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Abstract

What psychological factors drive the popularity of conspiracy theories that explain important events as secret plots by powerful and malevolent groups? What are the psychological consequences of adopting these theories? We review the current research, and find that it answers the first of these questions more thoroughly than the second. Belief in conspiracy theories appears to be driven by motives that can be characterized as epistemic (understanding one’s environment), existential (being safe and in control of one’s environment) and social (maintaining a positive image of the self and the social group). However, little research has investigated the consequences of conspiracy belief, and to date, this research does not indicate that conspiracy belief fulfills people’s motivations. Instead, for many people conspiracy belief may be more appealing than satisfying. Further research is needed to determine for whom, and under what conditions, conspiracy theories may satisfy key psychological motives.
https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721417718261
Current Directions in Psychological
Science
2017, Vol. 26(6) 538 –542
© The Author(s) 2017
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DOI: 10.1177/0963721417718261
www.psychologicalscience.org/CDPS
Over a third of Americans believe that global warming is
a hoax (Swift, 2013), and over half believe that Lee Har-
vey Oswald did not act alone in the assassination of John
F. Kennedy (Jensen, 2013). These are examples of con-
spiracy theories—explanations for important events that
involve secret plots by powerful and malevolent groups
(e.g., Goertzel, 1994). In recent years, there has been
growing interest in the psychological factors that drive
the popularity of conspiracy theories, and in this article,
we draw together and organize findings from this bur-
geoning research. This research suggests that people may
be drawn to conspiracy theories when—compared with
nonconspiracy explanations—they promise to satisfy
important social psychological motives that can be char-
acterized as epistemic (e.g., the desire for understanding,
accuracy, and subjective certainty), existential (e.g., the
desire for control and security), and social (e.g., the
desire to maintain a positive image of the self or group).
This taxonomy, derived from system-justification theory
(Jost, Ledgerwood, & Hardin, 2008), serves as a useful
heuristic to classify the motives associated with conspir-
acy belief. However, the comparatively scarce research
examining the consequences of conspiracy theories does
not indicate that they ultimately help people fulfill these
motives.
Epistemic Motives
Finding causal explanations for events is a core part of
building up a stable, accurate, and internally consistent
understanding of the world (Heider, 1958). Specific epis-
temic motives that causal explanations may serve include
slaking curiosity when information is unavailable, reduc-
ing uncertainty and bewilderment when available infor-
mation is conflicting, finding meaning when events seem
random, and defending beliefs from disconfirmation.
Relevant to these motives, conspiracy theories have attri-
butes that set them apart from other types of causal
explanation. Albeit to varying degrees, they are specula-
tive in that they posit actions that are hidden from public
scrutiny, complex in that they postulate the coordination
of multiple actors, and resistant to falsification in that
they postulate that conspirators use stealth and disinfor-
mation to cover up their actions—implying that people
who try to debunk conspiracy theories may, themselves,
be part of the conspiracy (Lewandowsky etal., 2015).
718261CDPXXX10.1177/0963721417718261Douglas et al.The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories
research-article2017
Corresponding Author:
Karen M. Douglas, School of Psychology, University of Kent,
Canterbury, CT2 7NP, United Kingdom
E-mail: k.douglas@kent.ac.uk
The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories
Karen M. Douglas, Robbie M. Sutton, and
Aleksandra Cichocka
School of Psychology, University of Kent
Abstract
What psychological factors drive the popularity of conspiracy theories, which explain important events as secret plots
by powerful and malevolent groups? What are the psychological consequences of adopting these theories? We review
the current research and find that it answers the first of these questions more thoroughly than the second. Belief in
conspiracy theories appears to be driven by motives that can be characterized as epistemic (understanding one’s
environment), existential (being safe and in control of one’s environment), and social (maintaining a positive image
of the self and the social group). However, little research has investigated the consequences of conspiracy belief, and
to date, this research does not indicate that conspiracy belief fulfills people’s motivations. Instead, for many people,
conspiracy belief may be more appealing than satisfying. Further research is needed to determine for whom, and
under what conditions, conspiracy theories may satisfy key psychological motives.
