New research has found evidence that conspiracy theories are associated with the belief that core American values are under siege.
The study examined the role of system identity threat, meaning the perception that society’s fundamental values are fading away because of social change. The new findings appear in the European Journal of Social Psychology.
“Conspiracy theories about government actors and institutions are widespread across the political ideological spectrum. These beliefs attribute outsized influence to hidden actors or clandestine groups who are perceived as the root cause of an important world event, action, or outcome,” said study author Joseph A. Vitriol, a postdoctoral research associate at Lehigh University.
“Because conspiracy beliefs often preserve discredited assumptions or serve as a basis for dismissing information that challenges one’s worldview, they are often difficult to correct (as is true for many political misperceptions) and can therefore undermine the ability for citizens to effectively and ethically engage in the political process.
“Indeed, these beliefs are not constrained to the politically disengaged or the uninformed. Instead, conspiracy theories are commonly endorsed and propagated by actors at the highest levels of political power and, as a result, are consequential for public policy,” Vitriol told PsyPost.
“In short, conspiracy beliefs are important influences on citizens’ political judgment and behavior. This can undermine the ability of elected officials to address problems in society with evidence-based public policy and governance. By investigating the psychological underpinning of conspiracy beliefs, we are better able to understand how these beliefs form and spread. We are also better able to identify strategies for informing or educating the public and combating the influence of false and fabricated information on political psychology and behavior.”
In two studies with a total of 3,572 U.S. participants, the researchers found that system identity threat was linked to conspiracy thinking in general.
People who agreed with statements such as “In this country, there is a ‘real America’ distinct from those who don’t share the same values” and “America’s greatest values are increasingly decaying from within” were also more likely to agree with statements such as “The media is the puppet of those in power” and “Nothing in politics or world affairs happens by accident or coincidence.”
System identity threat was also associated with belief in particular conspiracy theories, such as that the U.S. government covered up an crashed extraterrestrial spaceship at Roswell.
“We find that the perception that society’s fundamental, defining values are under siege due to social change can strengthen conspiratorial thinking and conspiracy-theory endorsement,” Vitriol explained to PsyPost. “The current political moment is one of volatility and major social change, including increased cultural and ethnic diversity and widespread collective action among members of previously marginalized groups, who are effectively challenging the status quo and seeking change in public policy and political discourse.”
“For many members of the public, particularly individuals who have benefitted from existing social and political arrangements, these developments and changes are quite threatening and can motivate compensatory endorsement of conspiracy beliefs or theories.”
“These findings are consistent with several lines of research demonstrating that losses in the political realm encourage conspiracy thinking,” Vitriol continued. “For example, studies suggest that political disenfranchisement and having one’s political party lose power are both associated with increased conspiracy thinking and belief.”
“What this logic might imply is that as perceptions that social change is threatening increase, so might endorsement of conspiracy beliefs as a means of coping with that threat and loss. It is often easier, for some, to blame nefarious others for undesirable social change than it is to adapt to modern times.”
The researchers controlled for the potential effects of demographic factors, political knowledge, political ideology and authoritarianism. But the study — like all research — has some limitations. The study employed a cross-sectional design, preventing the researchers from drawing any strong conclusions about causality.
“Experimental evidence–in which system identity threat is manipulated– is needed for stronger claims about causal ordering,” Vitriol explained. “We are reasonably confident (for theoretical and empirical reasons) that the direction of the effect is such that perceptions of threatening social change leads to endorsement of conspiracy, but we can not as of yet rule out the reverse direction or bidirectional relationships (which is plausible).”
“A scientific understanding of the psychological underpinnings and political consequences of conspiracy theories represent a burgeoning and exciting area of research,” Vitriol added. “Many fantastic analyses, findings, and theories are being advanced and tested to better understand this widespread and consequential phenomena.”
The study, “The Role of System Identity Threat in Conspiracy Theory Endorsement“, was authored by Christopher M. Federico, Allison L. Williams, and Joseph A. Vitriol.