Losers are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, study finds

New research helps to explain why the belief in election fraud is common in the United States, even though research has failed to find convincing evidence that it is a problem.

The study, published in the scientific journal Political Research Quarterly, found evidence that conspiratorial thinking and motivated partisan reasoning both have a strong influence on the belief in election-related conspiracy theories.

“My coauthor, Joseph Parent, came to me with the idea of studying conspiracy theories,” said Joseph E. Uscinski of the University of Miami. “When we got into it, there had been little systematic analysis of why people believed conspiracy theories, and what the consequences of those beliefs were. I have remained interested in the topic because it is a fun one to study most importantly, but also because it is so relevant to our current politics.”

The researchers used a survey of 1,230 Americans, conducted before and after the 2012 presidential election, to examine why some people believed widespread fraud had swung the outcome.

Before the election, 62 percent of the participants said they believed that if their preferred candidate lost, voter fraud would be involved. But that percentage dropped down to 39 percent after the election. The drop was largely correlated with partisanship.

Because Obama won, Democrats were less likely to believe in fraud while Republicans became more likely to believe that dirty tricks were involved.

“Conspiracy theories are for losers,” Uscinski told PsyPost. “People who are on the outside, people who lost, people who lack control, tend to believe in conspiracy theories.”

“We see this play out in our national debates: when Bush was president, Democrats were the ones propagating the conspiracy theories. They put forward theories about 9/11, war for oil, Halliburton, Cheney, Blackwater, etc. When Obama came to office, those theories became socially and politically inert. The prominent conspiracy theories came from Republicans and were about Obama faking his birth certificate, killing the kids at Sandy Hook, Benghazi, etc.”

“Now that Trump is president, the popular conspiracy theories come from Democrats and focus on Trump and Russia,” Uscinski said. “Conspiracy theories follow the ebb and flow of power and losers tend to propagate them the most.”

But partisanship wasn’t the only driving force behind election-related conspiracy theories. The researchers also found that conspiratorial predispositions strongly predicted the belief that if one’s preferred candidate were to lose, fraud would be involved. People with conspiratorial predispositions agreed with statements such as “Much of our lives are being controlled by plots hatched in secret places.”

“The people who believe in conspiracy theories tend to do so because of an underlying disposition towards seeing events and circumstances as the product of conspiracies,” Uscinski explained to PsyPost. “This is why some people (and we all have a friend like this) believe in almost every conspiracy theory out there, and some people reject most conspiracy theories out of hand. It isn’t really evidence that drives people to believe in conspiracy theories, it’s their own biased interpretations of evidence.”

The study found no partisan differences when it came to conspiratorial predispositions, suggesting Democrats and Republicans have an equal number of conspiracists among their ranks.

The study, “The Effect of Conspiratorial Thinking and Motivated Reasoning on Belief in Election Fraud“, was also co-authored by Jack Edelson, Alexander Alduncin, Christopher Krewson, and James A. Sieja.