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Abstract

In the present research, we examined people's tendency to endorse or question belief in conspiracy theories. In two studies, we tested the hypothesis that the perceived morality of authorities influences conspiracy beliefs, particularly when people experience uncertainty. Study 1 revealed that information about the morality of oil companies influenced beliefs that these companies were involved in planning the war in Iraq, but only when uncertainty was made salient. Similar findings were obtained in Study 2, which focused on a bogus newspaper article about a fatal car accident of a political leader in an African country. It is concluded that uncertainty leads people to make inferences about the plausibility or implausibility of conspiracy theories by attending to morality information. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Research article
Belief in conspiracy theories: The inuence of uncertainty and perceived morality
JAN-WILLEM VAN PROOIJEN
1,3
*AND NILS B. JOSTMANN
2
1
Department of Social and Organizational Psychology, VU University Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The
Netherlands;
2
University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands;
3
The Netherlands Institute for the
Study of Crime and Law Enforcement, The Netherlands
Abstract
In the present research, we examined peoples tendency to endorse or question belief in conspiracy theories. In two studies,we tested
the hypothesis that the perceived morality of authorities inuences conspiracy beliefs, particularly when people experience
uncertainty. Study 1 revealed that information about the morality of oil companies inuenced beliefs that these companies were
involved in planning the war in Iraq, but only when uncertainty was made salient. Similar ndings were obtained in Study 2,
which focused on a bogus newspaper article about a fatal car accident of a political leader in an African country. It is
concluded that uncertainty leads people to make inferences about the plausibility or implausibility of conspiracy theories by
attending to morality information. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
In contemporary society, people are frequently faced with
events that threaten the social order, such as terrorist
attacks, wars, and economic crises. These events sometimes
give rise to conspiracy theories, which can be dened as
explanatory beliefs that involve a number of actors who
join together in secret agreement, and try to achieve a
hidden goal that is perceived as unlawful or malevolent
(Zonis & Joseph, 1994; p. 448449). These conspiring
actors typically pertain to legitimate power holders or insti-
tutions in society (Robins & Post, 1997). The internet is
lled with examples of such conspiracy theories assuming,
for instance, that the 9-11 terrorist strikes were conducted
by the Bush administration; that the war in Iraq was the
result of a lobby by powerful Western oil companies; and
that Democrats caused the economic crisis to get Barack
Obama elected as US president. Conspiracy beliefs are
widespread, as evidenced by ndings that they occur
among a substantial portion of the population of modern
Western societies (Sunstein & Vermeule, 2009; Pipes, 1997).
The present research is designed to contribute to a growing
body of research that is aimed at understanding under what
conditions people endorse or question conspiracy theories
(Crocker, Luhtanen, Broadnax, & Blaine, 1999; Douglas &
Sutton, 2008, 2011; Kramer & Messick, 1998; McCauley &
Jacques, 1979; Swami, Chamorro-Premuzic, & Furnham,
2010). Specically, in the present research, we investigate
how reasoning about conspiracy theories is shaped by the
perceived morality or immorality of authorities under condi-
tions of uncertainty.
UNCERTAINTY AND CONSPIRACY THEORIES
One of the main features of conspiracy theories is that they
provide causal explanations for distressing societal events. In
his seminal work, Hofstadter (1966) correspondingly argues
that conspiracist ideation is rooted in a general tendency to
explain and rationalize complex real-world phenomena into a
coherent set of assumptions about the existence of a powerful
and evil enemy. Authors from various disciplines have like-
wise highlighted peoples desire to explain events that are
otherwise hard to comprehend as a core motive for conspiracy
beliefs (Bale, 2007; Clarke, 2002; Miller, 2002). Related to
these arguments, research indicates that conspiracy beliefs
are grounded in a monological belief system: One conspiracy
belief reinforces other conspirational ideas, rendering people
who believe in one conspiracy theory more likely to also
believe in other conspiracy theories (Goertzel, 1994;
Lewandowski, Oberauer, & Gignac, in press; Swami et al.,
2011; Wood, Douglas, & Sutton, 2012). This monological
nature suggests that belief in conspiracy theories reects a
systematic method of information processing, leading to a
general worldview that accounts for threatening events
as being the intended consequence of evil conspiracies
(Abalakina-Paap, Stephan, Craig, & Gregory, 1999; Darwin,
Neave, & Holmes, 2011; Swami et al., 2010).