Keywords
conspiracy theories, conspiracy belief, motives, needs
The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories 539
A related property of conspiracy theories is that they can
protect cherished beliefs (e.g., vaccination is harmful;
climate change is not a serious concern) by casting over-
whelmingly disconfirmatory evidence (e.g., scientific
findings) as the product of a conspiracy (Lewandowsky,
Oberauer, & Gignac, 2013).
In general, empirically warranted (vs. speculative),
parsimonious (vs. complex), and falsifiable explanations
are stronger according to normative standards of causal
explanation (e.g., in science; see Grimes, 2016). However,
conspiracy theories appear to provide broad, internally
consistent explanations that allow people to preserve
beliefs in the face of uncertainty and contradiction. In
keeping with this analysis, research suggests that belief
in conspiracy theories is stronger when the motivation
to find patterns in the environment is experimentally
heightened (Whitson & Galinsky, 2008). It is also stronger
among people who habitually seek meaning and patterns
in the environment, including believers in paranormal
phenomena (e.g., Bruder, Haffke, Neave, Nouripanah, &
Imhoff, 2013; but see Dieguez, Wagner-Egger, & Gauvrit,
2015). It also appears to be stronger when events are
especially large in scale or significant and leave people
dissatisfied with mundane, small-scale explanations
(Leman & Cinnirella, 2013). Furthermore, the need for
cognitive closure is associated with beliefs in salient con-
spiracy theories for events that lack clear official explana-
tions (Marchlewska, Cichocka, & Kossowska, 2017). Also,
research suggests that conspiracy belief is stronger when
people experience distress as a result of feeling uncertain
(van Prooijen & Jostmann, 2013).
Our analysis suggests that conspiracy theories may
satisfy some epistemic motives at the expense of oth-
ers—for example, by shielding beliefs from uncertainty
while being less likely to be accurate. The epistemic
drawbacks of conspiracy theories do not seem to be
readily apparent to people who lack the ability or moti-
vation to think critically and rationally. Conspiracy
belief is correlated with lower levels of analytic thinking
(Swami, Voracek, Stieger, Tran, & Furnham, 2014) and
lower levels of education (Douglas, Sutton, Callan,
Dawtry, & Harvey, 2016). It is also associated with the
tendency to overestimate the likelihood of co-occurring
events (Brotherton & French, 2014) and the tendency
to perceive agency and intentionality where it does not
exist (Douglas etal., 2016).
In light of their objective or normative limitations,
how well do conspiracy theories satisfy the epistemic
motives that draw people to them? Relatively little
research has addressed this question, and it suggests that
they may be more appealing than satisfying. On one
hand, extreme and entrenched attitude positions are
associated with conspiracy beliefs, suggesting that they
may help people defend beliefs from disconfirmation
(Uscinski, Klofstad, & Atkinson, 2016). In contrast, recent
experiments indicate that presenting people with per-
suasive cases for conspiracy theories about vaccination
(Jolley & Douglas, 2014a) and climate change (Jolley &
Douglas, 2014b) increases their levels of uncertainty.
Existential Motives
As well as their purely epistemic purposes, causal
explanations serve the need for people to feel safe and
secure in their environment and to exert control over
the environment as autonomous individuals and as
members of collectives (Tetlock, 2002). Several early
theories of conspiracy belief suggested that people turn
to conspiracy theories for compensatory satisfaction
when these needs are threatened. For example, people
who lack instrumental control may be afforded some
compensatory sense of control by conspiracy theories,
because they offer them the opportunity to reject offi-
cial narratives and feel that they possess an alternative
account (Goertzel, 1994). Conspiracy theories may
promise to make people feel safer as a form of cheater
detection, in which dangerous and untrustworthy indi-
viduals are recognized and the threat they posed is
reduced or neutralized (Bost & Prunier, 2013).
Research supports this account of the motivation
behind conspiracy belief. Studies have shown that peo-
ple are likely to turn to conspiracy theories when they
are anxious (Grzesiak-Feldman, 2013) and feel power-
less (Abalakina-Paap, Stephan, Craig, & Gregory, 1999).
