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Who Falls for Conspiracy Theories?

New research finds those on the political extremes are more susceptible than moderates.
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(Photo: Suzanne Tucker/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Suzanne Tucker/Shutterstock)

As we noted last year, belief in conspiracy theories is surprisingly common. So who is particularly susceptible to falling for these often-outrageous narratives?

New research from the Netherlands suggests the answer is people on the political extremes.

Those on both the far right and far left tend to "adhere to their belief system in a rigid fashion, leading them to perceive their political ideas as the simple and only solution to societal problems," writes a research team led by psychologist Jan-Willem van Prooijen of VU University Amsterdam.

"Conspiracy beliefs feed into a core feature of political extremism, namely a desire to make sense of societal events through a set of clear-cut assumptions about the world."

This in turn "induces them to perceive evil conspiracies as causal explanations for various events," they conclude in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Van Proojen and his colleagues describe four studies—three conducted in the Netherlands and one in the United States. The latter featured 185 participants recruited online, who classified themselves on a seven-point ideological scale from extremely left-wing to extremely right-wing.

They then responded to six statements describing conspiracy-oriented beliefs about the recent economic meltdown. They expressed their level of agreement or disagreement with such assertions as "The financial crisis is the result of a conspiracy between bankers and corrupt politicians."

As predicted, "belief in conspiracy theories about the financial crisis was endorsed by participants at both political extremes, and less so by politically moderate participants," the researchers write.

Another study featured a nationally representative sample of the Dutch electorate. After the 1,010 participants rated themselves on an 11-point left-right scale, they were asked their level of agreement or disagreement with the statement "With the correct policies, most societal problems can be solved very easily."

In addition, they were then presented with six conspiracy theories (such as "The political arena was infiltrated by oil companies when making the decision to go to war against Iraq") and asked to rate them on a scale of one ("highly probable") to seven ("highly improbable").

The researchers found that "Both political extremes believe—more strongly than politically moderate participants—in simple solutions to societal problems. Moreover, belief in simple political solutions was significantly correlated with conspiracy beliefs."

Van Proojen and his colleagues argue that "conspiracy beliefs feed into a core feature of political extremism, namely a desire to make sense of societal events through a set of clear-cut assumptions about the world." This impulse is exacerbated by the tendency of many to cut themselves off from news and opinion sources that differ from their own.

So if you're convinced that the world's solutions could be easily solved if everyone simply fell in line with your self-evidently correct beliefs, it's a puzzle as to why this doesn't simply happen. Many people, it seems, conclude that the most likely answer involves a massive conspiracy of some sort.

Sure, these theories are usually a bizarre hybrid of complexity and simple-mindedness. But for some, it's easier to believe them than accept the reality that the world is more complicated, and less predictable, than you are willing to admit.