Conspiracy beliefs thus serve an explanatory function and
are hence associated with mental sense-making processes
aimed at seeing the world as orderly, understandable, and pre-
dictable (cf. Heine, Proulx, & Vohs, 2006; Park, 2010). Such
*Correspondence to: Jan-Willem van Prooijen, Department of Social and Organizational Psychology, VU University Amsterdam, Van den Boechorststraat 1,
1081 BT, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
E-mail: jw.van.prooijen@psy.vu.nl
European Journal of Social Psychology,Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 43, 109115 (2013)
Published online 17 December 2012 in Wiley Online Library (wileyonlinelibrary.com) DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.1922
Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Received 23 April 2012, Accepted 22 October 2012
sense-making processes are indeed central to paranoid social
cognition, conceptualized as a suspicious state of mind that is
characterized by hypervigilance to the possible malevolent intent
of others (Kramer, 1998). These arguments are resonated in
empirical research suggesting that identifying specicenemies
as responsible for a threatening event is more effective in regulat-
ing distress than admitting the role of uncontrollable factors and
randomness, because people can understand, and often antici-
pate on, the actions of a recognizable immoral agent (Sullivan,
Landau, & Rothschild, 2010; see also Rothschild, Landau,
Sullivan, & Keefer, 2012). Taken together, these considerations
converge into a model stipulating that conspiracy theories may
be functional to reinstall a sense of order and predictability in
the aftermath of threatening societal events (Hofstadter, 1966).
A typical factor that instigates such sense-making processes is
subjective feelings of uncertainty, for instance about the self or
the surrounding social environment (Kramer, 1998; Park, 2010;
Park & Folkman, 1997; McGregor, 2006; Van den Bos, 2009).
Research indeed reveals that feelings of uncertainty have the
potential to promote conspiracy beliefs. For instance, Whitson
and Galinsky (2008) found that people who lack controla
condition frequently associated with uncertaintyhave a greater
inclination to perceive patterns in unrelated stimuli, such as see-
ing images in noise, superstitions, and also conspiracy beliefs.
The relation between uncertainty and conspiracy beliefs was
further supported in other studies (Newheiser, Farias, & Tausch,
2011; Sullivan et al., 2010; see also Shermer, 2011).
At the same time, it must be noted that the evidence for a
direct relation between uncertainty and conspiracy beliefs is
mixed. Indeed, people sometimes nd order by increasing the
faith that they have in the actors that are frequently implicated
in conspiracy theories, such as governmental institutions
(Kay, Gaucher, Napier, Callan, & Laurin, 2008; Kay, Whitson,
Gaucher, & Galinsky, 2009). To illustrate, in the months after
the 9-11 terrorist strikesan event that induced a substantial
level of uncertainty in many US citizensGeorge W. Bush
had exceptionally high public approval ratings. Uncertainty
may thus promote not only belief but also disbelief in conspira-
cies. In the present contribution, we propose that this inconsis-
tency can be resolved by taking the perceived morality of
authorities into account. Instead of assuming a direct effect of
uncertainty on conspiracy beliefs, we propose that uncertainty
makes people more attentive to the morality of the actions of
authorities when making sense of a threat to the social order.
As such, uncertainty increases the extent to which people make
inferences about the plausibility and the implausibility of
conspiracy theories based on the morality of authoritiesactions.