Other research indicates that conspiracy belief is strongly
related to lack of sociopolitical control or lack of psy-
chological empowerment (Bruder etal., 2013). Experi-
ments have shown that compared with baseline conditions,
conspiracy belief is heightened when people feel unable
to control outcomes and is reduced when their sense of
control is affirmed (van Prooijen & Acker, 2015).
Unfortunately, research conducted thus far does not
indicate that conspiracy belief effectively satisfies this
motivation. On the contrary, experimental exposure to
conspiracy theories appears to immediately suppress
people’s sense of autonomy and control (Douglas &
Leite, 2017; Jolley & Douglas, 2014a, 2014b). These
same studies have also shown that it makes people less
inclined to take actions that, in the long run, might
boost their autonomy and control. Specifically, they are
less inclined to commit to their organizations and to
engage in mainstream political processes such as voting
and party politics. Furthermore, exposure to conspiracy
theories may subtly undermine people’s autonomy in
another way. Douglas and Sutton (2008) showed that
people were effectively persuaded by proconspiracy
material but were not aware that they had been per-
suaded and falsely recalled that their preexposure
beliefs were identical to their new beliefs. Since con-
spiracy theories suggest that important outcomes are
540 Douglas et al.
in the hands of malevolent forces who possess and
exercise powers beyond legitimate limits, it would not
be surprising if further research suggests that their
effect is often disempowering.
Social Motives
Causal explanations, conspiracy explanations included,
are also informed by various social motivations, includ-
ing the desire to belong and to maintain a positive
image of the self and the in-group. Scholars have sug-
gested that conspiracy theories valorize the self and the
in-group by allowing blame for negative outcomes to be
attributed to others. Thus, they may help to uphold the
image of the self and the in-group as competent and
moral but as sabotaged by powerful and unscrupulous
others. If this is the case, we can expect conspiracy theo-
ries to be particularly appealing to people who find the
positive image of their self or in-group to be threatened
(Cichocka, Marchlewska, & Golec de Zavala, 2016).
Research generally supports this expectation. Experi-
mental results suggest that experiences of ostracism
cause people to believe in superstitions and conspiracy
theories, apparently as part of an effort to make sense
of their experience (Graeupner & Coman, 2017). Mem-
bers of groups who have objectively low (vs. high)
status because of their ethnicity (Crocker, Luhtanen,
Broadnax, & Blaine, 1999) or income (Uscinski & Parent,
2014) are more likely to endorse conspiracy theories.
People on the losing (vs. winning) side of political pro-
cesses also appear more likely to believe conspiracy
theories (Uscinski & Parent, 2014). Conspiracy belief has
also been linked to prejudice against powerful groups
(Imhoff & Bruder, 2014) and those perceived as enemies
(Kofta & Sedek, 2005).
These findings suggest that conspiracy theories may
be recruited defensively, to relieve the self or in-group
from a sense of culpability for their disadvantaged posi-
tion. In keeping with this defensive motivation, con-
spiracy belief is associated with narcissism—an inflated
view of oneself that requires external validation and is
linked to paranoid ideation (Cichocka, Marchlewska, &
Golec de Zavala, 2016). Conspiracy belief is also pre-
dicted by collective narcissism—a belief in the in-group’s
greatness paired with a belief that other people do not
appreciate it enough (Cichocka, Marchlewska, Golec de
Zavala, & Olechowski, 2016). Groups who feel that they
have been victimized are more likely to endorse con-
spiracy theories about powerful out-groups (Bilewicz,
Winiewski, Kofta, & Wójcik, 2013).
