The outcome of an election can influence voters’ conspiracy beliefs, according to study findings published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology. Following the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Trump voters endorsed more conspiracy beliefs about the Democratic party, while Biden voters endorsed fewer conspiracy beliefs about the Republican party.
Following Donald Trump’s 2020 election loss, conspiracy theories were widely circulated in conservative media claiming that the election outcome was rigged. Such conspiracy beliefs can have troubling consequences for society, and scientists are working to uncover how these beliefs develop.
“In general, I am interested in conspiracies, because sometimes conspiracies can cause social problems like distrust and polarization,” said study author Haiyan Wang, a PhD candidate at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and the Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law. “There are many conspiracies related to the U.S. presidential elections, we were wondering what’s the difference between election losers’ and winners’ conspiracy beliefs.”
Wang and his co-author Jan-Willem van Prooijen launched a five-wave longitudinal study to examine how Americans’ conspiracy beliefs changed over time in the wake of the 2020 election. Specifically, they assessed how the election results influenced voters’ belief that the election was rigged by the other party. The researchers further explored how the election results impacted Americans’ general conspiracy mentality.
Wang and van Prooijen recruited a total of 376 Americans to participate in the study. Data collection took place between October 13 and December 20, 2020 — two waves took place before the election, and three waves took place after the election. At each wave, participants rated the plausibility of specific conspiracy theories about the election. They also completed a measure of conspiracy mentality that assessed a general tendency to believe in conspiracy theories.
At every wave, participants also indicated which candidate they intended to vote for (Waves 1 and 2) or which candidate they had voted for (Waves 3 to 5). The researchers focused their analysis on Biden and Trump voters only, resulting in a sample of 229 Biden voters and 71 Trump voters.
First, the findings revealed that conspiracy mentality remained relatively constant over the two months, for both Biden and Trump voters. This is consistent with the view that conspiracy mentality is a stable trait. However, participants’ belief in specific conspiracy theories about the election did change over time, and these changes looked different for Biden and Trump voters.
Outgroup conspiracy beliefs — conspiracy beliefs about the opposing political party — decreased over time among Biden voters. Specifically, Biden voters’ belief that the Republican party had conspired during the election decreased over time. However, the opposite was true for Trump voters. For them, belief that the Democratic party had conspired during the election (e.g., ‘The elections will be (were) rigged to favor Joe Biden’) increased over time.
“After the election, conspiracy beliefs of voting fraud increased among people who voted for Trump,” Wang told PsyPost. “However, they decreased among people who voted for Biden.”
Ingroup conspiracy beliefs — conspiracy beliefs about one’s preferred political party — decreased over time among both Trump and Biden voters. Specifically, Biden voters’ belief that the Democratic party had conspired during the election and Trump voters’ belief that the Republican party had conspired during the election decreased following the results. Notably, ingroup conspiracy beliefs were more common among Trump voters, especially at the first wave. This finding may support previous evidence that conspiracy beliefs are more prevalent among Republicans compared to Democrats.
Wang and van Prooijen say their study results demonstrate that election events can influence voters’ conspiracy beliefs, but not conspiracy mentality. This suggests the possibility that the two types of conspiracy thinking involve different cognitive processes. The new findings also support previous research that found supporters of a losing candidate are especially likely to endorse conspiracy theories, since Trump voters’ outgroup conspiracy beliefs increased after the election results while Biden voters’ decreased.
Among other limitations, the study sample was small and non-representative of the American electorate. The authors also say that future research should include a longer study period since it is possible that changes in conspiracy mentality would have been captured with additional waves.
The study, “Stolen elections: How conspiracy beliefs during the 2020 American presidential elections changed over time”, was authored by Haiyan Wang and Jan-Willem van Prooijen.