THE CURRENT RESEARCH
Our line of reasoning is rooted in theorizing on the uncertainty
management model of justice (Van den Bos & Lind, 2002),
which asserts that when people experience uncertainty they
are more in need for information about the extent to which
decision-makers have benevolent intentions, information that
people tend to derive from the morality of the decision-
makersbehaviors. Research indeed indicates that the extent
to which authority gures accord subordinates with fair versus
unfair decision-making procedures exerts a stronger inuence
on fairness judgments and affective reactions among subordi-
nates who experience uncertainty as opposed to subordinates
who do not experience uncertainty. These effects have been
found for various conceptualizations of uncertainty, including
uncertainty about the self (De Cremer & Sedikides, 2005),
lack of control (Van Prooijen, 2009), or generalized uncer-
tainty (Van den Bos, 2001). Thus far, however, these proposi-
tions have only been tested in the context of direct interactions
between a leader and a subordinate (i.e., how the experience of
procedurally fair or unfair treatment directly inuences subor-
dinates responses), not in the context of how citizens are
inuenced by the perceived morality of the policies that are
implemented by political or corporate leaders. Indeed, research
indicates that typical procedural justice effects do not neces-
sarily generalize to the context of group-level or political
decision-making (Leung, Tong, & Lind, 2007).
The uncertainty management model suggests that subjec-
tive uncertainty increases the extent to which perceivers pay
attention to the morality of an authoritys actions, which is
consistent with the hypervigilant state of mind that is at
the core of paranoid social cognition (Kramer, 1998). Such
increased susceptibility to morality information is likely to
have implications for peoples conspiracy beliefs. Although
the extent to which political or corporate leaders are considered,
moral or immoral is in and of itself a component of conspiracy
beliefs (e.g., an authority needs to be very immoral to be part
of a malevolent conspiracy), people may be reluctant to
draw straightforward inferences about secret conspiracies based
on such morality information alone (e.g., many people nd
George W. Bush very immoral without believing in a 9-11
governmental conspiracy). Uncertainty, however, has been
found to prompt a psychological process termed compensatory
conviction, which means that feelings of uncertainty in one
domain increases ones certaintyboth in terms of consistency
and clarityabout beliefs or convictions in unrelated domains,
such as about political or social issues (McGregor, 2006;
McGregor & Marigold, 2003). As a consequence, subjective
uncertaintyislikelytoincreasecondence in the extent to
which the perceived morality of the overt behaviors of authori-
ties conrms assumptions about the covert affairs that these
authorities may or may not be involved in. This argument
thus suggests that uncertainty increases the extent to which
people interpret signs suggesting that authorities are moral
or immoral as diagnostic evidence for the likelihood of secret
and illegal conspiracy formation. On the basis of this line of
reasoning, we hypothesize that the perceived morality or
immorality of leaders more strongly predicts the extent to
which people believe inor doubtconspiracy theories under
conditions of uncertainty.
STUDY 1
In keeping with previous research within the tradition of the
uncertainty management model (Van den Bos & Lind, 2002),
we manipulated whether or not uncertainty was a salient
issue to participants: In the uncertainty salient conditions,
participants responded to two open-ended questions about
110 Jan-Willem van Prooijen and Nils B. Jostmann
Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 43, 109115 (2013)
them being uncertain; in the control condition, participants
responded to two open-ended questions about a neutral topic
(i.e., watching TV). A substantial body of research established
that this is a validated manipulation of uncertainty salience by
inuencing a range of variables that are associated with
sense-making, worldview defense, and self-regulation. More-
over, these effects of uncertainty salience typically converge
theoretically with insights on how people cope with uncertainty,
and empirically with the effects of related constructs such as
experienced personal uncertainty, and uncertainty orientation
(for a review, see Van den Bos, 2009).
Following the manipulation of uncertainty salience, partici-
pants received bogus information about the morality or immoral-
ity of oil companies that was unrelated to the alleged conspiracy
(i.e., information pertaining to how well oil companies treat their
personnel, and abide to environmental regulations, in third-
world countries). We predicted that the morality manipulation
would exert a stronger inuence on beliefs that oil companies
helped to cause the war in Iraq when uncertainty was salient than
when uncertainty was not salient.
Method
Participants and Design
The hypothesis was tested in a 2 (uncertainty salience: uncer-
tain vs TV) 2 (morality: moral vs immoral) factorial design.
