Studies Identify Factors Predicting Belief in Conspiracies

A reflection of the sky appears in a pair of binoculars held by an unseen man.Conspiracy theories are more than just unusual beliefs. They can affect how people vote and may cause conflict in personal relationships. They can also contribute to depression and anxiety.

Two new studies aim to understand why some people endorse conspiracy theories. Both were published in the European Journal of Social Psychology.

The studies found people are more likely to believe conspiracy theories if:

  • They overestimate their understanding of political ideas.
  • They feel society’s fundamental values are at risk due to social change. (This belief is called system identity threat.)

Superficial Understanding May Be A Factor in Conspiracy Theories

The first study included 394 United States citizens. It took place immediately before and after the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The study’s goal was to assess the role of knowledge in conspiracy theories.

The study asked recruits to rate their understanding of several public policies. Next, it asked recruits to provide a detailed analysis of how the policies functioned. After providing an analysis, recruits rated their confidence in their political knowledge a second time. Researchers also asked participants their views on several conspiracy theories, including election-specific conspiracies.

Some people remained confident in their views following the detailed explanation. They were more likely to believe conspiracies. They were also more likely to lack accurate knowledge of the policies in question.

Many recruits rated their confidence lower after trying to make a detailed analysis. The activity may have made them realize the limits of their own knowledge. They were less likely than their still-confident peers to believe in conspiracy theories. The study authors say helping people understand the limits of their knowledge can inspire people to become more informed. More accurate data can help people separate false conspiracies from fact-based beliefs.

People who supported the losing candidate were also more likely to support conspiracy theories. This trend suggests political anxiety may have a role in conspiracy endorsement.

Value and Identity Threat Linked to Conspiracy Theories

A second study strengthens the link between system identity threat and belief in conspiracy theories. Researchers worked with two different groups, producing a total sample size of 3,572 people.

Researchers presented participants with statements indicating they felt their values were threatened. They asked participants to rate their agreement with these sentiments. Statements included sentences such as:

  • “America’s greatest values are increasingly decaying from within.”
  • “In this country, there is a ‘real America’ distinct from those who don’t share the same values.”

Next, they presented participants with statements related to belief in conspiracy theories. Recruits indicated how strongly they agreed with phrases such as:

  • “The media is the puppet of those in power.”
  • “Nothing in politics or world affairs happens by accident or coincidence.”

People experiencing system identity threat were more likely to agree with the conspiracy-related statements. When people feel their values are under attack, they may be less likely to trust people in power. They might grow suspicious of the world around them. In severe cases, belief in conspiracy theories can cause severe stress.

References:

  1. Federico, C. M., Williams, A. L., & Vitriol, J. A. (2018, April 18). The role of system identity threat in conspiracy theory endorsement. European Journal of Social Psychology. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1002/ejsp.2495
  2. Stralo, L. (2018, May 30) New psychology studies predict likeliness of belief in conspiracy theories. Lehigh University. Retrieved from https://www1.lehigh.edu/news/new-psychology-studies-predict-likeliness-of-belief-in-conspiracy-theories
  3. Vitriol, J. A. & Marsh, J. K. (2018, May 12). The illusion of explanatory depth and endorsement of conspiracy beliefs. European Journal of Social Psychology. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/ejsp.2504

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