People use conspiracy theories to justify public action

New research suggests that people tend to endorse conspiracy theories that help them justify the behavior of social groups they identify with.

“I am interested in the psychological nature of the conspiracy beliefs. What I am trying to understand is how people’s commitment to specific social groups, their social identities, can be related to their tendency to endorse specific conspiracy theories,” explained Maria Chayinska of the University of Milano Bicocca, the corresponding author of the study.

The research was conducted in Ukraine three years after Russian forces invaded Crimea and subsequently annexed the region.

The study of 315 Ukrainians found that supporters of the “Euromaidan” movement of resistance to Russia were more likely to believe in conspiracy theories about the government of Ukraine being complicit in Crimea’s annexation.

Supporters of the movement were more likely to agree with statements such as “There is an influential secretive group that has long ago decided the ‘destiny’ of Crimea’s question” and “In Ukraine, a small group of people secretly manipulates political events.” People who endorsed these statements were more likely to condone the Euromaidan protests in 2014, which led to the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych.

“We found that supporters of a particular cause not only were prone to endorse specific conspiracy beliefs but also to use them in a blame game, thus justifying collective behavior of the group they identified with,” Chayinska said

“Contrarily, the opponents of the same cause were found not to endorse those beliefs at all. Thus, we found how ideologically charged social identities align with the tendency to believe in particular conspiracy theories surrounding acute political and societal issues that commonly cause a divide in a public.”

“Conspiracy theories are ideological in nature, so people who either strongly endorse or oppose them have a reason to do so,” Chayinska added. “This reason is oftentimes rooted in their psychological commitment and loyalty to particular social groups that advocate a certain ideology.”

The study — like all research — has some limitations.

“One major caveat of this study is that these theoretical ideas were tested in a singular political context with a cross-sectional study design. Therefore, we are interested in examining these effects with regard to other conspiracy theories that are being discussed in media,” Chayinska explained.

“The questions pertaining to the causality of the effects likewise generalisability of these findings should be definitely addressed with more research and that is what we are currently working at the Centre for Social Conflict and Cohesion Studies (COES).”

The study, “‘They’ve Conspired against Us’: Understanding the Role of Social Identification and Conspiracy Beliefs in Justification of Ingroup Collective Behaviour“, was authored by Maria Chayinska and Anca Minescu.