We recruited 73 students from the University of Amsterdam
(60 men, 13 women; M
age
= 21.47, SD = 4.75; age ranging
from 18 to 49 years). The study was followed by an unrelated
piece of research. Together, the studies lasted approximately
30 minutes, and participants were either paid 3.50 or given
course credit for their participation.
Procedure
The study was presented as two separate experiments. The rst
experiment, which was presented as an experiment on personal
memories,contained the manipulation of uncertainty salience.
Following previous research (Van den Bos, 2001), participants
were asked to respond to the following two open questions
(manipulated information in italics): Please describe briey
what emotions the thought of you being uncertain/watching
TV arouses in you,and Please describe as specically as pos-
sible what physically happens to you when you are uncertain/
watch TV.To establish whether this manipulation inuenced
participantsmood, they were subsequently asked to indicate
how positive or negative they felt on an affect thermometer
ranging from 1 (very negative) to 100 (very positive).
Participants then continued with an experiment on how
students perceive the role of Western oil companies in the
world.Participants rst read the conclusions of a (bogus)
research report by a human rights organization, which contained
the morality manipulation. In the moral condition, participants
read that oil companies generally endorse very humane person-
nel policies, and adhere strictly to international environmental
policies, in developing countries. In the immoral condition,
participants read that oil companies generally endorse very
strict personnel policies, and frequently violate international
environmental policies, in developing countries.
We then assessed participantsbelief in conspiracy theories
by averaging responses on the following three questions
(1 = certainly not,7=certainly so): Do you believe that oil
companies had a vested interest in the war in Iraq?,Do
you believe that oil companies helped to cause the war in
Iraq?and To what extent do you believe that people who
are associated with oil companies gave the order to start the
war in Iraq?(a= .75). To check the morality manipulation,
we asked the following questions: Do you believe that oil
companies are trustworthy?(1 = certainly not,7=certainly so),
Do you believe that oil companies are concerned about justice
in their policies?(1 = certainly not,7=certainly so), How
much value do you believe that oil companies ascribe to human
life?(1 = a little,7=alot), and How slyly do you believe
that oil companies operate?(1 = not very slyly,7=very slyly;
recoded) (a= .76). After this, participants were debriefed,
thanked and paid for their participation.
Results and Discussion
Manipulation Check
A 2 (uncertainty salience) 2 (morality) analysis of variance
(ANOVA) on the manipulation check of morality only yielded
asignicant main effect of morality, F(1, 69) = 5.07, p<.03
and o
2
= 0.05. Participants in the moral condition perceived
oil companies as more moral (M=3.34, SD = 0.75), than partici-
pants in the immoral condition (M= 2.86, SD = 0.95). It must be
noted that perceptions of morality were somewhat low even
in the moral condition, which in all likelihood is caused by
pre-existing opinions about the perceived immorality of oil
companies; we address this issue in Study 2. Nonetheless, the
signicant main effect indicates that the manipulation was
successful in varying relative differences in perceived morality.
Affect Thermometer
A 2 (uncertainty salience) 2 (morality) ANOVA on the affect
thermometer revealed no signicant main or interaction effects,
Fs<1(overallM=60.25, SD = 23.06). These results indicate
that the effects of the uncertainty salience manipulation cannot
be attributed to changes in participantsmood, which is consis-
tent with previous research (Van den Bos, 2001).
Belief in Conspiracy Theories
The means and standard deviations are displayed in Table 1. A
2 (uncertainty salience) 2 (morality) ANOVA on belief in
Table 1. Means and standard deviations of belief in conspiracy
theories as a function of uncertainty salience and moralityStudy 1
Morality
Uncertainty salience
Uncertainty TV
MSDMSD
Moral 3.80 1.10 4.49 0.98
Immoral 4.68 1.29 4.11 1.25
Means are on 7-point scales, with higher values indicating more belief in
conspiracy theories.
