A new study provides evidence that a reduced sense of control tends to increase support for leaders who use conspiratorial rhetoric, while an increased sense of control tends to reduce support for such leaders. The research also highlights the role of political identity in shaping these effects. The findings appear in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
The COVID-19 crisis has given rise to various conspiracy theories, questioning the origins of the virus and the effectiveness of vaccines. Leaders, such as President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and former President Donald Trump of the United States, have contributed to the spread of these theories by making claims about the pandemic. However, little is known about why people are inclined to support leaders who use conspiratorial rhetoric.
Previous research has shown that leaders use different forms of rhetoric to motivate their followers and gain support by articulating a shared vision or fostering a sense of community. In this study, the researchers introduce the concept of “conspiratorial rhetoric,” which involves persuasive language that blames hidden actors with secretive goals for certain events. They suggest that this type of communication may be employed by leaders to attract support.
The study draws from compensatory control theory, which proposes that individuals seek sources of structure in their environment when they experience a diminished sense of control. Even threatening sources of structure become appealing when people feel a lack of control. Conspiracy theories, with their explanatory causal webs connecting actors and events, serve as one such source of structure. Therefore, leaders who offer conspiracy theories in their rhetoric can be seen as providing structure to potential supporters.
“I’ve alway been interested in understanding why we believe the things we do and how that shapes our interactions with others,” said study author Benjamin J. Dow, a professor of practice at Cox School of Business at the Southern Methodist University.
“That’s why a lot of my research focuses on conspiracy beliefs. When we started this research there was a lot of media attention focused on high profile leaders who were espousing conspiracy theories. We realized that very little was known about how people react to a leader’s embrace of conspiracy theories. This study was our first foray into better understanding what followers might do in those situations.”
For their first study, the researchers randomly assigned 113 undergraduate students to either a “possessing control” condition or a “lacking control” condition. Participants in the “possessing control” condition were given the freedom to choose their seat and start the study, while those in the “lacking control” condition were assigned a seat and had to wait for the research assistant’s permission. The researchers further manipulated the participants’ sense of control by asking them to recall a positive event where they either had complete control or had no control.
After the control manipulation, participants watched a video that described two hypothetical leaders competing for a leadership position in a fictional financial services firm. One leader used conspiratorial rhetoric, attributing the company’s decline to a conspiracy between government actors and other financial service firms. The other leader provided more mundane reasons for the decline, such as market conditions and internal failures. Participants then rated their support for the conspiratorial leader using a scale measuring willingness to select the leader and the fit of the leader with their image of a leader.
In their second study, the researchers aimed to replicate the findings of Study 1a while addressing some limitations. The study involved a larger sample of 829 U.S. adults recruited through an online survey platform. Similar to Study 1a, participants were randomly assigned to the “possessing control” or “lacking control” condition.
Participants then read a scenario about two hypothetical leaders competing for the same leadership position in a financial services firm. One leader employed conspiratorial rhetoric, suggesting a conspiracy between the government and competitors, while the other leader cited similar causes without invoking a conspiracy. Participants rated their support for the conspiratorial leader using a scale adapted from a previous study.
In both studies, participants who were assigned to the “lacking control” condition were more likely to express support for the conspiratorial leader. The findings suggest that a reduced sense of personal control plays a role in shaping individuals’ support for leaders who use conspiratorial rhetoric. When people feel uncertain or powerless, they may be drawn to leaders who offer simplified explanations for complex events and attribute them to hidden conspiracies.
“We when lack control, conspiracy theories become more appealing because we prefer a world where nefarious forces are in control to one ruled by randomness,” Dow told PsyPost. “However, embracing conspiracy theories doesn’t actually satisfy our underlying need for control. It’s a bit like eating junk food that is satisfying in the moment but doesn’t make you feel good in the long term. So my advice is to be somewhat wary of those offering tales of malevolent forces working against you, especially if you feel a lack of control.”
Next, the researchers conducted a naturalistic study by surveying participants before and after the majority of COVID-19 lockdowns were implemented in the United States. A total of 289 participants completed both pre-lockdown and during-lockdown surveys. The researchers classified participants into Republican, Democrat, or Independent based on their political party preference.
Before and during the lockdowns, the participants were presented with different scenarios involving leaders using conspiratorial rhetoric, such as a conspiracy theory about the Chinese government covering up the origins of COVID-19 or a conspiracy theory about people being paid to protest a proposed bill. They completed measures of their support for conspiratorial leaders and their sense of control.
As expected, the researchers found that individuals felt less control during the COVID-19 lockdowns compared to before. Support for leaders espousing COVID-19 conspiracy theories increased during the lockdowns for all participants, regardless of their political identity.
However, the impact of the lockdowns on support for leaders promoting conspiracy theories about paid protests varied depending on political identity. For Republicans, the lockdowns increased support for leaders who endorsed conspiracy theories about paid protestors, while no significant effect was observed for Democrats. Independents showed decreased support for leaders promoting conspiracy theories about paid protestors during the lockdowns.
“The evidence for a moderating effect of political identity was mixed and the conclusions are somewhat complicated,” Dow explained. “To me this suggests that it can be difficult to predict in advance which specific conspiracy theories will appeal to each political group. However, this doesn’t change the main conclusion that lack of control increases support for conspiratorial leaders as a whole.”
For their fourth study, the researchers conducted another naturalistic study by surveying participants before and after the 2020 U.S. presidential election. A total of 255 participants completed both pre-election and post-election surveys. The results showed that supporters of the winning candidate (Biden) experienced a greater sense of control after the election, while supporters of the losing candidate (Trump) did not show a significant change in their sense of control. The findings also indicated that supporters of the winning candidate decreased their support for conspiratorial leaders after the election, while there was no significant change in support among supporters of the losing candidate.
“People are more likely to support a leader who espouses conspiracy theories when they feel like they don’t have much control in their lives,” Dow told PsyPost. “The reverse is also true: people are less likely to support a leader who uses conspiratorial rhetoric when they feel more in control.”
While the study combined experimental and naturalistic methods, there are other ways to empirically examine the relationship between sense of control and support for conspiratorial leaders. This could include field experiments that analyze support for real-world leaders using conspiratorial rhetoric or large correlational studies that explore attitudes about particular politicians.
“We believe that our findings should translate into things like actual voting behavior, but we haven’t directly tested that,” Dow said.
The study, “Support for leaders who use conspiratorial rhetoric: The role of personal control and political identity“, was authored by Benjamin J. Dow, Cynthia S. Wang, and Jennifer A. Whitson.