“It’s not enough to dismiss conspiracy theorists as ‘crackpots’”

International study by psychologists and political scientists explores the spread, causes and effects of conspiracy theories in Germany, Poland, Jordan – Belief in conspiracies more common in societies shaped by higher religiosity – Also more common in countries that have actually experienced conspiracies – Scepticism towards minorities and institutions is ubiquitous – Episode 7 of “Religion and Politics” research podcast

Press release 28 May 2021

According to an international study, the reasons why people believe in conspiracy theories differ greatly according to psychological, but also country-specific, factors. “The picture of individual, political and cultural causes is complex. But the effect of believing in conspiracy theories is the same everywhere: polarization, scepticism towards institutions, elites and minorities, and a decline in social cohesion”, explain psychologist Mitja Back and political scientist Bernd Schlipphak from the University of Münster’s Cluster of Excellence “Religion and Politics”. They interviewed a total of 4,100 people in three politically, culturally and religiously contrasting countries (Germany, Poland and Jordan), and confronted them with hypothetical conspiracies to learn more about the spread, causes and effects of conspiracy theories. First of all, the study found general differences over regions: “The extent of belief in conspiracy theories is greater in societies more strongly shaped by religiosity like Poland and Jordan than in more secular countries like Germany. It is also greater in regions where people have actually experienced political conspiracies, including some implemented by Western actors, over generations, like in Jordan and the Arab world”.

Psychologist Prof. Dr. Mitja Back and political scientist Prof. Dr. Bernd Schlipphak
© privat/wwu

Conspiracy theorists are “often dismissed as ‘crackpots’ in debates, and belief in conspiracy theories is made into a kind of illness”, according to the researchers. To gain a better understanding of the phenomenon, they explored both the personal characteristics and the collective, country-specific factors that foster belief in conspiracies. “In Germany and Poland, the propensity for conspiracy theories is more prevalent among people with authoritarian attitudes”. In Germany in particular, this also applies to older, less educated, and emotionally unstable people.

In all the countries studied, people who are inclined to conspiracy theories distance themselves more strongly than others from political elites and other social groups. “However, which groups are scapegoated in conspiracy theories, and how strongly they are scapegoated, varies across countries: Believers in conspiracy theories in Germany are more likely than others to disparage American, Jewish and Russian people. In Jordan and, to a limited extent, in Poland, belief in conspiracies is more strongly linked to a rejection of refugees. Thus, belief in conspiracies has a major impact in all countries on attitudes towards minorities”. What the study also found is that “belief in conspiracies leads to significantly less distrust in government in Poland than is the case in Germany and Jordan. Also, support for populist parties and belief in conspiracies are closely related in Germany, but not in Poland”. Back and Schlipphak also present their findings in Episode 7 of the research podcast “Religion and Politics” on the annual theme “Belonging and Demarcation”.

Meaning-making in a complex world

“Overall, we can see that belief in conspiracy theories has a delimiting function that provides a substitute for meaning and belonging in a complex world. By believing in conspiracy theories, people create both a coherent and stable worldview, and social belonging to a group of ‘insiders’”, Back and Schlipphak explain. Since this goes hand in hand with a distrust of political institutions and dissociation from social groups, the conspiracy mindset contributes to polarization within and between societies. “Belief in conspiracy theories therefore has a problematic effect on social cohesion”. Initial results of the analyses can be found in an essay on the Cluster of Excellence website. A manuscript with further analyses of the data is currently under peer review, and further articles will be submitted soon. (sca/vvm)

  • Pre-registration of design and analyses: https://osf.io/bzpmh
  • Publications: A summary of the first evaluations of the pre-registered analyses can be found here. Further results are currently under peer review.