Belief in conspiracy theories 111
Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 43, 109115 (2013)
conspiracy theories only revealed a signicant interaction,
F(1, 69) = 5.33, p<.03 and o
2
= .06. As predicted, simple
main effect analyses indicated that the morality manipulation
exerted a signicant inuence on belief in conspiracy theories
in the uncertainty salient condition, F(1, 69) = 4.94, p<.04
and o
2
= 0.05. In the TV condition, however, the impact of
the morality manipulation on belief in conspiracy theories
was not signicant, F(1, 69) = 1.02, p= .31 and o
2
= 0.00.
Consistent with the hypothesis, these results reveal that
morality information only inuenced conspiracy beliefs among
participants who experienced salience of uncertainty.
In sum, the results of Study 1 reveal that information about
the morality of oil companies inuenced conspiracy beliefs
only among participants in the uncertainty salient condition.
When uncertainty was not salient, there was no effect of
morality information on conspiracy beliefs, which is consistent
with our assumption in the introduction that people frequently
are reluctant to make direct inferences about conspiracy theo-
ries based on morality information. In Study 2, we sought to
replicate and extend these ndings.
STUDY 2
Study 1 focused on an existing conspiracy theory pertaining to
oil companiesinvolvement in the war in Iraq. Although this
is a setting with high mundane realism, a drawback is that par-
ticipants in all likelihood had pre-existing opinions about this
conspiracy theory: Most people have opinions about the moral-
ity of oil companies that may be relatively hard to manipulate,
as well as about the likelihood that oil companies were part of
the political decision-making process to start the war in Iraq.
Indeed, these pre-existing opinions may explain why the effect
size of the crucial morality simple main effect in the uncertainty
salient condition was somewhat low in Study 1. As such, it is
important to nd out whether the effects described here mate-
rialize in a setting where participants have no pre-existing
opinions and have not been inuenced by others.
In Study 2, we therefore investigated our hypothesis in the
context of a threat to the social order that participants were con-
fronted with for the rst time (cf. McCauley & Jacques, 1979;
Swami et al., 2011). In particular, participants read a bogus news-
paper article about a powerful African opposition leader who
died in a car crash, and we tested whether manipulations of
uncertainty salience and morality predicted participantsbeliefs
that the accident was in fact an organized political assassination.
Method
Participants and Design
The hypothesis was again tested in a 2 (uncertainty salience:
uncertain vs TV) 2 (morality: moral vs immoral) factorial
design. We recruited 91 participants (29 men, 62 women;
M
age
= 20.66, SD = 2.91; age ranging from 17 to 35 years) in
VU universitys student cafeterias. The study was followed
by two unrelated studies.Together, the studies lasted 15 minutes,
and participants received either course credit or 2.50 for
participation.
Procedure
The study was again presented as two separate experiments.
The rst experiment, which contained the manipulation of
uncertainty salience and the measurement of participants
mood, was identical to the alleged rst experiment of Study 1.
After this, participants started with Experiment 2,in which
they were informed that they would read a newspaper article
about the elections that were held 2 years ago in the African
country of Benin (although Benin is an existing country, the
newspaper article only contained bogus information). The
newspaper article described that, according to a press agency
from Benin, a powerful opposition leader (who was expected
to win the upcoming elections) died as a consequence of a car
crash. In the article, we also manipulated morality. In the
immoral condition, the government of Benin was described as
corrupt, and it was said that the government frequently received
accusations of tax money ending up in ofcialsown private
funds. In the moral condition, the government of Benin was
described as not corrupt, and it was said that the government
frequently received praise for the responsible way in which they
used tax money to increase the well-being of citizens.
After reading the article, we measured participantsconspir-
acy beliefs by averaging responses to the following four items
(1 = strongly disagree,7=strongly agree): The press agency
withholds information,”“This was in fact an assault,”“A
conspiracy is responsible for this accident,and Iaminclined
to believe that the car has been sabotaged(a= .80). To verify
the assumption that participants would not be familiar with the
actual political situation in Benin, we asked dichotomously
whether or not participants felt knowledgeable about the politi-
cal situation in Benin. Finally, we checked the morality manip-
ulation by averaging responses to the following two questions
(1 = strongly disagree,7=strongly agree): The current govern-
ment of Benin is corrupt(recoded) and The current govern-
ment of Benin respects human rights(a= .87). After this,
participants were thoroughly debriefed, thanked and given their
credits or payment.
