates the relationship of
conspiracy mentality with political behavioral intentions in a specific catastrophic scenario
(i.e., the damage to the Fukushima nuclear reactor after the 2011 tsunami in Japan) revealing
a hitherto neglected role of conspiracy mentality in motivating social action aimed at
changing the status quo.
Keywords: conspiracy theories, conspiracy mentality, power, generalized political attitudes,
prejudice, right-wing authoritarianism, social dominance orientation
Running head: Conspiracy Mentality 3
Speaking (Un-)Truth to Power:
Conspiracy Mentality as a Generalized Political Attitude
Individuals harbor conspiracy theories about a great number of significant events that
seem to demand an explanation. Such events include, for example, the assassination of
prominent leaders (e.g., McCauley & Jacques, 1979), terrorist attacks (e.g., Swami,
Chamorro-Premuzic, & Furnham, 2010), or the appearance of new diseases like HIV (e.g.,
Parsons, Simmons, Shinhoster, & Kilburn, 1999). The tendency to attribute these events to a
secret plot by a covert alliance of powerful individuals or to clandestine organizations rather
than to more mundane human (in)activity or natural forces has been reported for various
cultures (e.g., Byford & Billig, 2001; Goertzel, 1994; Graumann & Moscovici, 1987; Swami,
2012). Belief in conspiracies seems to be rather wide-spread (Goertzel, 1994) and can be
evoked by minimal exposure to relevant theories (Douglas & Sutton, 2008).
Several scholars have argued that one reason for the popularity of conspiracy theories is
their function in regaining control and predictability (McCauley & Jacques, 1979; Young,
Launer, & Austin, 1990; Zarefsky, 1984). If misfortunes are the result of intentional actions
of mean-spirited conspirators rather than simply due to chance, victims may perceive the
possibility to regain control by undermining the presumed conspiracy. In fact, experimental
research has found support for the hypothesis that lack of control increases compensatory
beliefs in conspiracy theories (e.g., Sullivan, Landau, & Rothschild, 2010; Whitson &
Galinsky, 2008). In light of these functional and situation-dependent aspects of the
endorsement of conspiracy theories, one could assume that personality-related factors play
little to no role in the degree to which specific conspiracy theories are endorsed.
A general propensity to endorse conspiracy beliefs?
However, previous work has identified a number of personality variables associated
with the belief in specific conspiracy theories, such as low levels of trust (Goertzel, 1994),
Running head: Conspiracy Mentality 4
feelings of powerlessness and low self-esteem (Abalakina-Paap, Stephan, Craig, & Gregory,
1999), low levels of agreeableness (Swami et al., 2011), schizotypy (Darwin, Neaves, &
Holmes, 2011), and death-related anxiety (Newheiser, Farias, & Tausch, 2011). Importantly,
the endorsement of specific conspiracy theories is associated with greater beliefs in other
conspiracy theories (Swami et al., 2010), even if they are fully fictitious (Swami et al., 2011,
Study 2). Further support for the notion of individual differences in conspiracy mentality
stems from research showing that mutually contradictory conspiracy beliefs are positively
correlated (Wood, Douglas, & Sutton, 2012). Specifically, individuals who thought that
Princess Diana was assassinated were also more (not less) likely to believe that she faked her
own death.
The idea that such a general propensity to endorse conspiracy theories exists is perhaps
best captured in Moscovici’s (1987) notion of a “conspiracy mentality” or what Karl Popper
(1966) called the conspiracy theory of society, that is “the view that an explanation of a social
phenomenon consists in the discovery of the men or groups who are interested in the
occurrence of this phenomenon […] and who have planned and conspired to bring it about”
(p. 295). We argue that this “mistaken theory that, whatever happens in society – especially
happenings such as war, unemployment, poverty, shortages, which people as a rule dislike –
is the result of direct design by some powerful individuals and groups” (Popper, 1966, p. 295,
italics not in original) predisposes individuals to attribute significant events to the intentional
actions of mean-intending groups of individuals who are sufficiently powerful to carry out
the suspected conspirational act.
The present research puts to a test the idea that individual differences in the propensity
to belief in conspiracy theories uniquely predict (a) prejudicial attitudes toward powerful
societal groups and (b) politically relevant behavioral intentions designed to undermine the
perceived conspiracy.
Running head: Conspiracy Mentality 5
We argue that such a conspiracy mentality can be characterized as a generalized
political attitude, much like other well-established political attitudes such as right-wing
authoritarianism (RWA; Altemeyer, 1988) and social dominance orientation (SDO; Pratto,
Sidanius, Stallworth, & Malle, 1994). A generalized political attitude describes individual
differences in a stable ideological belief system that allows predicting attitudes to specific
attitude objects based on a specific attribute of the object such as, for example, its deviant
nature, its low status, or its high power. For instance, someone high in RWA will have a
markedly negative attitude to deviant groups or persons, whereas high SDO scores predict
negative attitudes against low status groups. With respect to conspiracy mentality we argue
that it is characterized by a ‘monological belief system’ (Goertzel, 1994) associated with
disliking powerful societal groups and perceiving them as responsible for political and
economic events with negative implications. For instance, individuals high in conspiracy
mentality will attribute the present financial crisis to the coordinated actions of greedy
managers and bankers rather than systemic dynamics in a complex economy. Likewise,
threat induced by ecological crises like a nuclear disaster will likely be resolved by attributing
this threat to the intentional (though hidden) misconduct of politicians and energy
corporations. Importantly, the groups seen as responsible have to be perceived as being high
in power and influence, otherwise it would be implausible to assume that they are able to
“pull off” the conspiracy and thereby cause the crisis. In contrast to the system-justifying
function of RWA and SDO (Jost & Hunyady, 2005), conspiracy mentality therefore
challenges existing power structures in society. This is because powerful groups in particular
are being seen as responsible for present and past crises which may result in behavioral
intentions to undermine the perceived conspiracy by these groups and therefore their position
in society.
Running head: Conspiracy Mentality 6
The distinction between high- and low-power groups therefore is an important (and
sometimes overlooked) distinction to make with regard to the relation between generalized
political attitudes and prejudice. Both SDO and RWA have been identified as significant, but
distinct, predictors of generalized prejudice (e.g., Asbrock, Sibley, & Duckitt, 2010; Whitley,
1999), social attitudes (Cohrs, Kielmann, Maes, & Moschner, 2005), and behavior (e.g., Son
Hing, Bobocel, Zanna, & McBride, 2007). In fact, as far as prejudice is concerned, Asbrock
and colleagues (2010) state that “numerous independent studies have now shown that RWA
and SDO explain up to 50% of the variance in generalized prejudice with no other
psychological individual difference variables adding notably to variance predicted” (p. 325f.).
This contention is, for example, supported by research showing that RWA and SDO were the
proximal predictors of generalized prejudice mediating any effects of the “Big Five”
personality characteristics (Ekehammar, Akrami, Gylje, & Zakrisson, 2004; but see
McFarland, 2010).
Although numerous studies observed independent contributions of RWA and SDO to
prejudicial attitudes (e.g., Akrami, Ekehammar, & Yang-Wallentin, 2011; Duckitt & Sibley,
2007; Duckitt, Wagner, du Plessis, & Birum, 2002), these studies usually examined sexism or
prejudice against disadvantaged, supposedly relatively low-power groups such as ethnic or
religious minorities, homosexuals, and disabled people. Importantly, we argue that some
prejudice is directed at explicitly high-power groups and that conspiracy mentality is a
particularly potent predictor of such prejudicial attitudes. Anti-Semitism provides a case in
point: Anti-Semitic prejudice often involves ideas revolving around Jewish world
domination. It therefore explicitly targets a group that – despite often being a vulnerable
minority at the local level – is being perceived as powerful at the global level. We argue that
anti-Semitic prejudice is just one case among many in which prejudice against groups that are
perceived as high in power will be related to general conspiracy mentality.
Running head: Conspiracy Mentality 7
The Present Research
We conducted five studies, three of which tested our prediction that conspiracy
mentality is related to prejudice against high-power groups and that this prediction is unique
(compared to RWA and SDO) both in direction and in terms of explained variance. After
establishing that conspiracy mentality can be understood as a distinct and temporally stable
generalized political attitude in Study 1, Study 2 explored the link between conspiracy
mentality and anti-Semitism (even if no Jews were mentioned in the conspiracies) as well as
prejudice against low-power groups (Muslims, Gypsies) and high-power groups (capitalists,
Americans), controlling for RWA and SDO. Studies 3 and 4 tested the predicted association
between conspiracy mentality and negative attitudes toward powerful groups across a broader
range of societal groups. Participants rated their perceptions of power of each of 32 groups
as well as how likeable and how threatening they thought each group was. The
intraindividual correlations between power and likeability, respectively power and threat,
were then used as criterion variables predicted by conspiracy mentality, RWA, and SDO.
Whereas Study 3 assessed perceptions of general threat, Study 4 distinguished between
perceptions of realistic and symbolic threat. Finally, we conducted a fifth study to test the
novel idea that individuals high in conspiracy mentality not only distrust those in power but
actively work toward changing the status quo.
Study 1
Study 1 tested the psychometric properties and discriminant validity of the Conspiracy
Mentality Scale. First, we established discriminant validity in a large sample (Study 1a)
before testing the inter-temporal stability with two further samples in Study 1b and Study 1c.
Method Study 1a
Participants. A total of N = 497 participants (245 female, 240 male, 1 other, 11
missing; M
age
= 33.49, SD
age
= 12.25) were recruited via Amazon MTurk in a study on
Running head: Conspiracy Mentality 8
personality and attitudes. The sample was diverse with respect to education, ethnic
background and income (see Table 2). Every participant received 25 ct as compensation for
their participation.
Conspiracy mentality. Twelve items tapping into a general propensity to believe in
conspiracies were either purpose-designed for this study or taken from the existing literature
(Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, & Sanford, 1950). No item mentioned specific
conspiracies or specific groups responsible for these conspiracies. The scale was originally
developed in German and then independently translated into English by two translators
competent in both languages. The final items were then discussed between one translator and
two native English speakers (see Appendix for item wording in English and German).
Other measures. To establish discriminant validity we assessed the two most
prominent generalized political attitudes with well-established scales. The 12-items scale of
RWA (Funke, 2005), and the standard 16-item SDO scale (Pratto et al., 1994) were included.
The RWA scale consists of three subfacets (authoritarian aggression, authoritarian
submission, and conventionalism) and each of these is measured by two positively phrased
and two reverse-coded items. The standard SDO scale has mostly been used as a one-
dimensional measure but recent research suggested that it may be better construed as two-
factorial with dominance and egalitarianism (reverse-coded) as the two factors (Ho et al.,
2012). As a parsimonious measure of general personality factors we used the Ten Item
Personality Measure (TIPI; Gosling, Rentfrow, & Swann, 2003) to get estimates of all Big
Five personality dimensions (based on two items per dimension).
Procedure. Participants gave informed consent before completing the TIPI, Conspiracy
Mentality, RWA, and SDO scale all on a 7-point scale. They subsequently provided
demographic information about gender, age, ethnicity, education, household income, political
orientation (on three item asking participants to position themselves on a left-right continuum
Running head: Conspiracy Mentality 9
regarding social issues, economic issues, and in general), religious affiliation and religiosity.
No other variables were included in the study.