Although people are clearly attracted to conspiracy
theories when their social motivations are frustrated, it
is not at all clear that adopting these theories is a fruitful
way to fulfill these motivations. A feature of conspiracy
theories is their negative, distrustful representation of
other people and groups. Thus, it is plausible that they
are not only a symptom but also a cause of the feelings
of alienation and anomie—a feeling of personal unrest
and lack of understanding of the social world—with
which they are correlated (e.g., Abalakina-Paap etal.,
1999). Experiments show that exposure to conspiracy
theories decreases trust in governmental institutions,
even if the conspiracy theories are unrelated to those
institutions (Einstein & Glick, 2015). It also causes dis-
enchantment with politicians and scientists (Jolley &
Douglas, 2014a). So far, therefore, empirical research
suggests that conspiracy theories serve to erode social
capital and may, if anything, frustrate people’s need to
see themselves as valuable members of morally decent
collectives.
Summary, Caveats, and Future
Research
Research thus far has successfully articulated some of
the motivations that, together with deficiencies in avail-
able information, cognitive ability, and motivation to
think critically, may contribute to conspiracy belief.
Although scholars have theorized about the conse-
quences of conspiracy beliefs for their adherents and the
community, relatively little empirical research has been
done to explore them. Nevertheless, preliminary work
suggests that despite the allure of conspiracy beliefs for
people who have heightened epistemic, existential, and
social motives, they may ultimately thwart those motives
further. In this sense, conspiracy theories might be seen
as an ironic or self-defeating manifestation of motivated
social cognition. There are grounds to expect further
research to corroborate this preliminary picture since, as
we have seen, conspiracy theories have some attributes
that do not lend themselves to the fulfillment of these
motives—for example, they are generally speculative and
contrarian, represent the public as ignorant and at the
mercy of unaccountable powers, and impute highly anti-
social and cynical motives to other individuals.
Nonetheless, there are also grounds to expect future
research to show that conspiracy theories fulfill the
needs of some people. The experimental research con-
ducted thus far has sampled from populations (under-
graduate students and survey panelists) that are not
particularly disadvantaged or threatened and that gen-
erally do not endorse conspiracy theories. For these
people, conspiracy theories are likely to be experienced
as unsettling, destabilizing, and potentially alienating.
However, these people are not whom scholars have
had in mind when they have argued that conspiracy
theories may sometimes be adaptive. They include
groups and individuals who are already alienated from
society and for whom conspiracy theories may offer
some compensation. These include disempowered
The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories 541
groups who may use conspiracy theories to subvert
dominance hierarchies by formulating their own under-
standing of realities (Sapountzis & Condor, 2013) and
by fostering solidarity and collective action (Adams,
O’Brien, & Nelson, 2006). In these communities, and
indeed in online communities in which conspiracy
theories represent normative or even official positions
(e.g., the 9/11 Truth movement), conspiracy belief may
offer an important source of belonging and shared real-
ity. Furthermore, history has repeatedly shown that
corporate and political elites do conspire against public
interests. Conspiracy theories play an important role in
bringing their misdeeds into the light.
To conduct fair tests of the utility of conspiracy belief,
controlled longitudinal and experimental investigations
of disadvantaged and threatened populations are
needed. In particular, future research needs to examine
individuals whose psychological needs are chronically
or experimentally threatened and determine whether
conspiracy belief moves them closer to or further away
from the fulfillment of these needs. In one such design,
Jolley, Douglas, and Sutton (2017) exposed people to
threats to the legitimacy of their social system. They
found that the deleterious effects of these threats on
satisfaction with the status quo were eliminated when
participants were also exposed to conspiracy theories.
Conspiracy theories therefore appeared to buffer people
from the effects of threats to the status quo.
Conclusion
We have reviewed the current literature on the psycho-
logical factors that appear to drive conspiracy belief.
We conclude that conspiracy belief appears to stem to
a large extent from epistemic, existential, and social
motives. Research has yet to demonstrate that it effec-
tively serves those motivations, and early indications
are that it may often thwart them. It is possible, there-
fore, that conspiracy belief is a self-defeating form of
motivated social cognition. However, important ques-
tions remain open, and more controlled research on
the consequences of conspiracy beliefs is needed, par-
ticularly on the vulnerable and disadvantaged popula-
tions that have been identified as most likely to benefit
from them. We hope that this review will serve as an
organizing schema for future research on the psychol-
ogy of conspiracy belief.