Results and Discussion
Manipulation Check
We analyzed the manipulation check of the morality manipula-
tion by means of a 2 (uncertainty salience) 2 (morality)
ANOVA. This analysis yielded only a main effect of the morality
manipulation, F(1, 87) = 69.89, p<.001 and o
2
= 0.43. Partici-
pants in the moral condition perceived the government of Benin
as more moral (M= 4.47, SD = 1.20) than participants in the
immoral condition (M= 2.52, SD = 0.98). It can be concluded
that participants perceived the morality manipulation as intended.
Knowledge about Benin
A total of 87 participants (95.6%) indicated that they did not feel
knowledgeable about the political situation in Benin (exclusion
of the four participants who answered afrmative to this question
did not change the results in the succeeding text). It can be con-
cluded that participants were not familiar with the actual political
situation in Benin, as we intended with our stimulus materials.
112 Jan-Willem van Prooijen and Nils B. Jostmann
Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 43, 109115 (2013)
Affect Thermometer
A 2 (uncertainty salience) 2 (morality) ANOVA on the
affect thermometer revealed no signicant main or interaction
effects, Fs<1 (overall M= 62.73, SD = 25.77). Again, these
results suggest that the effects of the uncertainty salience
manipulation cannot be attributed to changes in participants
mood (cf. Van den Bos, 2001).
Belief in Conspiracy Theories
The means and standard deviations are displayed in Table 2.
A 2 (uncertainty salience) 2 (morality) ANOVA on the
conspiracy belief scale indicated a signicant main effect of
morality, F(1, 87) = 11.96, p<.01 and o
2
= 0.11. Participants
in the immoral condition were more strongly inclined to
believe in conspiracy theories (M= 4.61, SD = 0.91) than parti-
cipants in the moral condition (M= 3.84, SD = 1.29). More
important was that the predicted interaction was signicant,
F(1, 87) = 4.11, p<.05 and o
2
= .03. In line with the hypoth-
esis, simple main effect analyses indicated that the effect of
morality was signicant in the uncertainty salient condition,
F(1, 87) = 14.03, p<.001 and o
2
= 0.13, but not in the TV
salient condition, F(1, 87) = 1.35, p= .25 and o
2
= 0.00. These
ndings further support the prediction that uncertainty salience
shapes the effect of the perceived morality of institutions on
belief in conspiracy theories.
GENERAL DISCUSSION
The results obtained in two studies revealed evidence for the
hypothesis that the perceived morality of authorities inuences
conspiracy beliefs particularly when people experience uncer-
tainty. We found evidence for this hypothesis in the context of
both an existing conspiracy theory (Study 1) as well as in the
context of peoples ad hoc conspiracy belief formation follow-
ing a ctitious newspaper article (Study 2). As such, the
ndings obtained in the present studies represent a robust
phenomenon that generalizes across different conspiracy theo-
ries. It can be concluded that subjective uncertainty and the
perceived morality of authorities jointly inuence peoples
tendency to believe or disbelieve in conspiracy theories.
The more specic contribution that is offered here is that
the current studies help to illuminate some of the underlying
mental processes that are at work when people determine the
plausibility of conspiracy beliefs. These processes may be
informative about closely related theoretical questions sur-
rounding paranoid social cognition (Kramer, 1998), such as
how trust and distrust towards political or corporate leaders
originates, and when negative sentiments can be expected to
escalate into, for instance, blaming, scapegoating or demoniz-
ing of these leaders (see also Rothschild et al., 2012). Further-
more, the present ndings were predicted based on broader
theoretical frameworks such as the uncertainty management
model (Van den Bos & Lind, 2002) and compensatory convic-
tion (McGregor & Marigold, 2003). Hence, it is likely that
these theoretical frameworks can be expanded to incorporate
conspiracy beliefs, which may be a step towards developing
a coherent theoretical model explaining under what conditions
people are likely to believe inor questionconspiracy
theories, as well as what the psychological underpinnings
are of the monological belief system underlying conspiracist
ideation (Goertzel, 1994; Lewandowski et al., in press;
Swami et al., 2011; Wood et al., 2012).
