The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fifty percent of Americans believe in some conspiracy theory. Here’s why.

X-Files/20th Century Fox

In a newly published article, “Conspiracy Theories and the Paranoid Style(s) of American Politics,” the political scientists Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood present some startling findings about how prevalent conspiracy theories are, and what encourages people to believe them.  Oliver kindly answered some of my questions via e-mail.

In your view, what exactly is a conspiracy theory?

We define a conspiracy theory as an explanation that makes reference to hidden, malevolent forces seeking to advance some nefarious aim. Not all conspiracy theories are untrue but they all contradict a commonly accepted explanation for the same phenomenon.

Once a conspiracy theory becomes the commonly accept explanation, it ceases to be a conspiracy theory and becomes history or simply fact. Few people today, for example, doubt the Watergate conspiracy although in 1972 it might have seemed outlandish.

What are the typical explanations for why people believe conspiracy theories?

The common stereotype is that conspiracy theorists are paranoid loners squirreled away in their mom’s basement. Another is that conspiracy theory is a pathology of the political right, a view that dates back to historian Richard Hofstadter’s essay on the “paranoid style” of American politics.

These views are inaccurate. We think of conspiracy theories as simply another form of magical thinking. And as with all types of magical thinking, people engage in conspiracy theories in order to cope with difficult emotions.

Usually this emotion is the apprehension that is triggered by an inexplicable or unusual event. In struggling to restore our emotional equilibrium, we search for patterns. In looking for patterns, we use mental shortcuts called heuristics. These heuristics include our tendency to ascribe intentionality to inanimate objects or to assume that things that resemble each other share core traits.

Because conspiracy theories articulate these heuristics, they may feel more intuitively compelling than other explanations, particularly to people in distress.

What kind of data did you collect to study this?

In our research, we conducted 8 nationally representative surveys beginning 2006 and asked questions about 20 different conspiracy theories. In many of our surveys we tried to measure the traits that we hypothesized would predict conspiratorial thinking.

What did you find? Was belief in conspiracy theories relatively rare?

We find that in any given year, about half the public generally endorses at least one conspiracy theory. Some of the most popular include the “birther” conspiracy about Obama (endorsed by about 25 percent), the “truther” conspiracy about 9/11 (endorsed by about 19 percent), the theory that the FDA is deliberately withholding natural cures for cancer (endorsed by 40 percent), and the theory that the Fed intentionally orchestrated the 2008 recession (endorsed by 19 percent).

What factors led so many people to believe in conspiracy theories?

Contrary to popular speculations, conspiracy theorists are not the sole domain of conservatives nor are conspiracy theorists all paranoid. We do find that conspiracy theories are more popular among the less educated. Not surprisingly, conspiracy theorists also tend to be less trusting of other people and feel more politically alienated.

But the biggest predictor of whether someone believes in conspiracy theories is whether they also hold other magical beliefs—conspiracy theorists are much more likely to believe in the supernatural and paranormal or believe in Biblical prophesy.

These results seem a little disheartening, no?

Disheartening to whom? For the political cognoscenti perhaps. But we must remember that our beliefs are simply tools we use to make sense of the world and conspiracy theories are simply another type.

Conspiracy theories may make public opinion less coherent, but by themselves they are not necessarily any more problematic than any other political belief. And just as there are a wide variety of political views, there are also a wide array of political conspiracies, many incommensurate with each other. America doesn’t have a single “paranoid” style of public opinion, as Hofstadter observed, but rather a multitude of styles.

If we are disheartened, it is probably because the popularity of conspiracy theories is symptomatic of our alienated political culture. Conspiracy theories flourish when there is a vacuum of accepted political authority. When people don’t trust their political leaders or institutions, they feel naturally uneasy and then look to alternative explanations for unusual events.

For more on the political science of conspiracy theories, see these earlier posts:

“The origins of conspiracy theories”

“Conspiracy aren’t just for conservatives”

“No, all Americans are not created equal when it comes to belief in conspiracy theories”

“Are Republican leaders more prone to conspiracy theories?”

“Belief in conspiracy theories: what do the data say?”