Recommended Reading
Bilewicz, M., Cichocka, A., & Soral, W. (Eds.). (2015). The
psychology of conspiracy. New York, NY: Routledge. A
comprehensive collection of empirical and review chap-
ters by leading researchers on the psychology of con-
spiracy theories.
Brotherton, R. (2015). Suspicious minds: Why we believe con-
spiracy theories. London, England: Bloomsbury. A book on
the psychology of conspiracy theories that was written by
an academic psychologist for a general audience.
Goertzel, T. (1994). (See References). A classic in the con-
spiracy-theory literature.
Sapountzis, A., & Condor, S. (2013). (See References). A
sympathetic perspective on conspiracy theories and their
value in constructing alternative accounts of reality.
Uscinski, J. E., & Parent, J. M. (2014). (See References). A
sustained and empirically informed analysis of conspiracy
theories and politics.
Wood, M., Douglas, K. M., & Sutton, R. M. (2012). Dead and
alive: Beliefs in contradictory conspiracy theories. Social
Psychological & Personality Science, 3, 767–773. A highly
cited recent article that has been influential in under-
standing the cognitive underpinnings of conspiracy belief.
Acknowledgments
We thank the editor and four reviewers for their helpful
comments on this article.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared that there were no conflicts of interest
with respect to the authorship or the publication of this
article.
Funding
This work was funded by the Centre for Research and Evi-
dence on Security Threats (Economic and Social Research
Council Award ES/N009614/1).
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Recent research has showed that people with right-wing political orientations and political extremists are more likely to harbor conspiracy beliefs. Utilizing a multisite data set (23 countries, N > 20,000), we show that corruption moderates how political orientation predicts conspiracy beliefs. We found that (1) the difference between left- and right-wingers in terms of adopting a conspiracy mind-set is attenuated in countries with high corruption; and (2) left-wingers are more likely to believe left-wing conspiracy theories, and right-wingers are more likely to believe right-wing conspiracy theories in high corruption countries. Including quadratic effects of political orientation yielded the same results. We argue that this is because corruption increases perceived plausibility of conspiracies, and everyone across the political spectrum becomes similarly likely to adopt a conspiracy mentality. This heightened suspicion, however, is reflected on partisan conspiracy theories differently for left- and right-wingers, depending on their different understandings of outgroup.
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Since March 2020, when the World Health Organization declared the spread of COVID-19 a global pandemic, conspiracy theories have continued to rise. This research examines the role of different forms of in-group identity in predicting conspiracy thinking in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. We hypothesized that conspiracy thinking would be predicted positively by national narcissism (i.e., a belief in in-group’s greatness which is contingent on its external validation and makes in-group members sensitive to psychological threats) but negatively by secure national identification (i.e., a confidently held ingroup evaluation, which serves as a buffer against psychological threats). In a three-wave longitudinal study conducted on a representative sample of adult Poles (N = 650), conspiracy thinking was positively predicted by national narcissism, but negatively by national identification. Further, we found evidence that conspiracy thinking strengthened national narcissism (but not national identification) over time. Implications for intra- and intergroup processes are discussed.
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Public health policy measures to contain the COVID-19 pandemic have been hindered worldwide by widespread adherence to conspiracy theories, which can be broadly defined along the lines of previous definitions (Goreis & Voracek, 2019; Swami et al., 2010) that say conspiracy theory is a belief that one or several plots by maleficent agents are behind salient and threatening socio-political or political developments. As shown by current research concerning holders of COVID-19 related CTBs, people who support such views are less likely to comply with public health regulations and more likely to protest against lockdown, mask-wearing, and quarantine (Allington & Dhavan, 2020; Bertin et al., 2020; Biddlestone, Cichocka, et al., 2020; Marinthe et al., 2020; Pennycook et al., 2020; Plohl & Musil, 2020; Ștefan et al., 2021; Swami & Barron, 2020) and, in this way, subverting the effectiveness of anti-COVID 19 policies. This motivated a surge of research into the correlates of support for CTBs, including the present article, which investigates the issue in the particular case of the Romanian adult population.
