The belief in conspiracy theories: On the role of country contexts and the specific nature of conspiracy theories

By Prof. Dr. Bernd Schlipphak, Michael Bollwerk and Prof. Dr. Mitja Back

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Why do people believe in conspiracy theories (CTs)? What makes someone believe in a “narrative about a secret group of malicious actors who have a hidden agenda to maintain or expand their own power” (our definition of a CT; see also Uscinski & Parent 2014, and van der Linden 2015)? This seems important to know, as recent studies have found an empirical link between belief in conspiracy theories and political cynicism (Swami 2012; Swami, Chamorro-Premuzic & Furnham 2010), feelings of alienation (Wagner-Egger & Bangerter 2007), extreme political positions, and a higher degree of extreme right-wing authoritarianism (van Prooijen, Krouwel & Pollet 2015; Swami 2012). The observed increase in belief in CTs can therefore also have consequences for political and social cohesion. But what are its causes?

A steadily growing body of literature in the empirical social sciences, including psychology, has identified a variety of potential predictors at the individual level, i.e. at the level of the individual person (for a meta-analysis, see Goreis & Voracek 2019). For example, people who feel fear and anxiety are more susceptible to CTs, which is also the case among people with a higher need for control, a stronger belief in paranormal phenomena, and a higher degree of narcissism. Moreover, at the sociodemographic level, belief in CTs seems to be associated with a higher degree of religiosity and a lower level of education.

The influence of the country context

However, these findings have sometimes met with strong resistance from scholars in cultural studies, who argue that the findings neglect the level of society and/or socially shared culture, and focus only on the individual. In other words, they argue that such findings turn belief in CTs into a kind of disease that affects some individuals but not others. In contrast, these authors from the field of cultural studies, and in Germany Michael Butter in particular, argue that the fact that >70% of the US population believe in certain conspiracy theories implies that we should no longer focus on the individual, but on society instead (e.g. Butter & Knight 2016: 6). They therefore see the cause of belief in CTs less in individual characteristics and more in experiences, traditions and value patterns in society as a whole (Butter & Knight 2016; Butter & Reinkowski 2014). Taking the US as an example, they argue that the puritanical tradition of the founding fathers and mothers to see behind every negative event not a coincidence but the planned act of the devil has produced a society that is more susceptible to belief in CTs (Butter 2014). On the other hand, certain segments of the US population, such as the Afro-American minority, have indeed been the targets and victims of conspiracies propagated by members of the social majority. This experience with actual conspiracies, handed down over generations, also leads to a higher degree of belief in CTs (Butter & Knight 2016; Butter & Reinkowski 2014). This reasoning is also applied to explain the (often postulated but never actually verified) higher degree of belief in conspiracy theories in the Arab world. Here, real conspiracies (perpetrated above all by actors from the global North or West) have occurred more often, seemingly leading to a higher credibility of conspiracy theories overall in these societies.

These claims have not yet been empirically tested. In a cooperative project between psychology and political science within the Cluster of Excellence “Religion and Politics” at the University of Münster, we aimed at filling this gap. We conducted a survey of between 1300 and 1450 participants/respondents each in Poland, Germany and Jordan to test country effects on belief in CTs. Our focus was on a) whether there are differences in the degree of belief in CTs between countries, and b) whether such differences tend to be explained by the degree of religiosity in a country or the experience of actual conspiracies in a country. Preliminary results can be found at the end of this essay. But first we discuss further possible societal influences on the credibility of conspiracy theories that, in our view, have so far been overlooked by cultural studies.

The interplay of country context and the specific character of conspiracy theories

Beyond the direct influence of country context on the degree of belief in CTs, there is, in our view, a second possible influence of country context. Depending on the country, certain aspects of a CT can make the conspiracy more or less credible. We show in the following that this could apply primarily to conspiracy actors: in our view, the credibility of a CT in country X will increase if the protagonist in this CT is particularly unpopular in the country. Conversely, fewer people in country X will believe in the CT if the protagonist is otherwise very popular. In short, we use this argument to test whether it makes a difference to the credibility of a CT whether it defines Bill Gates, George Soros, Donald Trump, China, Mossad, World Jewry, or any other object or subject as an actor behind the conspiracy.

