Who Believes in Conspiracy Theories?

During a year in which Americans are asked to consider Donald Trump’s statements that climate change was invented by the Chinese to damage US manufacturing or that  Ted Cruz might be the Zodiac Killer, conspiracy theories are on everyone’s mind. Many of these outlandish explanations  – like climate change denial and anti-vaccination beliefs– have potentially dire consequences for society.

But who, exactly, is falling prey to this misinformation?

A new study out of The Netherlands suggests that people on the political extremes – both the far left and the far right – are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories than people who hold more politically moderate views.

The results come from a series of studies conducted by researchers Jan-Willem van Prooijen, André P. M. Krouwel and Thomas V. Pollet and involved nearly 1,500 American and Dutch participants. The study was published in the July 2015 issue of the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

The studies asked groups of participants about their political ideology and how much they believed in various conspiracy theories.

For instance, participants in one study were asked whether they believed that the 2008 financial crisis was “the result of a conspiracy between bankers and corrupt politicians,” and whether they thought that “politicians have a vested interest in changing the facts about global warming.”

Participants who ranked themselves as more extreme politically were more likely to believe in conspiracy theories.

Another study used a similar setup, but asked participants how much they agreed with the statement “With the correct policies, most societal problems can be solved very easily.” The researchers found that participants who tend to believe in simple political solutions are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories.

The researchers suggest that people with more extreme political views may be more rigid in their views, “leading them to perceive their political ideas as the simple and only solution to societal problems – a style of sense making that also induces them to perceive evil conspiracies as causal explanations for various societal events.”

Social Psychological and Personality Science 

Jan-Willem van Prooijen, VU University Amsterdam, The Netherlands
André P. M. Krouwel and Thomas V. Pollet, NSCR, The Netherlands

Posted: March 31, 2016
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