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The COVID-19 pandemic represents an event that unsettled the social and economic life of many people. When individuals are faced with shocking events, they may need to find plausible explanations for such events to restore control and make sense of reality. The adoption of conspiracy beliefs may represent a functional strategy for this purpose. The present study investigated whether the endorsement of conspiracy beliefs may be associated with the degree to which an upsetting event (i.e., the COVID-19 pandemic) is perceived as incoherent with individuals’ general set of expectations about the world functioning (i.e., the natural order of things). Analyzing data from a community sample of 565 Italian participants, a path analysis model highlighted a mediation pattern where the natural order of things was negatively related to the adoption of conspiracy beliefs and, thus, was indirectly and positively related to support for the norms aimed at containing the spread of COVID-19, feelings of guilt about neglecting such norms, and intentions to be compliant with COVID-19 vaccination. Moreover, the natural order of things was indirectly and negatively related to attitudes focused on economic issues rather than public health and to negative attitudes towards COVID-19 vaccines through reduced beliefs in conspiracies.
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I argue that that an influential strategy for understanding conspiracy theories stands in need of radical revision. According to this approach, called ‘generalism’, conspiracy theories are epistemically defective by their very nature. Generalists are typically opposed by particularists, who argue that conspiracy theories should be judged case-by-case, rather than definitionally indicted. Here I take a novel approach to criticizing generalism. I introduce a distinction between ‘Dominant Institution Conspiracy Theories and Theorists’ and ‘Non-Dominant Institution Conspiracy Theories and Theorists’. Generalists uncritically center the latter in their analysis, but I show why the former must be centered by generalists’ own lights: they are the clearest representatives of their views, and they are by far the most harmful. Once we make this change in paradigm cases, however, various typical generalist theses turn out to be false or in need of radical revision. Conspiracy theories are not primarily produced by extremist ideologies, as generalists typically claim, since mainstream, purportedly non-extremist political ideologies turn out to be just as, if not more responsible for such theories. Conspiracy theories are also, we find, not the province of amateurs: they are often created and pushed by individuals widely viewed as experts, who have the backing of our most prestigious intellectual institutions. While generalists may be able to take this novel distinction and shift in paradigm cases on board, this remains to be seen. Subsequent generalist accounts that do absorb this distinction and shift will look radically different from previous incarnations of the view.
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Due to rapid technological advances and the increasing diffusion of smart devices, public health applications (apps) have become an integral aspect of public health management. Yet, as governments introduce innovative public health apps (e.g., contact tracing apps, data donation apps, ehealth apps), they have to confront controversial debates that fuel conspiracy theories and face the fact that app adoption rates are often disappointing. This study explores how conspiracy theories affect the adoption of innovative public health apps as well as how policymakers can fight harmful conspiracy beliefs. Acknowledging the importance of word of mouth (WOM) in the context of conspiracy beliefs, the study focuses on the interplay between WOM and conspiracy beliefs and their effects on app adoption. Based on theories of social influence and conspiracy beliefs, substantiated by data derived from a multi-wave field study and confirmed by a controlled experiment, the results show that (1) changes in WOM concerning public health apps change conspiracy beliefs, (2) the effects of WOM on changes in conspiracy beliefs depend on both the sender (peer vs. expert) and the receiver's initial conspiracy beliefs, and (3) increases in conspiracy beliefs reduce public health app adoption and trigger more negative WOM regarding such apps. These results should inform health agencies about how to market innovative public health apps. For consumers with initially low levels of conspiracy beliefs, the distribution of expert WOM supporting the efficacy of public health apps effectively prevents the development of conspiracy beliefs and increases app adoption. However, expert WOM is ineffective in reducing conspiracy beliefs among firm conspiracy believers. These consumers should instead be targeted by campaigns distributing peer WOM that highlights an app's benefits and contradicts conspiracy theories.