Our key idea here is that this very actor behind the CT is an essential and easily altered aspect of a CT. Our definition of a CT was a “narrative about a secret group of malicious actors who have a hidden agenda to maintain or expand their own power”. Adopting this definition, we can identify three essential aspects or characteristics of a CT: the malicious actor, the hidden agenda, and the objective of the conspiracy. The latter is actually a constant: the malicious actor is always concerned with gaining or retaining power; in the case of 9/11, for example, through the retaliatory strikes of the US government against states that supported the alleged masterminds behind the attack.1 The hidden plan is often also predetermined by the event itself: the CT on the events of 9/11 always focuses on the fact that the collapse of the World Trade Center towers could not have happened only as a result of the impact of the airplane, but must have been triggered by additional explosives that had been hidden in the building. What varies about the CT on 9/11 (but also about most other CTs) is now the question of who hid these additional explosives or gave the order to do so: the US government, the CIA, Mossad, members of the Bilderberg conference, etc.

This variance in possible actors behind the conspiracy depends on whom the propagators of the CT have identified as the villain(s) most likely to be involved in such a conspiracy. The credibility of a CT increases if the actor behind the conspiracy is someone whom large parts of the population are either sceptical towards or even reject.

It is therefore not surprising that in the best-known CT in the Arab world, it is usually the US (or one of its ruling institutions such as the government or the CIA) that appears as a conspiratorial actor: anti-Americanism among the population is generally very high – partly due to actual conspiracies with US involvement in the past (Jamal, Keohane, Romney & Tingley 2015; Schlipphak & Isani 2018; Isani & Schlipphak 2020). This argument also fits well with findings in related research that show that negative attitudes in the population towards known member states of an organization or international cooperation lead to a rejection of the organization or cooperation as such – without citizens knowing much about it (Genna 2017; Isani & Schlipphak 2020; Johnson 2011; Kertzer & Zeitzoff 2017; Steiner 2018).

We therefore argue in our project that the actual actor in a CT increases or decreases the credibility of the conspiracy theory, depending on whether this actor is generally unpopular or popular among the population. More information on our reasoning can be found as part of a larger pre-registration of our project:

Preliminary findings

As part of the Cluster project, we conducted a survey in Germany, Poland and Jordan. In each of the three countries, we interviewed 1300 (Germany, Jordan) and 1450 (Poland) persons. The survey format was online in Germany and Poland, and face-to-face in Jordan (on the formats, see Schlipphak & Isani 2019; more information on the methodology can be obtained from the authors). In order to test the second argument regarding the actor of the CT, we conducted an experiment in which we presented different groups of respondents with a CT with the same plot and intent but a varying actor. Following this, we then asked the respondents about the credibility of this CT. In essence, all respondents were informed that a person A had argued in a particular source B that actor C (actor of the conspiracy theory) had triggered the refugee crises in other countries (= plot) in order to maintain or increase the power of the state of C (= intent). With regard to actor C, we presented a respondent either the secret service of the USA, Russia or Israel, i.e. the CIA, the FIB or Mossad. We did this randomized attribution of different actors for respondents in all of the three countries. Given the varying degrees of popularity of the three states behind the respective secret services among the population of Germany (Israel > USA > Russia), Poland (USA > Israel > Russia) and Jordan (Russia > USA > Israel), we expected divergent degrees of credibility.

With regard to the first argument (fundamental effects at the country level), we had two sets of expectations. First, for the religiosity argument, we expected that Jordan and Poland will have higher degrees of credibility than Germany. Second, for the argument of the actually experienced conspiracies, we expected that Jordan will have a higher degree of credibility, and Poland and Germany both a lower degree of credibility. Indeed, we find that the credibility of the CT and the basic conspiracy mindset associated with it is higher in Jordan than in Germany and Poland. The difference between Germany and Poland is also statistically significant, but substantially smaller. Thus, the (passed-down) experience of actual conspiracies seems on aggregate to have an effect on the credibility of CTs.

In contrast, however, we have so far found no empirical evidence to support the second argument, i.e. that the varying effect of the actor in the CT depends on his or her popularity in each of the three countries. In a research paper that is currently under review, we suspect that this may be related to the fact that recent short-term political events (such as the election of Donald Trump or Russia’s policy on Syria) have considerably decreased the previously strong differences in the popularity of the actors in the respective country, with respondents in a country now making only minor distinctions in their evaluation of these countries.

The research paper mentioned above discusses further conceptual and methodological issues that also need to be taken into account when interpreting our preliminary results, such as the design of the experiment and the focus on the actor. In further publications on the issue, we will also analyze whether individual predispositions in combination with certain aspects of a CT contribute to increasing its credibility, and what impact the belief in a CT has on political attitudes and on attitudes towards minorities. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us by e-mail.


1 Just for clarification: this is the argumentation of the conspiracists, and not of the authors of this essay!

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