Results Study 1a
All scales showed satisfactory reliability with the exception of TIPI agreeableness
(Table 1). Conspiracy mentality was not only non-redundant but virtually unrelated both to
other political attitudes (RWA, SDO, political orientation) and to more basic personality
dimensions (Big Five). In contrast, SDO and RWA were highly interrelated and also
associated with a more right-wing political orientation and lower levels of openness to new
experiences. The only distinction between the two was the high correlation of RWA with
religiosity in contrast to the complete lack of association between SDO and religiosity. Age
was positively related to conspiracy mentality, r = .10, p = .02, and RWA, r = .10, p = .03,
but not SDO, r = -.07, p = .13. Across all other background variables, none had any effect on
the degree of conspiracy mentality, ps > .21, but some were related to RWA and SDO (see
Table 2).
A confirmatory factor analysis (CFA) was performed to test the assumed factor
structure of the generalized political attitudes. To reduce the random error of manifest
variables we based our analyses on parcels of two items rather than individual items (Little,
Cunningham, Shahar, & Widaman, 2002). Each parcel consisted of two items of identical
coding and subscale. The Conspiracy Mentality Scale was modeled as one-factorial, whereas
we followed Ho and colleagues (2012) in assuming a two-factorial solution for SDO with the
subfactors egalitarianism (SDO-E) and dominance (SDO-D) (Ho et al., 2012). The RWA
scale was modeled with each item predicted by a latent factor representing the respective
subscale (authoritarian aggression, authoritarian submission, conventionalism) and whether it
was reverse-coded or not (Funke, 2005). The CFA for the CM scale, χ
2
(9) = 26.10, p = .002,
χ
2
/ df = 2.90, GFI = .98, TLI = .98, CFI = .99, RMSEA = .07, and for the RWA scale, χ
2
(3) =
Running head: Conspiracy Mentality 10
8.81, p = .03, χ
2
/ df = 2.94, GFI = .99, TLI = .97, CFI = .99, RMSEA = .07, yielded an
acceptable fit whereas this was not true for the SDO scale, χ
2
(19) = 120.76, p < .001, χ
2
/ df =
6.36, GFI = .92, TLI = .94, CFI = .96, RMSEA = .11. All latent variables loaded significantly
on all item parcels for CM, |ß| > .49, RWA, |ß| > .46, and SDO, |ß| > .75.
To examine the associations between the three constructs and their subcomponents we
analyzed an overall model in which the latent variables were allowed to correlate. The model
had an acceptable fit, χ
2
(152) = 409.75, p < .001, χ
2
/ df = 2.70, GFI = .91, TLI = .94, CFI =
.95, RMSEA = .06. The three subfacets of RWA intercorrelated as expected, rs > .69, as did
the two subfacets of SDO, r = -.66. Conspiracy Mentality was unrelated to SDO-E, r = .02,
RWA conventionalism, r = .07, and RWA authoritarian submission, r = .05 and only
moderately related to SDO-D, r = .16, and RWA authoritarian aggression, r = .15. In
contrast, all subfacets of RWA and SDO were systematically related with correlations
ranging in magnitude (independent of direction) from r = -.28 between SDO-E and RWA
conventionalism to r = .54 between SDO-D and RWA authoritarian submission.
Methods and Results Study 1b and Study 1c
Study 1b and Study 1c were conducted to test the temporal stability of conspiracy
mentality over time. To this end, we asked participants to complete the German version of the
Conspiracy Mentality Scale twice with a time lag of 15 days (Study 1b) and one year (Study
1c) in between measurement occasions.
Participants. Both samples consisted of students who participated for course credit or
the chance to win a raffle for a 25 Euro (Study 1b) or 20 Euro (Study 1c) voucher at a large
internet store. In Study 1b, out of originally 176 participants who completed the study at t1,
133 also participated in the retest (50 men, 82 women, 1 without response; M
age
= 24.27,
SD
age
= 5.21). Dropout was independent of conspiracy mentality at t1, t(175) = 0.54, p = .59.
In Study 1c, out of originally 105 participants, 63 participated in the retest (9 men, 54
Running head: Conspiracy Mentality 11
women, M
age
= 21.90, SD
age
= 4.20). Dropout was independent of conspiracy mentality at t1,
t(103) = 1.15, p = .25.
Design. Participants completed an otherwise unrelated online survey that included the
Conspiracy Mentality Scale. Each participant was assigned a code that allowed matching t1
and t2 responses. Approximately 15 days (Study 1b), respectively 1 year (Study 1c) after
participating in the first part of the study they received an invitation to complete a second
survey that again contained the Conspiracy Mentality Scale.
Results. Conspiracy mentality proved to be relatively stable over time, as indicated by
re-test reliabilities of r
tt
= .88, p < .001 (Study 1b), and r
tt
= .67, p < .001 (Study 1c).
Discussion
Study 1 introduced a new, short, internally reliable, and temporally stable scale to
measure individual differences in conspiracy mentality. The scale had discriminant validity
compared to both RWA and SDO supporting the idea that conspiracy mentality forms a
meaningful individual difference variable that is not redundant with the two major established
generalized political attitudes RWA or SDO. Whereas this may not come as a surprise with
regard to SDO, for RWA this finding is less self-evident. Early conceptions of
authoritarianism (Adorno et al., 1950) have included beliefs in conspiracies as an integral part
of authoritarianism
1
. Furthermore, conspiracy mentality was not reducible to the influence of
any demographic factor (only a small covariation with age) or any more basic personality
variable (no significant covariation with any of the Big Five factors). Its retest reliability over
15 days and one year supported the notion of stable individual differences in conspiracy
mentality over time.
1
In their California F-Scale of authoritarianism Adorno et al. (1950) included the subscale of projectivity that
included items like “Most people don’t realize how much our lives are controlled by plots hatched in secret
places”.
Running head: Conspiracy Mentality 12
Study 2
In Study 2 we were interested in the relation between generalized political attitudes and
prejudice. Specifically, we assessed prejudices against a number of social groups that differ
in their perceived power. We predicted that conspiracy mentality would be a particular
potent predictor of prejudice against high-power groups such as capitalists and Americans.
Muslims and Roma/Sinti were included as low-power groups for whom RWA and SDO were
expected to be particularly strong predictors of prejudice. We also included a measure of
anti-Semitism as a case in which a group is often seen as an outgroup minority (and thereby
may become a target of authoritarian aggression, e.g., Adorno et al., 1950) but is also seen as
a powerful group (e.g., Fiske, Cuddy, Glick, & Xu, 2002). We hypothesized that conspiracy
mentality would be related to prejudices against groups perceived as powerful (capitalist,
Americans, Jews) whereas RWA and SDO would be related to prejudice against classic
targets of discrimination like Roma/Sinti, Muslims, and Jews. Importantly, we predicted that
conspiracy mentality would predict anti-Semitism over and above its prediction by RWA and
SDO.
Method
Participants. Two hundred ninety-four participants (133 men, 161 women; M
Age
=
28.09, SD
Age
= 10.41) completed an online survey on political attitudes. The link was posted
on social networking sites and online bulletin boards. The majority of participants had a
relatively high level of education (81 had a university degree, 164 the highest German high-
school degree “Abitur”) and no migration background (n = 245).
Measures
Generalized political attitudes. The measures of conspiracy mentality, RWA, and
SDO were identical to Study 1. We used the German version of the Conspiracy Mentality
Scale (see Appendix), the German version of the same RWA measure (Funke, 2005), and the
Running head: Conspiracy Mentality 13
German adaptation (von Collani, 2002) of the original 16-item SDO scale (Pratto et al.,
1994).
Anti-Semitism. Prejudice against Jews has long been connected to conspiracy beliefs
including, in particular, belief in a Jewish world conspiracy (Kofta & Sedek, 2005). We used
a 12-item, shortened version of an anti-Semitism scale used in previous research (Imhoff &
Banse, 2009; e.g., “Jews are always stirring up trouble with their ideas”). Note that none of
the items referred to the idea of a Jewish conspiracy.
Islamoprejudice. A 10-item version of the Islamoprejudice subscale of the Scale for
Islamoprejudice and Secular Critique of Islam (SIPSCI; Imhoff & Recker, 2012) was used to
tap into prejudice against Muslims (e.g., “Compared to Western Europeans Muslims are
rather irrational”).
Antiziganism. Antiziganism involves hostile prejudice against individuals belonging to
the groups of Roma and Sinti, often subsumed under the disputed label gypsies. Across many
European societies, these groups are perceived as having very low power and they often face
severe discrimination (Traynor, 2009) and unemployment rates of up to 100% (O’Higgins &
Ivanov, 2006). We created a nine-item scale that included items referring to the stereotype of
higher criminality (e.g., “I am convinced that Roma and Sinti are more often involved in theft
than native Germans.”), blaming of Roma and Sinti for the persecution they experience (e.g.,
“The persecution of Roma and Sinti is connected with their refusal to adjust to the dominant
norms “), or general preference for social distance (e.g., “It would be better to have no Roma
or Sinti in the country.”; see Appendix for full scale wording)
2
.
Anti-Americanism. The USA is commonly perceived as the most powerful nation in
the world and is a frequent target of prejudice (Fabbrini, 2004; O’Connor, 2007). We created
2
Control analyses with scales representing the three types of item wording yielded identical results to the
ones reported below for each of the subscales.
Running head: Conspiracy Mentality 14
an eight-item scale assessing prejudiced views of the USA and its inhabitants (e.g., “In my
perspective Americans are arrogant and superficial”; full scale wording in Appendix).
Personalized anti-capitalism. Personalized anti-capitalism blames the hardships
created by the capitalist economic system on the behavior of individuals rather than system-
inherent dynamics. We created an 11-item scale to tap into personalized anti-capitalism (e.g.,
“As a result of their greed, CEOs have lost all their morals”; full scale in Appendix).
Procedure. After providing demographic information, all participants responded to the
individual difference scales in the following order: RWA, conspiracy mentality, SDO,
personalized anti-capitalism, anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism, Islamoprejudice, and
antiziganism. After each of the latter three scales, participants indicated how powerful they
perceived the respective group to be (Jews, Muslims, Roma/ Sinti) on a scale from 1 (group
has much less power and influence than me) to 5 (group has much more power and influence
than me). These items were included to test whether participants indeed perceived these
groups to be differentially powerful such that Jews are seen as more powerful than Muslims
who are, in turn, perceived as more powerful than Roma and Sinti. No other variables were
collected for all participants
3
.
Results
Although there is reason to suspect that conspiracy mentality and RWA are closely
interlinked (Abalakina-Paap et al., 1999), the two scales showed a correlation of only small-
to-moderate size (see Table 3), whereas SDO was unrelated to conspiracy mentality but
highly related to RWA. We tested the validity of our a priori assumption concerning the
3
To collect some data for exploratory analyses regarding potential correlates of conspiracy mentality, we
included measures at the end of the study that were not collected for all but each only for a subsample of
participants. As neither a scenario measure of Hostile Attribution Bias (Krahé & Möller, 2004), r = .05, p = .53,
nor belief in powerful others (FKK, Krampen, 1991), r = .00, p = .95, or need for cognitive closure (Schlink &
Walther, 2007), r = .12, p = .18, showed significant overlap with the Conspiracy Mentality Scale we do not
report any analyses including these variables for reasons of succinctness.
Running head: Conspiracy Mentality 15
different levels of perceived power for the three ethno-religious groups. As expected, Jews,
M = 3.19, SD = 0.71, were seen as more powerful than Muslims, M = 2.46, SD = 0.86, and
Roma/Sinti, M = 1.73, SD = 0.94, with all differences being highly significant in paired t-
tests, ts > 11.48, ps < .001, also after Bonferroni-adjusting the alpha level for conducting
three tests (α = .016).