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Polling data indicate that in the USA, Republicans, compared to Democrats, have been less inclined to take preventive measures against coronavirus. In three studies (Ns = 380, 430, and 393), we sought to find evidence for partisan motivations and to illuminate how they translate into attitudes, behavioral intentions and actual behaviors. Results revealed a consensus that the Democratic party wants people take coronavirus seriously. Thus, while Democrats thought it was aligned with their political interests, Republicans thought it was in their opponents’ interests. Further analyses suggest that perceived party interests mediated the effect of party allegiance on attitudes about the seriousness of coronavirus, and both attitudes and intentions to preventive behaviors (Studies 1 and 2) and specifically attitudes and intentions to wear masks (Study 3). This relationship also held for mask-wearing behavior. Results suggest that people’s responses to coronavirus may reflect a conformity to the perceived wishes and interests of their political party.
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This research demonstrates that conspiracy theories—often represented as subversive alternatives to establishment narratives—may bolster, rather than undermine, support for the social status quo when its legitimacy is under threat. A pilot study (N = 98) found a positive relationship between conspiracy belief and satisfaction with the status quo. In Study 1 (N = 120), threatening (vs. affirming) the status quo in British society caused participants to endorse conspiracy theories. In Study 2 (N = 159), exposure to conspiracy theories increased satisfaction with the British social system after this had been experimentally threatened. In Study 3 (N = 109), this effect was mediated by the tendency for participants exposed (vs. not exposed) to conspiracy theories to attribute societal problems relatively more strongly to small groups of people rather than systemic causes. By blaming tragedies, disasters, and social problems on the actions of a malign few, conspiracy theories can divert attention from the inherent limitations of social systems.
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Belief in conspiracy theories about societal events is widespread and has important consequences for political, health and environmental behaviour. Little is known, however, about how conspiracy theorising affects people’s everyday working lives. In the present research, we predicted that belief in conspiracy theories about the workplace would be associated with increased turnover intentions. We further hypothesised that belief in these organizational conspiracy theories would predict decreased organizational commitment, and job satisfaction. Finally, we hypothesised that these factors would mediate the relationship between organizational conspiracy theories and turnover intentions. In three studies (one correlational and two experiments, Ns = 209, 119, 202), we found support for these hypotheses. The current studies therefore demonstrate the potentially adverse consequences of conspiracy theorising for the workplace. We argue that managers and employees should be careful not to dismiss conspiracy theorising as harmless rumour or gossip.
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Conspiratorial ideation is the tendency of individuals to believe that events and power relations are secretly manipulated by certain clandestine groups and organisations. Many of these ostensibly explanatory conjectures are non-falsifiable, lacking in evidence or demonstrably false, yet public acceptance remains high. Efforts to convince the general public of the validity of medical and scientific findings can be hampered by such narratives, which can create the impression of doubt or disagreement in areas where the science is well established. Conversely, historical examples of exposed conspiracies do exist and it may be difficult for people to differentiate between reasonable and dubious assertions. In this work, we establish a simple mathematical model for conspiracies involving multiple actors with time, which yields failure probability for any given conspiracy. Parameters for the model are estimated from literature examples of known scandals, and the factors influencing conspiracy success and failure are explored. The model is also used to estimate the likelihood of claims from some commonly-held conspiratorial beliefs; these are namely that the moon-landings were faked, climate-change is a hoax, vaccination is dangerous and that a cure for cancer is being suppressed by vested interests. Simulations of these claims predict that intrinsic failure would be imminent even with the most generous estimates for the secret-keeping ability of active participants—the results of this model suggest that large conspiracies (≥1000 agents) quickly become untenable and prone to failure. The theory presented here might be useful in counteracting the potentially deleterious consequences of bogus and anti-science narratives, and examining the hypothetical conditions under which sustainable conspiracy might be possible.
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Why do people believe in conspiracy theories? This study breaks from much previous research and attempts to explain conspiratorial beliefs with traditional theories of opinion formation. Specifically, we focus on the reception of informational cues given a set of predispositions (political and conspiratorial). We begin with observational survey data to show that there exists a unique predisposition that drives individuals to one degree or another to believe in conspiracy theories. This predisposition appears orthogonal to partisanship and predicts political behaviors including voter participation. Then a national survey experiment is used to test the effect of an informational cue on belief in a conspiracy theory while accounting for both conspiratorial predispositions and partisanship. Our results provide an explanation for individual-level heterogeneity in the holding of conspiratorial beliefs and also indicate the conditions under which information can drive conspiratorial beliefs.