When interpreting the current ndings, it is important to
take note of two considerations. First, in our studies, we did
not nd a consistent main effect of morality (this main effect
was nonsignicant in Study 1 and signicant in Study 2).
One likely explanation for this is that our operationalization
of morality was conceptually more distant from conspiracy
beliefs in Study 1 as opposed to Study 2. But an additional
possibility is that a certain level of uncertainty may be a nec-
essary precondition before people start making inferences
about conspiracy theories based on morality information, a
proposition that can be inferred from previous theorizing
(McGregor, 2006; Van den Bos & Lind, 2002). Indeed, a
closer inspection of the data of Study 2 reveals that the signif-
icant morality main effect in that study was qualied entirely
by the strong simple main effect in the uncertain condition,
and the morality simple main effect was nonsignicant in
the control condition. These ndings underscore that people
conceptually differentiate between morality information and
conspiracy beliefs and are unlikely to derive assumptions of
conspiracy formation from the morality of authoritiesactions
unless they experience uncertainty.
Second, our line of reasoning was largely inspired by the
process of compensatory conviction, which is a framework
that has broader relevance for peoples fundamental desire
for consistency and clarity in the face of uncertainty (McGregor
& Marigold, 2003). However, whether in the context of conspir-
acy theories such consistency and clarity is found in the form of
increased conspiracy beliefs (Whitson & Galinsky, 2008), or
rather, increased disbelief in conspiracies (Kay et al., 2008)
may depend on yet unidentied factors or specic contingencies
of the conspiracy theory in question. Indeed, our studies
revealed no consistent pattern whether it is particularly morality
that promotes disbelief in conspiracies, or immorality that pro-
motes belief in conspiracies, under conditions of uncertainty.
1
Future research may examine these more complex dynamics
Table 2. Means and standard deviations of belief in conspiracy
theories as a function of uncertainty salience and moralityStudy 2
Morality
Uncertainty salience
Uncertainty TV
MSDMSD
Moral 3.42 1.13 4.24 1.33
Immoral 4.67 0.74 4.56 1.03
Means are on 7-point scales, with higher values indicating more belief in
conspiracy theories.
1
More specically, in Study 1, the uncertainty simple main effects were non-
signicant in both the moral condition, F(1, 69) = 2.35, p= .13 and o
2
= .02,
and the immoral condition, F(1, 69) = 2.81, p= .10 and o
2
= 0.02. In Study
2, the uncertainty simple main effect was signicant only in the moral condi-
tion, F(1, 87) = 5.92, p<.02 and o
2
= 0.05, and not in the immoral condition
F<1.
Belief in conspiracy theories 113
Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 43, 109115 (2013)
regarding uncertainty and morality in more detail. Of importance,
these considerations do not compromise the main conclusion of
the present contribution, which is that the inuence of perceived
morality on conspiracy beliefs is particularly pronounced when
people experience uncertainty, a conclusion that was supported
by both studies presented here.
Our manipulation of morality was specically focused on
the powerful agents that were involved in the conspiracy
theory. An interesting question for further study is whether
the present ndings generalize to broader conceptualizations
of morality, such as when the broader category of politicians
or corporate leaders is described as generally moral or
immoral. It stands to reason that such a category-based manip-
ulation of morality may lead to similar effects. It has been
noted that there is a strong social, or group-based, dimension
to conspiracy beliefs as these beliefs typically involve an out-
group (e.g., the political or corporate elite) that is perceived to
be harming ones ingroup (e.g., Crocker et al., 1999; Kramer
& Messick, 1998). Hence, information about the morality of
the broader outgroup is likely considered informative about
the specic agents that are involved in a conspiracy theory.