We hypothesized that in contrast to RWA and SDO, which should be predominantly
related to prejudice against powerless groups, conspiracy mentality would specifically predict
prejudice against groups that are perceived as powerful. To test these hypotheses we
conducted five separate regression analyses with RWA, SDO, and conspiracy mentality as
simultaneous predictors for each of the prejudice scales. To account for multiple tests on one
data set we set the alpha level for all five regression analyses to α = .01 (Bonferroni-
adjusted). We always entered RWA as the first predictor, followed by SDO in the second step
and CM in the last step. Only if the total amount of explained variance was significantly
increased we interpreted the beta weights. Each additional step significantly increased the
explained variance, except for the inclusion of conspiracy mentality as a predictor of
Islamoprejudice and antiziganism.
Figure 1 shows the standardized regression coefficients. Indeed, conspiracy mentality
predicted prejudice against high power groups (i.e., Americans, capitalists, Jews), but not
against low-power groups (i.e., Muslims and Roma/ Sinti). Bonferroni-corrected Steiger z-
tests for dependent correlations (α = .016) revealed that conspiracy mentality was more
strongly related to anti-Semitism than to Islamoprejudice, z(273) = 3.43, p < .01, or
antiziganism, z(273) = 5.20, p < .01. (see Table 3 for all zero-order correlations).
In contrast, RWA was only related to prejudice against ethnic or religious minority
groups (i.e., Jews, Muslims, Roma/Sinti). All associations with prejudice against these
groups were significant and positive, albeit somewhat stronger with Islamoprejudice than
Running head: Conspiracy Mentality 16
with antiziganism, z(276) = 3.24, p < .01. As RWA has been theoretically linked to negative
attitudes toward groups that are seen as threatening (Duckitt et al., 2002), this may be due to
the fact that Muslims are perceived as more threatening than Roma and Sinti. There was no
relationship between RWA and prejudice against Americans or capitalists, speaking to the
distinction between conspiracy mentality and RWA. In contrast, SDO was positively related
to all forms of prejudice against ethnic and religious groups and there was no significant
difference in the magnitude of the correlations, ps > .05. In line with its presumed hierarchy-
sustaining function (Jost & Hunyady, 2005), SDO was negatively related to prejudice against
powerful groups (Americans, capitalists).
Discussion
Study 2 tested the unique contribution of conspiracy mentality in predicting prejudices
over and above established political attitudes like SDO and RWA. Importantly, conspiracy
mentality not only added to the prediction of anti-Semitism but showed a highly specific
pattern of correlations with prejudice against low- versus high-power groups. Whereas both
RWA and SDO were consistently related to negative attitudes against low-power ethnic or
religious minority groups and unrelated or even negatively related to prejudice against high-
power groups like Americans or capitalists, conspiracy mentality consistently predicted
prejudice against high-power groups (i.e., Jews, Americans, capitalists).
Study 3
A limitation of Study 2 was that we had selected a relatively small number of social
groups assumed to differ in perceived power. Also, we only assessed differential power
perceptions for the three ethnic and religious minority groups, but not for Americans and
capitalists. To overcome these limitations, we conducted an additional study to test the
assumption that conspiracy mentality is specifically related to disliking powerful groups and
to the tendency to see them as threatening. We gathered data on perceptions of power,
Running head: Conspiracy Mentality 17
likeability, and threat for 32 social groups and calculated individual associations between
power and likeability on the one hand and power and threat on the other hand. We expected
that conspiracy mentality would predict a more negative association of power with likeability
and a stronger positive association of power with threat. Beliefs stating that conspiring others
are responsible for life’s adversities gain plausibility if these others are sufficiently powerful
to exert high levels of control over others. The opposite was expected for RWA and SDO.
Method
Participants. We recruited a sample of online participants via an e-mail list of a
German university. We excluded all participants who either did not complete the experiment
or did not respond to more than 10% of the questions. The remaining sample consisted of N
= 280 participants (110 men, 165 women, 5 unidentified; M
age
= 23.71, SD
age
= 4.93). The
majority of participants had a high level of formal education (n = 163 had “Abitur”, n = 103 a
university degree) and no migration background (n = 234). At the end of the study,
participants could leave their e-mail address to be included in a lottery in which three
individuals won €25 each.
Power, likeability, and threat. Participants first rated each of 32 social groups for
their level of social power (“Please indicate how much power and influence each of the
following groups has”). They then provided likeability ratings for the same groups (“Please
rate how likeable you personally find each of these groups”). Subsequently, they rated the
same groups according to how threatening they perceived them to be (“How threatening is
each of these groups to you?”). Response scales ranged from 1 (not at all
powerful/likeable/threatening) to 11 (very powerful/likeable/threatening). The list was
comprised of the five groups used in Study 2 (capitalists, Americans, Jews, Muslims, and
Roma/ Sinti) and 27 further social groups (partially adapted from Fiske et al., 2002; see Table
4).
Running head: Conspiracy Mentality 18
Generalized political attitudes. The measures of conspiracy mentality, RWA, and
SDO were identical to Study 2.
Procedure. Participants first rated the perceived power of all 32 social groups before
rating likeability and afterwards perceived threat. After these ratings they completed the
Conspiracy Mentality Scale, RWA, and SDO scales and provided demographic information.
No other variables were collected.
Results
As in the previous studies, conspiracy mentality (α = .89) only showed small or
negligible correlations with RWA (α = .76), r = .15, p = .01, and SDO (α = .87), r = -.05, p =
.41, whereas RWA and SDO were strongly associated, r = .57, p < .001.
Mean scores. We first aggregated the power ratings across all participants, ICC(2,1) =
.53, p < .001. Table 4 lists these ratings in descending order. Inclusion of the five target
groups of Study 2 allowed us to test whether the assumptions about the ordering of these
groups with respect to their perceived power were indeed borne out. As expected, both
Americans and capitalists were perceived as highly powerful. Further, the hierarchy of
perceived power from capitalists being most powerful to Roma and Sinti being least powerful
was both significant as a linear trend and all group differences were significant in Bonferroni-
corrected paired t-tests (α = .005). At the level of the 32 social groups, mean ratings of
power, ICC(2,k) = .997, were unrelated to ratings of likeability, ICC(2,k) = .992, r = -.04, p =
.83, and positively related to ratings of threat, ICC(2,k) = .995, r = .56, p = .001. Thus, more
powerful groups were seen as more threatening but neither as more nor as less likeable.
Bonferroni-corrected zero-order correlations between the three generalized political
attitudes and ratings of likeability and threat (Table 4) showed similar patterns for RWA and
SDO but not for conspiracy mentality. To formally test this, we conducted vector correlations
between the Fisher r-to-z-transformed correlations. Results show highly similar correlations
Running head: Conspiracy Mentality 19
for RWA and SDO with likeability, r = .94, and threat, r = .96, ps < .001, whereas conspiracy
mentality did neither show the same correlation pattern with likeability ratings as RWA, r = -
.02, p = .87, or SDO, r = -.27, p = .13, nor for threat ratings, r = -.14, p = .45, with RWA
correlation, r = -.28, p = .12, with SDO correlations.
Specifically, results revealed that conspiracy mentality was associated with lower
ratings of likeability for politicians and capitalist as well as greater perceptions of threat
coming from politicians, power companies, managers, capitalists, physicists, and Turks. In
contrast, RWA predicted greater ratings of likeability for power companies and mangers and
lower liking for outgroups (Jews, Muslims, Foreigners, Roma and Sinti, asylum seekers),
poor people (unemployed, drug addicts, homeless), feminists, gay men and artists. With a few
exceptions (Jews, artists, homeless) the same groups were also seen as threatening by people
high in RWA, as were Turks and welfare recipients. Results for SDO were highly similar
with SDO predicting perceptions of threat for largely the same groups (except Roma and
Sinti and drug addicts), less liking for largely the same groups (except drug addicts but
additionally less liking for feminists, Muslims, gay men, Turks, and welfare recipients) and
like RWA greater liking of power companies (but not managers).
To formally underline the fact that high power groups were seen as less likeable but
more threatening by people high in conspiracy mentality, we treated the 32 social groups as
cases and computed correlations between their power ratings and the Fisher r-to-z-
transformed correlations of the likeability and threat rating with conspiracy mentality. Results
showed that indeed greater power was associated with more negative relations between
conspiracy mentality and likeability, r = -.35, p < .05, whereas the relation between
conspiracy mentality and threat ratings became more positive with increasing power, r = .47,
p = .006. An opposite pattern emerged for RWA and SDO for which increasing power led to
more positive relations with likeability ratings, r = .70 for RWA and r = .75 for SDO, and
Running head: Conspiracy Mentality 20
more negative relations with threat ratings, r =-.72 for RWA and r = -.76 for SDO, all ps <
.001.
However, our hypotheses concerned the role of generalized political attitudes in the
intraindividual relationship between power and likeability/threat. We were particularly
interested in whether individuals’ degree of conspiracy mentality would be associated with
their more negative evaluation of powerful groups. To address whether this was the case we
calculated for each participant whether his or her ratings of power were associated with his or
her ratings of likeability and threat across the 32 groups. Positive scores on the power-
likeability coefficient indicated that participants rated more powerful groups as more likeable
whereas positive scores on the power-threat coefficient indicated that they perceived groups
as increasingly threatening with increasing power. We hypothesized that power and threat
should be more highly positively correlated, and power and likeability should be more highly
negatively correlated, with increasing conspiracy mentality. We expected the reverse pattern
for SDO and RWA. To test these hypotheses we conducted two multiple regression analyses
with the Fisher r-to-z-transformed intraindividual correlations as criteria, conspiracy
mentality, RWA, and SDO as predictors and an alpha level of α = .025 to account for
conducting two analyses.
Whereas individual associations between power and likeability revolved around zero,
average r = -.02, SD = .31, (ranging from r = -.77 to r = .74), the relation between power and
threat was positive on average (r = .38, SD = .31; ranging from r = -.60 to r = .80). As
expected, higher levels of conspiracy mentality were associated with more negative
individual-level correlations between power and likeability, ß = -.17, p = .002, whereas the
opposite was true for RWA, ß = .35, p < .001, and SDO, ß = .21, p = .001 (Figure 2a). In
contrast, this pattern reversed for the association of power and threat with conspiracy
mentality as a positive predictor, ß = .14, p =.02, unlike RWA, ß = -.27, p < .001, and SDO, ß
Running head: Conspiracy Mentality 21
= -.17, p = .01 (Figure 2b). Thus, people high in conspiracy mentality rated higher-power
groups as less likeable and as more threatening, whereas people high in RWA and SDO had a
more positive view of higher-power groups and perceived lower-power groups as more
threatening. Importantly, all three effects were incremental to each other. A stepwise
procedure with RWA entered in a first step, SDO in a second and conspiracy mentality in a
third step yielded significant increases in the explained variance for each step, ps < .02.
Exploratory analyses including the cross-products revealed no significant interaction effects.
Discussion
Study 3 replicated the findings of Study 2 for a wide variety of social groups. The
results supported the hypothesis that conspiracy mentality is associated with more negative
attitudes toward the powerful and a perception of those in power as threatening. The opposite
was true for RWA and SDO. Both were associated predominantly with more negative
reactions toward low power groups like ethnic or religious outgroups and poor people.
Further, we could show that the individual associations between power and liking versus
threat were differentially predicted by conspiracy mentality in contrast to RWA and SDO.
Study 4
Study 4 was conducted to replicate the results of Study 3 and test the position of
conspiracy mentality within a larger nomological network of personality constructs.