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Across three studies, we examined the role of self-evaluation in predicting conspiracy beliefs. Previous research linked the endorsement of conspiracy theories to low self-esteem. We propose that conspiracy theories should rather be appealing to individuals with exaggerated feelings of self-love, such as narcissists, due to their paranoid tendencies. In Study 1 general conspiracist beliefs were predicted by high individual narcissism but low self-esteem. Study 2 demonstrated that these effects were differentially mediated by paranoid thoughts, and independent of the effects of collective narcissism. Individual narcissism predicted generalized conspiracist beliefs, regardless of the conspiracy theories implicating in-group or out-group members, while collective narcissism predicted belief in out-group but not in-group conspiracies. Study 3 replicated the effects of individual narcissism and self-esteem on the endorsement of various specific conspiracy theories and demonstrated that the negative effect of self-esteem was largely accounted for by the general negativity towards humans associated with low self-esteem.
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This research examines the role of different forms of positive regard for the in-group in predicting beliefs in intergroup conspiracies. Collective narcissism reflects a belief in in-group greatness contingent on others’ recognition. We hypothesized that collective narcissism should be especially likely to foster out-group conspiracy beliefs. Positive yet non-narcissistic in-group positivity should predict a weaker tendency to believe in conspiracy theories. In Study 1 the endorsement of conspiratorial explanations of out-group actions was positively predicted by collective narcissism but negatively by non-narcissistic in-group positivity. Study 2 showed that the opposite effects of collective narcissism and non-narcissistic in-group positivity on conspiracy beliefs were mediated via differential perceptions of threat. Study 3 manipulated whether conspiracy theories implicated in-group or out-group members. Collective narcissism predicted belief in out-group conspiracies but not in-group conspiracies, while non-narcissistic in-group positivity predicted lower conspiracy beliefs, regardless of them being ascribed to the in-group or the out-group.
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Conspiracy theories offer simple answers to complex problems by providing explanations for uncertain situations. Thus, they should be attractive to individuals who are intolerant of uncertainty and seek cognitive closure. We hypothesized that need for cognitive closure (NFCC) should foster conspiracy beliefs about events that lack clear official explanations, especially when conspiracy theories are temporarily salient. In Experiment 1 NFCC positively predicted the endorsement of a conspiracy theory behind the refugee crisis, especially when conspiratorial explanations were made salient. Experiment 2 showed that when conspiratorial explanations were made salient, NFCC positively predicted beliefs in conspiracies behind a mysterious plane crash. However, the link between NFCC and beliefs in conspiratorial explanations was reversed in the case of a plane crash with an official, non-conspiratorial, explanation for the accident. In conclusion, people high (vs. low) in NFCC seize on conspiratorial explanations for uncertain events when such explanations are situationally accessible.
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This paper tests a meaning-making model of conspiratorial thinking by considering how one's search for meaning mediates between social exclusion and the endorsement of conspiratorial (Study 1) and superstitious (Study 2) beliefs. In Study 1, participants first wrote about a self-selected personal event that involved a social interaction, they then indicated how socially excluded they felt after the event, and, finally, they rated their endorsement of three well-known conspiracy theories. In Study 2, participants were randomly assigned to a Social Inclusion, a Social Exclusion, or a Control condition, after which they indicated the association between improbable events in three scenarios. In addition, both studiesmechanistically tested the relation between social exclusion and conspiratorial/superstitious thinking by measuring the participants' tendency to search for meaning. Both Study 1 (correlational) and Study 2 (experimental) offer support for the hypothesis that social exclusion is associated with superstitious/conspiratorial beliefs. One's search for meaning, correlational analyses revealed, mediated this relation.We discuss the implication of the findings for community-wide belief dynamics and we propose that social inclusion could be used to diminish the dissemination of superstitious beliefs and conspiracy theories.