A study published in Political Behavior examined large data sets from both the United States and 20 countries spanning 6 continents, finding that the political left and right are equally likely to believe in conspiracy theories.
“I have been working on this topic for more than a decade. There has been an assumption in both the mainstream media and academia that the political right is inherently more prone to believing conspiracy theories. However, the evidence for this contention has long been mixed. My coauthors and I therefore set out to provide a comprehensive treatment,” said study author Joseph Uscinski (@JoeUscinski), a professor of political science at the University of Miami
The Paranoid Style, a 1964 essay by Richard Hofstadter argues that the political right is more likely to believe conspiracy theories, providing the basis for much of the research on the asymmetry thesis. Indeed, numerous studies have supported this proposition, finding that various conspiracy theories – such as the authenticity of former U.S. president Barack Obama’s birth certificate, the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s presidency – are more popular among conservatives and Republicans than liberals and Democrats.
Conversely, other studies have found that the political left is more prone to conspiracy theorizing, finding support that this political population is more prone to believing conspiracy theories that identify the political right, corporations, and rich as conspirators.
The authors write, “We surmise that many of the observed disagreements in the literature are due to a combination of limitations regarding the operationalizations of conspiracy theorizing employed and the context––both temporal and socio-political––in which beliefs are assessed. Our contribution is to provide a comprehensive set of tests of the asymmetry thesis using dozens of specific conspiracy theories and different measurement strategies across time in the U.S. and other countries.”
Data was obtained from eight national surveys between October 2016 and May 2021; these surveys were fielded by YouGov or Qualtrics, with samples ranging approximately 1000-2000 respondents. Samples were representative of the U.S. population across demographic factors such as age, sex, race, and education. Belief in a total of 52 conspiracy theories was tested among the United States population.
To test the asymmetry thesis beyond the United States, the researchers looked at belief in 11 conspiracy theories across 20 countries in six continents, among a total of 26,416 individuals. Surveys were conducted by YouGov between July-August 2020, and the recruited samples were representative of each country’s population.
The researchers also employed other strategies to test the asymmetry thesis. Two surveys fielded by MTurk in 2018 and Lucid in 2020 (combined ~ 6000 participants), randomly assigned participants to receive “Republicans are conspirators” or “Democrats are conspirators” versions of five conspiracy theories. These ranged general conspiracy theories on “election fraud, political extremism, the economy, health policy, and crime.”
Further, moving beyond belief in specific conspiracy theories, the researchers considered a predisposition for conspiratorial thinking, which served as the final strategy of testing the association between political orientation and conspiratorial beliefs. A total of 31,741 participants across 18 datasets between 2012-2021 were presented with measures assessing their general tendencies to engage in conspiracy thinking (e.g., The people who really “run” the country are not known to the voters; Much of our lives are being controlled by plots hatched in secret places.”).
“Conspiracy theorizing is not confined to one political group or another,” Uscinski told PsyPost.
Across numerous surveys varying in methodology, the researchers found more evidence for partisan and ideological symmetry (vs. asymmetry) in conspiracism, regardless of how the construct was operationalized.
The association between political orientation and endorsement of specific conspiracy theories varied across the 52 conspiracy theories they examined. Those that had partisan/ideological content, or that had been endorsed by influential partisan/ideological figures, had more support among individuals that identified with the corresponding political group. However, conspiracy theories that had no such content or endorsement were largely unrelated to partisanship or ideology in the United States.
Further, there was variability in the association between left–right ideology and the 11 conspiracy theory beliefs tested around the world. The authors write that this suggests “the relationship between left–right ideology and conspiracy theory belief is also affected by the political context in which conspiracy theories are polled.”
As well, when testing belief in content-controlled conspiracies and political orientation, Uscinski’s team found that both political camps engaged in motivated conspiracy endorsement at similar rates, with the political left (vs. right) occasionally showing stronger motivations.
Lastly, there was inconsistent evidence for the asymmetry thesis across the 18 surveys conducted between 2012-2021, with the average correlation across studies suggesting a positive association between conservatism/Republicanism and conspiratorial thinking. However, this was largely driven by data collected in 2016, and the effects were miniscule in magnitude, with the direction and statistical significance of the effects changing over time.
“As time goes on, the membership of political groups could potentially change, and thus, so could a group’s attraction to conspiracy theories,” cautioned Uscinski. “So, we do not expect to have the last word on this topic, as politics is always in motion. We therefore encourage more studies with different and more data.”
The study, “Are Republicans and Conservatives More Likely to Believe Conspiracy Theories?”, was authored by Adam Enders, Christina Farhart, Joanne Miller, Joseph Uscinski, Kyle Saunders, and Hugo Drochon.