Specifically, as conspiracy beliefs have previously been associated with powerlessness
(Abalakina-Paap et al., 1999), anomia (Goertzel, 1994), death anxiety (Newheiser et al.,
2011), lack of control (McCauley & Jacques, 1979), and general personality factors like
agreeableness (Swami et al., 2011), we assessed all these measures to (a) test their relation to
conspiracy mentality and (b) test whether any of these variables performs better in explaining
individuals’ associations of power with disliking and perceived threat. If that was the case, it
could be that the associations reported in the first two studies were merely due to an
Running head: Conspiracy Mentality 22
individual difference confounded with conspiracy mentality rather than conspiracy mentality
itself. Moreover, we aimed to further elucidate the effect of perceived threat. Previous
research has identified subtypes of threat (for a review and meta-analysis see Riek, Mania, &
Gaertner, 2006). In particular, other groups can pose a realistic threat (i.e. threats that
concern the “physical or material well-being”, the “political and economic power” and,
ultimately, the “very existence” of the ingroup; Stephan & Stephan, 1996, p. 418) or a
symbolic threat (i.e., threats based on “group differences in morals, values, standards, beliefs,
and attitudes;” Stephan & Stephan, 1996, p. 418) to one’s ingroup. Given that most
conspiracies are more concerned with threats to life and health (e.g., assassinations, spread of
diseases like HIV, retention of scientific progress that could improve material situations) it is
conceivable that powerful groups are predominantly seen as a realistic threat, not a symbolic
threat, by people high in conspiracy mentality. We thus differentiated between the two types
of threat to explore which one’s perception was affected by conspiracy mentality.
We expected to fully replicate the findings of Study 3 with conspiracy mentality
predicting stronger association of power with threat and less or even negative association of
power with likeability. Importantly, this effect should not be due to shared variance with any
other variable (i.e., the inclusion of any other variable should not diminish this effect). Again,
we had opposite predictions for RWA and SDO (although we made no specific prediction
regarding the incremental validity over and above other variables).
Method
Participants. We recruited a sample of online participants via an e-mail list of a
German university. As in Study 3, we excluded all participants who either did not complete
the experiment or did not respond to more than 10% of the questions. The remaining sample
consisted of N = 280 participants (97 men, 181 women, 2 unidentified; M
Age
= 25.63, SD
Age
=
8.13). As in the previous studies, most participants had no migration background (n = 241)
Running head: Conspiracy Mentality 23
and a high level of education (“Abitur”: n = 156; university degree: n = 103). At the end of
the study, participants could leave their e-mail address to be included in a lottery to win €20
(5 participants) or €10 (10 participants).
Power, likeability, realistic threat, and symbolic threat. The same 32 groups as in
Study 3 were rated on perceived power and likeability. The ratings of threat were
differentiated into realistic threat (“How threatening are these groups to your material and
physical well-being?”) and symbolic threat (“How threatening are these groups to your
values, convictions, norms, and general lifestyle?”; order counterbalanced).
Generalized political attitudes. The measures of conspiracy mentality, RWA, and
SDO were identical to Studies 2 and 3
4
.
Additional measures.
Spheres of control. Belief in conspiracies has often been connected to control
deprivation (McCauley & Jacques, 1979), and recent experimental studies have shown that
depriving individuals of control increases their endorsement of specific conspiracy theories
(Sullivan et al., 2010). We thus included a measure to tap into personal, interpersonal, and
sociopolitical spheres of perceived control (Paulhus, 1983). Sample items include “It is
difficult for people to have much control over the things politicians do in office”
(sociopolitical control) or “Even when I'm feeling self-confident about most things, I still
seem to lack the ability to control social situations” (interpersonal control) and were rated on
scales ranging from 1 to 7.
4
We also included the Conspiracy Beliefs Questionnaire (CBQ; Darwin, Neave, & Holmes, 2011) that assesses
endorsement of specific conspiracy theories rather than a general mentality. Regressing these specific theories
on all other variables showed that conspiracy mentality was a significant predictor of each specific conspiracy
belief even when the other variables were included (average ß = .40). Except for this scale, no measures other
than the ones reported here were included.
Running head: Conspiracy Mentality 24
Powerlessness. Lack of power is also associated with conspiracy endorsement
(Abalakina-Paap et al., 1999). We thus included a measure of powerlessness as control
variable. Participants indicated their agreement with seven items partly taken from the
literature (e.g., “The problems of life are sometimes too big for me.”; Mackey & Ahlgren,
1977) and partly purpose-designed (e.g., “I often feel powerless to achieve what I want.”) on
a scale from 1 (do not agree at all) to 4 (fully agree).
Anomia. Another variable that has been discussed in relation to conspiracy beliefs is
the sociological concept of anomia (Goertzel, 1994). Broadly defined as “a loss of normative
orientation and of control over situations and goals of action” (Legge, Davidov, & Schmidt,
2008; p. 249), anomia scales tap into the perception that society has become too complicated
to understand. We included seven items to measure anomia (e.g., “Things have gotten so
confusing that nobody really knows what is what anymore”; Glatzer & Zapf, 1984).
Participants indicated their agreement on scales from 1 (do not agree at all) to 4 (fully agree)
Death anxiety. Because death anxiety can lead to conspirational thinking (Newheiser
et al., 2011), we compiled a relative short but internally consistent measure of death anxiety
by taking the five items with the highest loadings on the first factor from the Revised Death
Anxiety Scale (RDAS; Thorson & Powell, 1992; Items 2, 3, 12, 14, and 18). The five items
(e.g., “The idea of never thinking again after I die frightens me.”) were accompanied by
scales ranging from 1 (do not agree at all) to 7 (fully agree).
Hyperactive agency detection (HAAD). Conspiracy theories often assume agency and
intentionality where there either is none or where it is highly unlikely. Thus, a hyperactive
tendency to detect or assume agency may be a predictor of conspirational thinking. As a
proxy of HAAD we included a measure of anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphism refers to
the tendency to attribute humanlike characteristics to nonhuman agents, thus presuming
agency where actually none exists. As a measure of this form of agency presumption we
Running head: Conspiracy Mentality 25
included the 15-item Individual Differences in Anthropomorphism Questionnaire (IDAQ;
e.g., “To what extent does a television set experience emotions?”; Waytz, Cacioppo, &
Epley, 2010) rated on scales from 1 (not at all) to 11 (very strongly).
Big five personality factors. Previous research has reported a moderate negative
correlation between conspiracy endorsement and agreeableness (Swami et al., 2011). To
once more control for general personality variables, we included a short Big Five inventory
(BFI-K; Rammstedt & John, 2005). Items such as “I am rather reserved, shy” (extraversion)
were rated on 5-point scales ranging from very inapplicable to very applicable.
Order of scales. Participants first completed two scales on conspiracy beliefs, the one
described above and the CBQ (see footnote 4). The order of these two scales was
counterbalanced between participants. Afterwards, the fixed order of scales was RWA, SDO,
powerlessness, anomia, BFI-K, spheres of control, death anxiety, perceived power and
likeability of the 32 social groups. The following two scales on perceived threat were again
counterbalanced between participants (orthogonally to the first counterbalancing). Finally,
participants completed the anthropomorphism scale and gave demographic information. No
other variables were included in the study.
Results
As in the previous studies, conspiracy mentality showed a small-to-moderate
correlation with RWA and SDO (Table 5). Conceptually replicating previous results, the
propensity to belief in conspiracies was associated with feelings of low sociopolitical control,
powerlessness, and anomia (Table 5). Interestingly, the tendency to ascribe agency to
nonhuman objects (HAAD or anthropomorphism) was also related to conspiracy mentality.
In contrast, conspiracy mentality was unrelated to death anxiety or big five personality
factors.
Running head: Conspiracy Mentality 26
The ratings of power, likeability were very similar to the data pattern from Study 3. To
empirically test the replicability of the results of Study 3 we computed vector correlations of
the results of Studies 3 and 4 (the corresponding table can be accessed at
http://imhoff.socialpsychology.org/files). The power ratings resulted in an almost identical
pattern in Study 4 as they did in Study 3, r > .99, p < .001. More importantly, we were
interested to learn whether the correlation of the likeability and threat ratings with the
generalized political attitudes would replicate across studies. To this end, we Fisher r-to-z-
transformed the correlations and computed vector correlations across the studies. The
correlation between conspiracy mentality and likeability across the group remained highly
similar, r = .86; this was also true for likeability as a function of RWA, r = .95, and SDO, r =
.93, for the groups, ps < .001. For the threat ratings, we assessed global threat in Study 3 but
two distinct types of threat in Study 4. Nevertheless, the correlation patterns stayed highly
similar with vector correlations ranging from r = .77 to r = .92 for all three generalized
attitudes and both types of threat, ps < .001.
To replicate Study 3, we computed intraindividual correlations between power and
likeability, power and realistic threat, and power and symbolic threat. These were then Fisher
r-to-z-transformed and entered as criterion variables in multivariate regression analyses with
conspiracy mentality, RWA, SDO, and all control variables as predictors. To avoid
collinearity problems but to still give equal chances to all variables to add explained variance
we chose a stepwise inclusion procedure. To correct for family-wise error we set the required
alpha level for each predictor to α = .01. Results revealed that individual differences in the
association of power and likeability (ranging from r = -.89 to r = .89) were predicted by
RWA, ß =.34, p < .001 (Step 1, R
2
corr = .15), conspiracy mentality, ß = -.22, p < .001 (Step
2, R
2
= .04), SDO, ß = .22, p < .001 (Step 3, R
2
= .03), extraversion, ß = .17, p = .001
(Step 4, R
2
= .03), and death anxiety, ß = .14, p = .01 (Step 5, R
2
= .02), R
2corr
= .26.
Running head: Conspiracy Mentality 27
The link between power and realistic threat (ranging from r = -.61 to r = .92) was
predicted by RWA, -.21, p = .002 (Step 1, R
2corr
= .07) and conspiracy mentality, ß = .20, p =
.001 (Step 2, R
2
= .03), R
2corr
= .10. Likewise, the relative strength of the individual-level
association between power and symbolic threat (ranging from r = -.52 to r = .96) was only
predicted by RWA, -.28, p < .001 (Step 1, R
2corr
= .05), and conspiracy mentality, ß = .21, p <
.001 (Step 2, R
2
= .04), R
2corr
= .08.
Thus, we replicated the dissociation between conspiracy mentality and RWA (and for
SDO in one case) in the reaction to high-power vs. low-power groups (see Figure 3 for
simple slopes based on regression analyses with only conspiracy mentality, RWA, and SDO
as simultaneous predictors). Importantly, no other variable provided a better explanation than
conspiracy mentality. In fact, although some of the other variables added incremental
validity, only openness to experience did so in the same direction as conspiracy mentality
(predicting higher associations between power and realistic threat). Thus, there is no support
for the idea that the association between conspiracy mentality and negative reactions to high-
power groups is an epiphenomenon of a more basic personality variable.
Discussion
First, Study 4 replicated Study 3 with regard to the unique relation of conspiracy
mentality to distrust against high power groups. No other variable provided a better
explanation of this relation. Second, the study differentiated between two important types of
threat: realistic and symbolic threat. We found that conspiracy mentality uniquely predicted
both types of threat independently of RWA and SDO and did so even allowing for a large
number of personality variables to be entered as controls.
The previous studies provided convincing and converging evidence that conspiracy
mentality is robustly associated with negative reactions toward groups in power (in contrast
to RWA and SDO) and that it does so above and beyond other individual difference
Running head: Conspiracy Mentality 28
variables. We conducted a final study to test whether these negative attitudes to powerful
groups are consequential in actually encouraging opposition to those in power.
