Conspiracy theories are recognized in most scientific domains as particularly dangerous. Climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers and, most recently, COVID-19 “shamdemic” conspiracy theorists all slow progress and, in some and extreme cases, put lives at risk, even beyond those who subscribe to such beliefs.
There is a longstanding popular belief, even among scientists and psychologists, that conspiracy theories stem from a perceived lack of control. Empirical evidence for this claim, however, is scattered and somewhat contradictory.
Remedying this situation was the goal of one researcher from New Zealand, whose metastudy of the subject included 23 papers covering 45 studies, with an average population of 375 participants (54% female).
The author first notes that theoretical support for the use of conspiracy theories as a control mechanism is suspect. They provide “too much order and structure”, whereas humans more likely strive to seek an optimal—and not maximum—sense of control. Additionally, conspirators are by nature malevolent, making them culturally inaccessible, while belief in conspiracy theories is likewise socially acceptable. However, scientific theory and fact being often incongruous, the question bears empirical examination.
There are numerous ways to test for lack of control. In most (78%) of the studies, this feeling was elicited with a recall task (participants are asked to recall and describe events where they felt out of control). Furthermore, studies may have focused on general belief in conspiracy theories (30%) or belief in a specific conspiracy theories (70%) or both (9%)
In addition to type of experimental manipulation (e.g., recall) and dependent measure operationalization (e.g., general), the author examined publication year, sample, presence of manipulation check, comparison group, publication status, and effect sizes.
The author found little support for the claim that conspiracy theories are held as a compensatory mechanism when perceived control is threatened. A statistically insignificant effect size was found, and none of the potential moderators extracted from the studies were found to influence outcome. Support for specific conspiracy theories was found to be slightly higher than general belief in conspiracy theories, suggesting “a limited role for lack of control.”
However, as the author notes, this is hardly the final word on the relation between perceived lack of control and belief in conspiracy theories. A variety of operational, experimental and external factors differentiate and influenced the studies in question. Control is a complex sentiment with multiple dimensions and interpretations, and the direction and nature of its relationship with conspiracy theories may be different than hypothesized by many researchers.
Understanding why and when people believe in conspiracy theories is essential to combating them and mitigating their potentially deleterious effects on society. It is likely that control is one among many factors, but as evidenced by the present metastudy, further research is needed to fully comprehend this phenomenon.
The study, “Does Perceived Lack of Control Lead to Conspiracy Theory Beliefs? Findings from an online MTurk sample”, appeared in PLoS ONE in August, 2020.