Moreover, one might speculate that the effects of uncertainty
only materialize when people experience strong emotional ties
to their ingroup, as this motivates people to make sense of
potential threats to their ingroup. These are empirical ques-
tions that await further testing.
The social dimension of conspiracy beliefs is reected in
peoples feelings of suspiciousness in the context of social
issues that a wide collective of citizens are concerned about
(i.e., the war in Iraq; democracy in Africa). Nevertheless, para-
noid social cognition can take on forms that are much more
directly self-relevant without necessarily turning pathological
(e.g., beliefs that people are talking about someone behind
the persons back; see also Darwin et al., 2011; Kramer,
1998; Fenigstein & Vanable, 1992), and a relevant question
is whether or not the present ndings generalize to these more
self-relevant forms of paranoia. Although this is an empirical
question that is impossible to answer based on the present
data, we speculate that uncertainty will have a similar, but
potentially even stronger effect on these more self-relevant
forms of paranoia. After all, if people for instance are paranoid
about the possibility that other people are conspiring against
them, there are more anticipated costs involved for the target
individuals (e.g., possibilities for exclusion or exploitation),
rendering it more important to instigate sense-making pro-
cesses. Indeed, related research suggests that various forms
of self-focus increase the extent to which peoples fairness-
based judgments are inuenced by the morality of the way
they are treated by others (Van Prooijen et al., 2008; Van
Prooijen & Zwenk, 2009; see also De Cremer & Sedikides,
2005). These arguments suggest that examining the implica-
tions of the current ndings for more self-relevant forms of
paranoia provide fruitful avenues for further study.
In conclusion, in the present studies, we aimed to resolve
the paradox that although uncertainty sometimes has the
potential to increase conspiracy beliefs (Sullivan et al., 2010;
Whitson & Galinsky, 2008), at other times it increases support
for the same actors that are subject to accusation in conspiracy
theories (Kay et al., 2008, 2009). Our ndings reveal that this
paradox can be resolved by appreciating the moderating role
of morality: Uncertainty leads people to be more attentive to
the morality of authoritiesactions, which subsequently inu-
ences belief or disbelief in conspiracies. As such, the studies
presented here may not only provide insights into various
ways in which people make sense of threatening societal
events but also have implications for related issues, such as
distrust and attitude polarization in the political debate. Taken
together, it can be concluded that the morality of authorities
actions shapes reasoning about conspiracy theories particu-
larly when people experience uncertainty.
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Belief in conspiracy theories 115
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... In general, conspiracy theories try to explain particular events or situations by interpreting them as the result of the action of "strong powers" (i.e., conspirators; Jolley and Douglas, 2014) that are able to influence individual and collective decisions, coordinating with each other and acting in secret agreement (Mancosu et al., 2017). These theories cover a wide range of phenomena, including climate change, genetically modified organisms, terrorist attacks and wars, and include the alleged origins of the COVID-19 pandemic (van Prooijen and Jostmann, 2013;Pummerer et al., 2022). Although not based on concrete evidence and being consistently rejected by the scientific community, conspiracy theories continue to be widespread, mainly due to the uncontrollable proliferation of fake news on nonscientific websites and social networking sites (Allington et al., 2021). ...
... Popular conspiracy theories about COVID-19 vaccines propose, for example, that such vaccines contain microchips which would be used to obtain people's biometric data and control humanity, are used to modify humans genetically, or could cause infertility (Islam et al., 2021;Sallam et al., 2021). In spite of the many studies devoted to the identification of psychological factors able to explain the tendency to conspiracy mentality (van Prooijen and Jostmann, 2013;van Prooijen, 2017;Furnham and Grover, 2021), not enough attention has been paid to the outcomes of vaccination conspiracy theories and, specifically, to the deepening of the processes by which they can affect the attitude toward vaccinating against COVID-19 and the consequent intention or, in other words, to the psychological variables that can mediate this relationship. ...
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