Study 5
Although prejudice and negative attitudes towards other groups are among the most
important and probably the most thoroughly investigated consequences of generalized
political attitudes, they are not the only ones. Generalized political attitudes are also
consequential in that they predict attributions of critical events and behavioral intentions
following such events. Although the previous three studies point to the dark side of
conspiracy mentality in that it predicts prejudice, they also invite speculation about a
previously unnoticed relationship to attribution and social action. In contrast to both SDO
and RWA, which predicted prejudice against low-power groups, conspiracy mentality
explicitly predicted prejudice against those in power. This observation is in line with the
finding that belief in conspiracies is particularly prevalent at both ends of the political left-
right spectrum and relates to general distrust in political institutions (Imhoff & Decker, 2013;
Ingleheart, 1987). As whoever is in power usually defines the relative mid-range of the
political spectrum, being at one of its ends implies a strong opposition toward those in power
and in all likelihood low levels of trust in the ruling forces. In contrast, values like tradition,
conformity, and security are positively associated with higher trust in institutions (Devos,
Spini, & Schwartz, 2002) as well as with RWA (Feather, 1996). We therefore propose that
attributions that question the trustworthiness of institutions and intentions to change the status
quo are differentially predicted by conspiracy mentality and RWA. We reasoned that,
whereas RWA should involve submission to authorities, conspiracy mentality should predict
the opposite: attributing blame to authorities and intending to act (individually and
collectively) against the perceived conspirators.
Running head: Conspiracy Mentality 29
Study 5 was conducted in the context of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan and
the resulting catastrophe in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Data were collected
between March 15, 2011 and April 29, 2011 (i.e., between four and 49 days after the
incident). We expected a dissociation between conspiracy mentality and RWA such that
participants with a strong conspiracy mentality would be more prone to attribute the disaster
to intentional misconduct or gross negligence by authorities (e.g., the power company owning
the plant or the Japanese government) whereas people who endorse authoritarianism would
defend these authorities, for example by blaming the incident on chance. Furthermore, RWA
should be associated with opposition to a nuclear phase-out whereas conspiracy mentality
should be associated with intentions to act in support of such a phase-out.
Method
Participants. A total of 1,852 participants were recruited for an online study on
“Emotional reactions to Fukushima” via online bulletin boards (5.6%) and an e-mail listserv
(94.4%; soscisurvey.de). The 1,086 women and 735 men ranged in age from 14 to 80 years
(M = 30.68, SD = 11.97) and were German residents. Most had finished high school with the
“Abitur” (36%) or even received a university degree (47.1%) and had no migration
background (89.4%).
Measures
Conspiracy mentality and RWA. We used the same scales as in the previous three
studies.
Attributions of responsibility. Six items assessed the degree to which participants
attributed the nuclear catastrophe to misconduct of authorities. Three items clearly blamed
authorities for intentional misconduct (unscrupulous greed of the operating company,
spoofing by a nuclear power lobby, wrong political decisions), two items only indirectly
blamed authorities for negligent behavior that was not clearly intentional (human error,
Running head: Conspiracy Mentality 30
outdated safety-engineering), and one item reflected an attribution that did not blame
institutions at all (a sequence of chance accidents). Participants indicated the degree to which
they believed that each of these reasons was responsible for the catastrophe on slider scales
ranging from 0 to 100.
Behavioral intentions. Participants estimated the likelihood that they would engage in
eight different anti-nuclear actions over the course of the next six months on a scale from 1
(rather unlikely) to 5 (definitely). These actions ranged from signing an online petition or
donating money to an environmental organization to organizing or participating in protests
and blockades.
Support for nuclear phase-out. To estimate participants’ attitudes regarding whether
the government should phase out the civil use of nuclear power they indicated their
agreement with four statements, two in favor of and two in opposition to a nuclear phase-out.
Example items read “Nuclear power is an expedient technology that we should not give up”
and “We should back out of the nuclear energy program as soon as possible”, respectively.
Procedure. After a short questionnaire on emotional reactions to the Fukushima
incident not reported here
5
, participants indicated their attributions of responsibility, their
behavioral intentions, and their support for nuclear phase-out. They then completed the two
scales tapping into conspiracy mentality and RWA before providing demographic
information. No other variables were included in the study.
Results
The items measuring attributions to intentional misconduct, attributions to non-
intentional human error, behavioral intentions to protest, and support for nuclear phase-out
5
Emotional reactions to the Fukushima incident were used as a cover story to motivate participation. Results
revealed that conspiracy mentality was generally related to greater anger, fear, guilt, and sadness in response to
the incident. Details are available on request.
Running head: Conspiracy Mentality 31
were all averaged to create scales that proved to be internally consistent with the exception of
attributions to non-intentional human error (see Table 6 for descriptive statistics and internal
consistencies). Attributions to non-intentional human error consisted of two items that
showed almost identical correlations with conspiracy mentality and RWA and were thus
averaged despite suboptimal reliability. We conducted regression analyses to predict three
different attribution patterns, three different forms of civil engagement (plus one average of
overall engagement), and attitudes toward nuclear phase-out with conspiracy mentality and
RWA. To adjust for multiple testing, the alpha level of all tests was set to α = .00625.
To test the hypothesis that conspiracy mentality and RWA would show a dissociation in
their relationships to attributions concerning the nuclear disaster, we conducted separate
regression analyses with conspiracy mentality and RWA simultaneously predicting the three
attribution styles. As expected, conspiracy mentality was associated with attributing greater
blame to intentional misconduct by humans, ß = .39, p < .001, and a greater tendency to
blame even non-intentional negligence and human error, ß = .15, p < .001, but was negatively
associated with attribution to chance, ß = -.10, p < .001. In contrast, the higher the RWA
score, the less likely participants were to blame intentional misconduct, ß = -.26, p < .001,
and the more likely they were to blame chance, ß = .12, p < .001. Differences in RWA were
not associated with attribution to human error, ß = -.04, p > .05.
A similar dissociation emerged for intentions to engage in anti-nuclear protests.
Whereas conspiracy mentality was related to greater intentions to engage in behavior ranging
from protest notes to civil disobedience, ß = .28, p < .001, the opposite was true for RWA, ß
= -.40, p < .001. Because recent work on collective action has shown, different routes may
lead to either normative or non-normative collective action (Tausch et al., 2011), we explored
whether the same was true in this case. We created separate scales tapping into the
willingness to engage individually (sign an online petition, base one’s voting decision on the
Running head: Conspiracy Mentality 32
issue, accept higher energy bills to terminate nuclear power, donate to an environmental
organization, join an interest group in online social networks; α = .80), the willingness to
participate in normative collective action (organize a citizen protest, join an anti-nuclear
demonstration; α = .64), and the willingness to engage in non-normative collective action
(join an act of civil disobedience to block a nuclear waste transport). Regressions parallel to
those reported above yielded the same pattern of results for all three forms of protest:
Conspiracy mentality was a significant positive predictor of individual engagement, ß = .26, p
< .001, normative collective action, ß = .24, p < .001, and non-normative collective action, ß
= .19, p < .001. In contrast, RWA was a significant negative predictor of all three modes of
action, ß = -.40, ß = -.35, and ß = -.19, respectively, ps < .001.
A parallel pattern emerged for support for nuclear phase-out, for which conspiracy
mentality was a positive predictor, ß = .25, p < .001, and RWA was a negative predictor, ß =
-.43, p < .001. One might be tempted to argue that the concrete behavioral intentions were
related to conspiracy mentality only due to their association with the more general support for
a phase-out. We thus entered general support for nuclear phase-out as a control variable into
a reanalysis of the regression of the behavioral intentions on conspiracy mentality and RWA.
The general pattern remained unaltered, with conspiracy mentality, ß = .13, p < .001, RWA, ß
= -.15, p < .001, and support for nuclear phase-out, ß = .59, p < .001, all predicting unique
parts of the variance in behavioral intentions, R
2
= .47, p < .001. The same was true for
analyses examining the three different subscales of behavioral intentions (individual
engagement, normative collective action, non-normative collective action) separately.
Discussion
Study 5 further supported the previous findings of a distinct and coherent conspiracy
mentality that is different from authoritarianism. The study showed that conspiracy mentality
and RWA not only inversely predicted attributions of responsibility concerning the
Running head: Conspiracy Mentality 33
Fukushima disaster (predominantly to intentional misconduct for conspiracy mentality,
predominantly to chance for RWA), but they also dissociated in their associations with
participants’ behavioral intentions concerning reactions to the incident. Conspiracy mentality
was associated with a higher self-rated likelihood of engaging in different kinds of protest
against nuclear power whereas authoritarianism was negatively related to such intentions.
These findings shed light on conspiracy mentality and its role in social change. Skepticism
about those in power may not only motivate negatively biased views of powerful people and
groups (Studies 1 to 3), but may also lead to specific attributions blaming negative incidents
on such groups and trigger behavior aimed at challenging the status quo and its prevailing
power relations.
General Discussion
In five studies, we found empirical support for the idea that conspiracy mentality has all
the hallmarks of a coherent and distinct generalized political attitude. Most importantly,
conspiracy mentality uniquely predicted prejudice over and above other well-established
generalized political attitudes (RWA and SDO; Studies 2 to 4). Further, conspiracy mentality
had predictive validity for attributions blaming authorities for intentional misconduct as well
as unintentional error and for behavioral intentions aimed at undermining or at least
influencing these authorities.
In particular, we tested specific predictions regarding the correlates of these three
generalized political attitudes. Whereas all three unidirectionally predicted anti-Semitism,
i.e., prejudice against a group that is paradoxically often perceived as a minority suffering
from discrimination but also as powerful (Fiske et al. 2002), the three constructs showed clear
dissociations in their relationships to prejudice against (a) powerful groups that are not
victims of discrimination and (b) unequivocally low power groups. Conspiracy mentality
was specifically associated with disliking and feeling threatened by powerful groups. This is
Running head: Conspiracy Mentality 34
compatible with the general structure of conspiracy theories: Blaming the malicious intent of
conspiring groups for negative events. Logically, these conspirators can only be blamed if
they are perceived as sufficiently powerful to implement their alleged plots. In contrast,
generalized political attitudes that legitimize the status quo (SDO) or that are partly defined
by submission under whichever authority is in power (RWA) produced a contrasting pattern:
Individuals high in SDO or RWA perceived powerful groups as being relatively more
likeable and less threatening than they perceived low-power groups.
This finding resonates well with previous results that suggest members of powerless
groups are more likely to endorse conspiracy beliefs than members of powerful groups
(Goertzel, 1994; Stempel, Hargrove, & Stempel, 2007). Blaming one’s group’s powerless
position on the system of conspiracies (rather than oneself) is more advantageous for both
personal and collective self-esteem (Crocker, Luthanen, Broadnax, & Blaine, 1999).
Conspiracy thinking may thus be an effective way to cope with a negative social identity
when group boundaries are not permeable and individuals cannot just leave their ingroup
(e.g., the group of people low in power). Social identity theory posits that individuals can
either change their view on the ingroup in comparison to other groups by changing the
dimension of comparison (social creativity) or change the status quo by social actions.
Conspiracy thinking may form a cognitive operation of lending a plausible explanation for
the lack of power and facilitating changing the status quo.
We speculate that believing in a critical causal role of conspirators in bringing about
negative events may make it easier to take a firm stand on complex issues such as nuclear
power or the global economy. Instead of being overwhelmed by the complexities of these
issues (potentially resulting in anomia), the mental shortcut of blaming individuals or groups
may facilitate social action aimed at undermining the actions or goals of those perceived to be
conspirators. Our research reveals an important but often neglected effect of conspiracy
Running head: Conspiracy Mentality 35
thinking: Challenging the status quo – even if for potentially misguided reasons and irrational
ideas about the goals and influence of specific groups. This may empower disadvantaged
groups to take action and actively pursue their goals even in opposition to those in power. On
the flipside, social protest supported by conspiracy beliefs may also be particularly prone to
turn ugly by targeting single groups or individuals and using them as scapegoats.
Limitations
The major strength of the present research lies in its systematic investigation of
individual differences in generalized political attitudes and their effects on prejudice and
behavioral intentions using relatively large samples and producing consistent and robust
results across a set of independent studies. However, a limitation of our research lies in the
cross-sectional nature of the data. Future studies could make use of longitudinal approaches
to explore antecedents of conspiracy mentality and more directly test the causal relationship
between generalized political attitudes, prejudice toward social groups, and intentions to
engage in individual or collective political action.
Future directions
Other research might take a closer look at the cognitive underpinnings of conspiracy
beliefs. The role of ambiguity tolerance and general mental ability in conspiracy beliefs is
hitherto unclarified and could both go in both directions. Conspiracy beliefs provide closure
on the search for an explanation for societal events and could thus be related to dispositional
need for closure (but see the zero correlation in Study 1, footnote 1) and low tolerance of
ambiguity. At the same time, conspiracy theories often leave the logic of evidential reasoning
to provide much more complex narratives of how events came about than a sober look at the
facts would, which might be aversive for individuals seeking cognitive closure. The latter,
creative aspect of conspiracies suggests that it might be related to divergent thinking and
potentially to other cognitive abilities like fluid intelligence. At the same time, these
Running head: Conspiracy Mentality 36
cognitive abilities often come with higher standards for evidence (and often also higher
status), making conspirational thinking more unlikely. It is thus open to future research to
further explore the relation between general cognitive style and abilities and conspirational
thinking.
Given what we know about differences in cognitive style across cultures (Nisbett, Peng,
Choi, & Norenzayan, 2001) this reasoning also raises the possibility of cross-cultural
differences in conspiracy mentality. Recent cross-cultural research (Bruder, Haffke, Neave,
Nouripanah, & Imhoff, 2013) finds marked differences in mean-level conspiracy mentality
across cultures corroborating the idea that conspiracy thinking is particularly rife in the
Middle East. However, we know nothing about the individual-level and group-level
processes responsible for such cultural differences.
If some level of conspiracy mentality can be functional for social change (as Study 5
suggests), this begs the question whether conspiracy theories may also be able to reveal truth.
Clearly, many conspiracy theories contradict available scientific evidence (e.g., theories
about alien encounters). This irrational aspect is further highlighted by the fact that
sometimes individuals endorse mutually incompatible conspiracy theories (e.g., Wood et al.
2012). However, sometimes conspiracy theories may harbor at least a kernel of truth. Even
seemingly more extreme conspiracy theories have sometimes proven to be true – the
Watergate scandal being the most well-known example. In that sense, conspiracy mentality
might be best conceptualized as a continuum ranging from naïve trust in the canonical
version of contemporary history to extremely paranoid conspiracy thinking. Given the multi-
causal and dynamic nature of most controversial world events, it is rarely possible to
ultimately decide exactly the extent to which conspiracy speculation is objectively valid.
However, given what we know from history, there is reason to believe that both very high
and very low levels of conspiracy mentality may produce explanations for world events that
Running head: Conspiracy Mentality 37
are likely not objectively true. Despite its pejorative label, it is thus questionable whether the
lowest possible levels of conspiracy mentality is ultimately instrumental for learning the
truth.
In sum, whether individuals endorse a specific conspiracy theory largely depends on
whether they are prone to accept conspiracy beliefs in general. Such a ‘conspiracy mentality’
forms a generalized political attitude associated with negatively biased views of those in
power and with the behavioral intention to challenge the status quo. Under specific
circumstances such conspirational thinking may be adaptive at the individual and collective
level in the service of truth and social progress. What these circumstances are and under
which circumstances conspiracy mentality turns into a paranoid mindset immune to rational
argument and prone to identify certain social groups as scapegoats provides an exciting
agenda for future research.
38
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Table 1
Descriptive Statistics and Intercorrelations of all Scales Included in Study 1
Descriptives Intercorrelations
α M SD 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9.
1. Conspiracy Mentality .90 4.76 1.07
2. RWA .85 3.61 1.34
.05
3. SDO .93 2.63 1.23
.03 .40
4. TIPI Extraversion .75 3.64 1.52
.03 .11 .00
5. TIPI Conscientiousness .65 5.30 1.29
.01 .16 -.09 .14
6. TIPI Openness .60 5.06 1.28
.10 -.20 -.24 .35 .11
7. TIPI Neuroticism .73 3.21 1.45
.03 -.05 .08 -.17 -.37 -.13
8. TIPI Agreeableness .37 5.04 1.20
-.03 .08 -.26 .06 .31 .17 -.33
9. Political Orientation .92 4.45 1.96
.07 .61 .52 .00 .07 -.17 -.06 -.03
10. Religiosity - 2.37 1.10
.08 .48 .04 .16 .05 .03 -.07 .22 .34
Note. N = 496. 1.-8. on scales from 1 to 7, 9. on scale from 1 to 9, 10. on scale from 1 to 4. Correlations coefficient of |r| > .13 significant at p < .00111
(Bonferroni-ajusted alpha for 45 bivariate correlations).
47
Table 2
Generalized Political Attitudes as a Function of Demographic Factors
Conspiracy
Mentality RWA SDO
Demographic variables n M SD M SD M SD
Gender
Male 240 4.72 1.06 3.60 1.12 2.85
A
1.18
Female 245 4.78 1.07 3.62 1.17 2.41
B
1.04
Ethnicity
Asian 36 4.63 0.94 3.75 0.86 2.86
A
1.27
Hispanic 27 4.74 0.82 3.64 1.07 2.55
A
B
0.94
Black – Non-Hispanic 37 4.82 1.02 4.06 0.98 1.97
B
0.95
White – Non-Hispanic 369 4.77 1.10 3.53 1.16 2.66
A
1.12
Religion
Christian catholic 86 4.81 1.10 4.12
A
0.84 3.10
A
1.21
Christian protestant 136 4.60 1.03 4.16
A
0.93 2.63
B
1.12
Atheists 114 4.65 1.18 2.77
B
0.98 2.50
B
1.08
Education
High school graduate 48 4.86 1.02 3.98 0.86 2.80 1.08
Some college 151 4.78 1.10 3.60 1.11 2.68 1.15
Associate’s degree 50 4.88 0.99 3.79 1.09 2.79 1.19
Bachelor’s degree 144 4.64 1.06 3.47 1.13 2.50 1.12
Some graduate school 27 5.04 1.14 3.54 1.14 2.66 1.16
Master’s degree 42 4.65 1.13 3.35 1.23 2.51 1.12
Income level
Less than $10,000 171 4.61 1.08 3.57 1.16 2.55 1.16
$10,000 - $20,000 75 4.80 1.08 3.65 1.26 2.59 1.16
$20,000 - $30,000 81 4.85 1.04 3.49 1.10 2.60 0.96
$30,000 - $40,000 52 5.04 1.06 3.48 1.09 2.55 1.06
$40,000 - $50,000 33 4.92 1.23 3.61 1.01 2.70 1.24
$50,000 - $60,000 35 4.74 0.76 3.71 1.05 2.65 1.14
More than $60,000 48 4.67 1.16 3.92 1.06 3.04 1.16
Note. Subscripts indicate an effect of demographic factor, different letter indicate significant mean differences. Due
to small numbers the following groups are not listed: Gender: other (n=1); ethnicity: American Indian/ Alaskan
Native (n=6), Native Hawaiian/ Pacific Islander (n=1), Multi-racial, Black and White (n = 6), Multi-racial, other
(n= 7), other or unknown (n=6); religion: Muslim (n=8), Jewish (n=6); education: some high school (n=5), M.B.A.
(n=5), J.D. (n=5), M.D. (n=3), Ph.D. (n=6). All household income levels above $60,000 per year were combined
into one income level
48
Table 3
Descriptive Statistics and Intercorrelations of all Scales Included in Study 2
α M SD 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7.
1. Conspiracy Mentality .89 4.41 1.09
2. RWA .81 3.00 0.99
.16
3. SDO .90 2.54 1.03
-.05 .50
4. Anti-Americanism .81 4.52 1.10
.50 .08 -.17
5. Personalized anti-capitalism .84 4.82 0.98
.39 -.16 -.37 .41
6. Anti-Semitism .89 2.98 1.21
.37 .47 .37 .29 .10
7. Islamoprejudice .89 3.16 1.33
.14 .56 .45 -.01 .02 .33
8. Antiziganism .90 2.89 1.28
-.01 .38 .37 -.03 -.05 .25 .40
Note. N between 276 and 294 due to missing data. All scales range from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7
(strongly agree). All correlations |r| > .27 significant at p < .0018 (Bonferroni-adjusted alpha for 28
bivariate correlations).
49
Table 4
Ratings of Perceived Power, Likeability, and Threat for 32 Social Groups and Correlations of Likeability and Threat With Conspiracy Mentality, RWA, and
SDO (Study 3)
Ratings
Correlations with
Power Likeability Threat Conspiracy Mentality RWA SDO
Groups M SD M SD M SD Likeability Threat Likeability Threat Likeability Threat
1. Politicians 9.33 1.45 5.09 2.10 5.82 2.96 -.36 .31 .14 .02 .19 -.03
2. Power companies 9.29 1.59 3.54 1.96 7.25 2.97 -.17 .37 .28 -.11 .26 -.22
3. Managers 9.03 1.49 5.52 2.27 6.04 2.88 -.13 .31 .24 -.09 .22 -.12
4. Lobbyists 8.98 2.11 3.85 2.23 7.68 2.77 -.15 .17 .19 -.14 .22 -.10
5. Journalists 8.69 1.63 6.86 2.04 4.73 2.93 -.15 .21 -.11 .15 -.09 .12
6. Capitalist 8.48 2.08 4.33 2.25 6.72 3.10 -.25 .32 .16 -.03 .22 -.14
7. Physicists 7.82 1.77 7.35 2.01 3.61 2.45 -.05 .26 .17 .03 .11 -.03
8. Men 7.77 1.91 7.74 1.85 4.51 2.77 .12 .10 .14 .04 .04 .00
9. Americans 6.26 2.13 6.10 2.14 4.15 2.83 -.08 .18 .02 .09 -.07 .02
10. Women 6.04 1.81 8.52 1.80 2.77 2.15 .08 .10 .05 .14 -.09 .08
11. Married people 5.93 1.68 7.61 1.74 2.32 1.79 -.01 .14 .21 -.03 .04 -.02
12. Singles 5.67 1.89 7.45 1.81 2.78 2.23 .05 .12 -.02 .14 -.12 .15
13. Musicians 5.58 2.26 7.90 2.08 2.25 1.72 .09 .06 -.11 .10 -.16 .08
14. Jews 5.39 1.98 6.67 1.92 2.77 2.18 -.06 .21 -.24 .19 -.36 .22
15. Feminists 5.36 2.07 4.93 2.64 4.18 2.95 .01 .11 -.23 .24 -.34 .23
16. Artists 5.03 2.12 7.39 2.31 2.31 1.67 .04 .13 -.24 .12 -.24 .06
17. Blue collar workers 5.03 1.76 7.25 1.80 2.67 1.96 .04 .12 .02 .09 -.11 .10
18. Athletes 4.99 2.18 7.00 2.05 2.41 1.78 .20 .11 .15 .11 -.04 .09
19. Senior citizens 4.76 2.25 6.90 1.93 2.67 2.17 .02 .09 .15 .07 -.04 .12
20. White collar workers 4.71 1.78 7.26 1.80 2.44 1.84 .04 .10 .02 .03 -.11 .04
21. Muslims 4.59 1.92 6.10 1.95 4.61 2.84 -.05 .20 -.27 .34 -.38 .34
22. Gay men 4.58 1.87 6.93 2.25 2.43 1.99 .01 .16 -.28 .28 -.29 .24
23. Turks 4.52 1.80 5.97 2.04 4.05 2.77 -.05 .25 -.33 .31 -.41 .30
24. Students 4.47 1.87 9.08 1.77 2.78 2.12 .03 .00 .01 .15 -.11 .22
25. Foreigners 4.26 1.76 6.94 1.77 3.95 2.46 -.02 .20 -.25 .37 -.38 .37
26. Housewives 3.20 1.78 7.50 2.02 1.84 1.48 .06 -.02 .20 .03 .07 .03
27. Welfare recipients 2.64 1.36 5.21 1.91 3.28 2.36 -.09 .19 -.20 .23 -.24 .27
28. Unemployed 2.56 1.59 5.04 1.94 3.60 2.46 .06 .17 -.29 .25 -.30 .31
29. Roma and Sinti 2.54 1.73 5.77 2.03 3.63 2.60 -.12 .18 -.31 .28 -.32 .22
30. Drug addicts 2.19 1.42 3.10 2.05 5.71 3.27 -.11 .15 -.25 .25 -.19 .20
31. Asylum seekers 1.88 1.26 5.65 2.09 3.64 2.54 -.13 .21 -.43 .36 -.43 .33
32. Homeless 1.51 .958 4.75 2.05 3.70 2.62 -.09 .16 -.28 .18 -.26 .18
Note. N between 276 and 280 (due to single missing values). Power, likeability, and threat ratings ranged from 1 to 11. All correlations |r| > .22 significant at p
< .00026 (Bonferroni-adjusted alpha for 192 bivariate correlations).
50
Table 5
Descriptive Statistics and Intercorrelations of all Scales Included in Study 4
Descriptives Intercorrelations
α M SD 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12. 13. 14.
1. Conspiracy Mentality .89 4.25 1.07
2. RWA .81 2.73 0.92
.29
3. SDO .89 2.42 0.92
.14 .48
4. Personal Control .62 4.82 0.71
.03 .07 .00
5. Interpersonal Control .79 4.67 0.94
-.09 -.07 -.09 .40
6. Sociopolitical Control .70 4.10 0.79
-.23 -.26 -.28 .11 .29
7. Powerlessness .70 1.98 0.47
.27 .17 .08 -.39 -.49 -.37
8. Anomia .75 1.98 0.54
.27 .20 .17 -.36 -.56 -.34 .72
9. Death Anxiety .92 2.79 1.82
.08 .08 -.01 -.05 -.06 -.13 .14 .13
10. Anthropomorphism .89 3.69 1.71
.31 .22 .06 -.02 .03 -.04 .16 .14 .13
11. Extraversion .85 3.37 0.95
-.02 -.03 -.10 .16 .63 .19 -.30 -.42 -.01 .04
12. Conscientiousness .69 3.63 0.69
.01 .11 -.03 .55 .36 .08 -.32 -.37 -.06 .02 .16
13. Openness .73 4.01 0.70
.06 -.14 -.16 .13 .23 .23 -.10 -.16 -.04 .06 .15 .16
14. Neuroticism .80 3.08 0.95
.06 .05 -.04 -.22 -.30 -.15 .48 .52 .24 .06 -.25 -.16 .09
15. Agreeableness .60 2.90 0.75
-.10 -.13 -.26 -.02 .13 .11 -.01 -.14 -.06 -.08 .13 -.01 .09 -.04
Note. N between 278 and 280 (due to missing values). 1.-6. and 9. on scales from 1 to 7, 7.-8. on a scale from 1 to 4, 10. on a scale from 1 to 11, 11.-15. on a scale
from 1 to 5. Correlations coefficient of |r| > .21 significant at p < .00047 (Bonferroni-ajusted alpha for 105 bivariate correlations).
51
Table 6
Descriptive Statistics and Intercorrelations of all Scales Included in Study 5
α M SD 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6.
1. Conspiracy Mentality .89 4.16 1.14
2. RWA .79 2.84 0.93
.22
3. Attribution to
intentional misconduct .84 67.26 25.60
.33 -.17
4. Attribution to non-
intentional human
error
.36 54.21 22.91
.14 -.01 .51
5. Attribution to chance - 70.68 27.20
-.07 .10 -.24 -.05
6. Anti-nuclear
behavioral intentions .86 2.39 0.92
.19 -.34 .49 .22 -.17
7. Support for nuclear
phase-out .87 3.84 1.10
.15 -.38 .51 .22 -.20 .67
Note. N between 1,776 and 1,846 due to missing values. First two scales from 1 (low conspiracy mentality, resp.
RWA) to 7 (high conspiracy mentality, resp. RWA). Attribution rating on slider scales from 0 (has no influence on
Fukushima nuclear disaster) to 100 (has strong influence on Fukushima nuclear disaster). Anti-nuclear behavioral
intentions and support for nuclear phase-out from 1 (pro-nuclear) to 5 (anti-nuclear). All correlations |r| > .07
significant at p < .0023 (Bonferroni adjusted alpha for 21 bivariate correlations).
52
Figure Captions
Figure 1. Standardized regression coefficients (+SE) for RWA, CM, and SDO simultaneously
predicting anti-Americanism (R
2corr
= .27), personalized anti-capitalism (R
2corr
= .27), anti-
Semitism (R
2corr
= .33), Islamoprejudice (R
2corr
= .34), and antziganism (R
2corr
= .20).
Asterisks indicate significant coefficients at p < .01.
Figure 2. Unique relations between conspiracy mentality, RWA, and SDO when
simultaneously predicting intraindividual correlations of (a) power and likeability (R
2corr
=
.26), and (b) power and threat (R
2corr
= .15). Point estimates are plotted for each predictor at -
1SD and +1SD at the mean value of the other predictors. Regressions are based on Fisher r-
to-z-transformed coefficients that were inverse-transformed for the plots.
Figure 3. Unique relations between conspiracy mentality, RWA, and SDO when
simultaneously predicting intraindividual correlations of (a) power and likeability (R
2corr
=
.22), (b) power and realistic threat (R
2corr
= .11), and (c) power and symbolic threat (R
2corr
=
.09). Point estimates are plotted for each predictor at -1SD and +1SD at the mean value of the
other predictors. Regressions are based on Fisher r-to-z-transformed coefficients that were
inverse-transformed for the plots.
53
Figure 1
Dependent Variable
Anti-capitalism Anti-Americanism Anti-Semitism Islamoprejudice Antiziganism
Standardized Regression Coefficients
-.40
-.20
.00
.20
.40
.60
Conspiracy Mentality
Right-Wing Authoritarianism
Social Dominance Orientation
*
*
***
*
*
*
*
*
*
54
Figure 2
-1SD +1SD
Intraindividual Correlations Power-Likeability
-0,15
-0,10
-0,05
0,00
0,05
0,10
0,15
Conspiracy Mentality
RWA
SDO
-1SD +1SD
Intraindividual Correlations Power-Threat
0,25
0,30
0,35
0,40
0,45
0,50
Conspiracy Mentality
RWA
SDO
(a) Power - Likeability
(b) Power - Threat
55
Figure 3
-1SD +1SD
Intraindividual Correlations Power-Likeability
-0,25
-0,20
-0,15
-0,10
-0,05
0,00
0,05
0,10
Co nspira cy M enta lity
RW A
SDO
-1SD +1SD
Intraindividual Correlations Power-Realistic Threat
0,25
0,30
0,35
0,40
0,45
0,50
Co nspira cy M enta lity
RW A
SDO
-1SD +1SD
Intraindividual Correlations Power-Symbolic Threat
0,30
0,35
0,40
0,45
0,50
Co nspira cy M enta lity
RW A
SDO
(a) Power - Likeability
(b) Power - Realistic Threat
(c) Power - Symbolic Threat
56
Table S1. Conspiracy Mentality Scale in English and German with Corrected Item-Total Correlations.
Corrected Item-Total Correlations
Study 1a
Study2 Study 3 Study 4 Study 5
1. There are many very important things happening in the world about which the public is not informed.
Es geschehen sehr viele wichtige Dinge in der Welt, über die die Öffentlichkeit nie informiert wird. .43 .52 .53 .49 .49
2. Those at the top do whatever they want.
Die da oben machen ja eh was sie wollen. .45 .45 .59 .47 .56
3. A few powerful groups of people determine the destiny of millions.
Ein paar mächtige Personengruppen bestimmen über das Schicksal von Millionen von Menschen. .53 .60 .58 .61 .61
4. There are secret organizations that have great influence on political decisions.
Es gibt geheime Organisationen, die großen Einfluss auf politische Entscheidungen haben. .77 .74 .66 .74 .71
5. I think that the various conspiracy theories circulating in the media are absolute nonsense.
(R)
Die verschiedenen in den Medien zirkulierenden Verschwörungstheorien halte ich für ausgemachten Blödsinn. .48 .43 .47 .61 .43
6. Politicians and other leaders are nothing but the string puppets of powers operating in the background.
Politiker und andere Führungspersönlichkeiten sind nur Marionetten der dahinterstehenden Mächte. .65 .64 .63 .58 .59
7. Most people do not recognize to what extent our life is determined by conspiracies that are concocted in secret.
Die meisten Menschen erkennen nicht, in welchem Ausmaß unser Leben durch Verschwörungen bestimmt wird,
die im Geheimen ausgeheckt werden.
.79 .75 .64 .72 .73
8. There is no good reason to distrust governments, intelligence agencies, or the media.
(R)
Es gibt keinen vernünftigen Grund, Regierungen, Geheimdiensten oder Medien zu misstrauen. .32 .36 .53 .41 .43
9. International intelligence agencies have their hands in our everyday life to a much larger degree than people
assume.
Die internationalen Geheimdienste mischen viel mehr in alltäglichen Dingen mit, als man denkt.
.67 .61 .52 .54 .60
10. Secret organizations can manipulate people psychologically so that they do not notice how their life is being
controlled by others.
Geheime Organisationen können Leute psychisch so manipulieren, dass diese nicht wissen, dass ihr Leben von
außen bestimmt wird.
.68 .63 .56 .58 .63
11. There are certain political circles with secret agendas that are very influential.
Es gibt bestimmte politische Zirkel, die geheime Pläne verfolgen und sehr viel Einfluss haben. .70 .73 .65 .70 .70
12. Most people do not see how much our lives are determined by plots hatched in secret.
Die meisten Menschen machen sich keine Vorstellung davon, wie sehr unser Leben bestimmt wird von im
Geheimen geschmiedeten Plänen.
.80 .77 .71 .69 .77
57
Table S2. Original German item wording, English translation and corrected item-total correlation for three purpose-designed scales in Study 2
r
it
Anti-Americanism
Die USA als 'Schlachtbank der Indianer' und dem 'Gefängnis Afrikas' haben bis heute nichts aus ihrer Geschichte gelernt.
(Until today, the USA as the ‚Shambles of American Indians‘ and ‚Prison of Africa‘ have learned nothing from their history.) .57
Die amerikanische Verfassung ist ein leuchtendes Vorbild für Demokratien weltweit. (R)
(The American constitution is a shining example for democracies worldwide). .20
Die amerikanische Regierung wird kontrolliert von einer Lobby aus Öl- und Waffenindustrie.
(The American government is controlled by a lobby of oil and weapon industries) .44
Ich finde es gut, wie die USA versuchen, Frieden und Demokratie in andere Länder zu bringen. (R)
(I like how the USA tries to bring peace and democracy to other countries). .36
Meiner Meinung nach sind Amerikaner arrogant und oberflächlich.
(In my view Americans are arrogant and superficial.) .52
Die USA sind der größte Kriegstreiber weltweit.
(The USA is the world’s greatest warmonger). .64
Die USA spielen sich als Weltpolizei auf und kriegen noch nicht mal ihre eigenen Probleme in den Griff.
(The USA acts up as the world police when they can’t even get their own problems under control). .72
Amerika hat es nie geschafft, eine eigene Kultur zu entwickeln, so wie Europa eine hat.
(America has never succeeded in developing a culture like Europe). .59
Anti-Capitalism
Ehrliche Arbeit wird heute in Zeiten von internationalen Finanzjongleuren viel zu wenig geschätzt.
(In today’s times of international financial speculators, honest work is not being appreciated enough anymore.) .44
Manche Finanzinvestoren verschwenden keinen Gedanken an die Menschen, deren Arbeitsplätze sie vernichten - sie bleiben anonym, haben kein Gesicht, fallen wie
Heuschreckenschwärme über Unternehmen her, grasen ab und ziehen weiter.
(Some investors don’t waste a thought on the people whose jobs they destroy. They remain anonymous and faceless, raiding companies like a cloud of locusts: grazing
them and leaving them deserted.)
.49
Multinationale Konzerne sind schuld an den meisten Problemen der Welt.
(Multinational corporations are to be blamed for most of the world’s problems.) .59
Die Bundesregierung sollte nicht nur Mindestlöhne, sondern auch Höchstverdienste für gierige Manager gesetzlich festlegen.
(Federal government should not only implement minimum wages by law, but also maximum wages for greedy managers.) .50
Ich mag das Gerede von den 'Heuschrecken', die böswillig Firmen zerschlagen nicht. (R)
(I don’t like this tattle of ‘locusts’ that maliciously shatter companies.) .29
Durch wirtschaftliche Interessen verkommt unsere soziale Marktwirtschaft zum puren Kapitalismus.
(Economic interests push our system away from protecting vulnerable groups and toward pure competition) .64
Ohne Wirtschaftsmanager und Spekulanten wäre es um den deutschen Wohlstand heute nicht so gut bestellt. (R)
(Without corporate executives and speculators German prosperity wouldn’t be in such a good position.) .23
Ein großes Problem am momentanen Kapitalismus ist, dass große Hedgefonds nur Profit machen wollen.
(A huge problem of today’s capitalism is that hedge funds only want to make profits.) .65
58
Firmenmanager haben vor lauter Geldgier alle moralischen Werte vergessen.
(As a result of their greed, CEOs have lost all their morals.) .64
Skrupelloses Profitstreben bringt unser ganzes Wirtschaftssystem in Misskredit.
(Unscrupulous profit seeking discredits our whole economic system.) .57
Allen auf der Welt würde es besser gehen, wenn es weniger internationale Finanzspekulanten gäbe.
(Everybody in this world would be better off if there were fewer international financial speculators.) .59
Antiziganism
Es würde mich überhaupt nicht stören, Roma und Sinti als Nachbarn zu haben. (R)
(I would not mind at all to have Roma and Sinti as neighbours.) .63
Dass Roma und Sinti mehr klauen als normale Deutsche davon bin ich überzeugt.
(I am convinced that Roma and Sinti steal more than normal Germans.) .74
Es wäre besser, keine Roma und Sinti im Land zu haben.
(It would be better to have no Roma or Sinti in the country.) .71
Die Verfolgung der Roma und Sinti hängt auch mit deren Weigerung zusammen, sich an herrschende Normen anzupassen.
(The persecution of Roma and Sinti is connected with their refusal to adjust to the dominant norms.) .50
Ich gehöre zu denen, die keine Roma und Sinti mögen.
(I belong to those who do not like Roma or Sinti.) .73
Viele Roma und Sinti erziehen ihre Kinder zu anderen Werten und Fähigkeiten, als hier gebraucht werden, um erfolgreich zu sein.
(Many Roma and Sinti teach their children different values and abilities than are needed to be successful.) .42
Wenn man sich den Anteil Krimineller unter den Roma und Sinti anschaut, so ist der bestimmt höher als z.B. bei Deutschen.
(If one inspects the crime rate among Roma and Sinti, it is for sure higher than that of, for instance, Germans.) .76
Ich kann es gut verstehen, wenn man etwas gegen Roma und Sinti hat.
(I can sympathize with having something against Roma and Sinti.) .77
Dass Roma und Sinti in so vielen verschiedenen Ländern verfolgt wurden, ist für mich ein Zeichen dafür, dass es zumindest zum Teil auch an ihnen selber liegt.
(That Roma and Sinti have been persecuted in so many countries is an indication that it is at least partially their own fault.) .74
... As perception of agency and human intentions is also related to religious and paranormal beliefs (see, e.g., Willard & Norenzayan, 2013), an hypothesis could be that detection of faces may be related to the attribution of human intentionality in occurring events, which is related to CTs beliefs too (as measured through anthropomorphism, agency detection, teleological thinking, etc.; Brotherton & French, 2015;Imhoff & Bruder, 2014;Douglas et al., 2015;van der Tempel & Alcock, 2015;van Elk, 2013;Wagner-Egger et al., 2018). ...
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In times of crisis, the spread of conspiracy myths increases since people seek answers to complex questions. Besides societal aspects, social media platforms, especially messenger services, have been identified as a positive driver for spreading conspiracy myths. Much research focused on whether right-wing populist attitudes correlate with belief in conspiracy myths resulting in inconsistent findings. We show that different anti-system attitudes and corresponding digital media usage can promote the affinity towards conspiracy myths apart from right-wing attitudes. With this paper, we first want to sharpen the terminology on ‘conspiracy myths’ and develop a scale to measure affinity towards conspiracy myths in different dimensions. We second use this scale to investigate different mindsets of conspiracy in the Swiss population. Third, we want to find out how the dimensions correlate with messenger usage. Based on data from a representative population survey in Switzerland from November to December 2020, we investigated different affinities towards conspiracy myths, represented by far-left, far-right, populist, anti-elitism, general anti-system attitudes and science skepticism. We then used the six dimensions in a cluster analysis and identified five typological mindsets. About 30% of the population accordingly have higher affinities towards conspiracy myths than the rest. Our study also highlights the potential role of messenger services in spreading conspiracy myths. To a certain extent, Facebook Messenger and Telegram usage show a robust correlation with the different dimensions of the affinity towards conspiracy myths. In contrast, WhatsApp usage does not show a robust correlation.
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A significant trend of research construes conspiracy theories as a power challenging phenomenon. Yet, there is evidence that conspiracy theories are sometimes promoted by members of relatively powerful groups (e.g., a national majority) in order to target relatively powerless groups (e.g., immigrants). Thus, conspiracy theories are not necessarily beliefs held by the relatively powerless. On the contrary, they always attribute power to the allegedly conspiring parties. As a matter of fact, without such power, the groups accused of conspiring would be unable to carry out their plans. In contrast to assuming conspiracy theories reflect objective power imbalances, we propose that they may be construed as opportunistic attributions of power that allow individuals to advance their interests (e.g., validate their worldview, strengthen or challenge social hierarchies).
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The issue of personality and prejudice has been largely investigated in terms of authontananism and social dominance orientation. However, these seem more appropriately conceptualized as ideological attitudes than as personality dimensions. The authors describe a causal model linking dual dimensions of personality social world view, ideological attitudes, and intergroup attitudes. Structural equation modeling with data from American and White Afrikaner students supported the model, suggesting that social conformity and belief in a dangerous world influence authoritarian attitudes, whereas toughmindedness and belief in a competitive jungle world influence social dominance attitudes, and these two ideological attitude dimensions influence intergroup attitudes. The model implies that dual motivational and cognitive processes, which may be activated by different kinds of situational and intergroup dynamics, may underlie 2 distinct dimensions of prejudice.
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Stereotype research emphasizes systematic processes over seemingly arbitrary contents, but content also may prove systematic. On the basis of stereotypes' intergroup functions, the stereotype content model hypothesizes that (a) 2 primary dimensions are competence and warmth, (b) frequent mixed clusters combine high warmth with low competence (paternalistic) or high competence with low warmth (envious), and (c) distinct emotions (pity, envy, admiration, contempt) differentiate the 4 competence-warmth combinations. Stereotypically, (d) status predicts high competence, and competition predicts low warmth. Nine varied samples rated gender, ethnicity, race, class, age, and disability out-groups. Contrary to antipathy models, 2 dimensions mattered, and many stereotypes were mixed, either pitying (low competence, high warmth subordinates) or envying (high competence, low warmth competitors). Stereotypically, status predicted competence, and competition predicted low warmth.
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Since the conspiratist Weltanschauung uses logical or rhetorical fallacies to conceal the issues and exploit the ambiguities of uncertain situations, this essay advocates the application of traditional tests of evidence and argument to conspiratist discourse. Using the conspiracy interpretation of the Soviet shootdown of Korean Air Lines 007 as an exemplar, the authors demonstrate that conspiratist arguments, by their very nature, demand that the critic develop an evaluative system to explicate the dynamics of such arguments.
Book
‘If in this book harsh words are spoken about some of the greatest among the intellectual leaders of mankind, my motive is not, I hope, to belittle them. it springs rather from my conviction that, if our civilization is to survive, we must break with the habit of deference to great men.’
Chapter
Conspiracy implies secret communication. It occurs when a group is plotting to attain some goal, and keeping their actions secret from those who would otherwise oppose them.
Chapter
Periodically, people are accused of conspiring against their country, against their religion, or against the party of which they are members. Now, a conspiracy is, by definition, the work of a minority. One of the most pronounced, if not the most pronounced, aspects of this accusation becomes immediately apparent: The minority is alien; either it is composed of foreigners or it is financed by and in league with foreign powers. One always seems to detect what one calls “the hand of the stranger” behind the beliefs and actions of the minority. An event will trigger this habitual thought process that one has recourse to, as if by reflex. A few examples will enable us to give our ideas more concrete form. A few years ago Indira Ghandi, India’s prime minister, was assassinated by Sikh bodyguards. The murder occurred at the same time the Sikh minority was claiming its independence, and the Indian Army had been called in to intervene against it. A few days after the assassination, Rajiv Ghandi, who had succeeded his mother, proclaimed in front of an audience of 100, 000 in New Delhi: “The assassination of Indira Ghandi is the doing of a vast conspiracy whose object is to weaken and divide India” (LeMonde, 1984). He added that the assassins were aided and abetted by foreign accomplices. Also recently, an event had great repercussions in France. Agents of the French secret service sank the Rainbow Warrior, a ship belonging to the ecological organization Greenpeace, in the port of Auckland. The ship was to take part in a demonstration against French nuclear experiments in the Pacific. Without awaiting the results of the official nuclear experiments in the Pacific.
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A review of the psychological, sociological and educational literature indicated that the various conceptualizations of "alienation" could be fitted into five tentative categories appearing to have con siderable overlap. An item pool developed to repre sent these categories of alienation was screened by expert review and pilot testing in the 9th grade and then administered to 500 "normal" adolescents in 9th-grade classes in four diverse communities in Minnesota: a rural area, a suburban area, and working class and inner city areas of a large city. Factor analysis identified three coherent dimensions in student responses, which were labeled "Personal Incapacity," "Cultural Estrangement," and "Guidelessness." Simple cluster scores constructed to represent these dimensions had internal-consis tency reliabilities of .80, .70, and .67 respectively. Patterns of significant differences shown by anal yses of variance among groups defined by commun ity type, socio-economic status, ability, and sex, compared well with hypothesized patterns; the few exceptions were tenable. The scales provide con crete measures of alienation that may enable more meaningful investigation of its incidence, correlates, and causes.