A series of three studies in Greece and the U.S. has indicated that individuals who tend to believe in conspiracies are more inclined to oppose democracy and endorse autocracy. These individuals also often feel politically powerless. The U.S. study showed that increasing the perceived presence of conspiracies also increases support for autocratic rule. The study was published in the European Journal of Social Psychology.
Conspiracy beliefs are convictions or ideas that suggest secret or hidden forces are responsible for significant events, often involving deception or manipulation by powerful individuals or groups. These beliefs typically challenge official explanations or widely accepted narratives and can range from relatively benign notions to highly elaborate and implausible theories. Conspiracy beliefs thrive in an environment of distrust in institutions and authorities. In modern times, they are often fueled by social media algorithms aimed at solely connecting like-minded individuals (forming so-called social “echo chambers).
In democratic countries, beliefs in conspiracy theories are typically associated with deep suspicion towards democratic institutions, low trust in institutions in general, and with high political cynicism. Political cynicism is a pervasive distrust or skepticism towards the motives, actions, and integrity of politicians, government institutions, and the political process in general. Studies also indicate that people who believe in conspiracy theories tend to reject liberal democracy in general and to prefer other forms of governments.
Study author Kostas Papaioannou and his colleagues wanted to explore whether beliefs in conspiracy theories and conspiracy mentality are associated with increased support for autocratic governments. They conducted a series of three studies.
In the inaugural study, the researchers examined whether conspiracy mentality is associated with a generalized rejection of the established democratic system. The second study aimed to gauge support for autocracy and determine if political cynicism and feelings of powerlessness mediate the connection between conspiracy beliefs and autocratic support. The third study, an experiment, was crafted to see if the perception of widespread conspiracies in a society amplifies support for autocratic rule.
The first two studies were conducted in Greece. Participants of the first study were 492 Greek adults recruited through a market research company. Their average age was 41 years. 43% were males. The participants completed assessments of conspiracy mentality (5 items from an existing questionnaire), rejection of the democratic system (‘We could abolish the parliament as it is entirely useless’), and political cynicism (‘The Greek political system is absolutely rotten’).
Participants of the second study were 264 Greek adults recruited through Prolific. They completed assessments of conspiracy mentality, belief in conspiracy theories, political cynicism, support for autocracy (‘I would support a non-democratic regime if I believed that it would improve the economy and society of my country’), and political powerlessness (‘My vote cannot result in any change to the political reality in Greece’).
Participants of the U.S. study were 300 adults recruited through Prolific. They were randomly divided into two groups. The first group read a text that was full of conspiracies – about politicians in a fictional country who are corrupt, in league with judges, powerful companies, and criminals, making shady decisions. The second group read a text without conspiracies – these same politicians were described as reliable, with few corrupt acts that are caught and punished by independent judges. After reading the text, participants completed measures of support for autocracy, political cynicism and political powerlessness.
Findings from the first study indicated that those with a more pronounced conspiracy mentality were more likely to reject the political system and lean towards political cynicism. Data analysis suggested that political cynicism might bridge the gap between conspiracy thinking and rejection of the political system.
Study 2 showed that both conspiracy mentality and conspiracy beliefs were associated with support for autocracy. Political cynicism and political powerlessness were also more pronounced in individuals with higher levels of conspiracy mentality, conspiracy beliefs and supporting autocracy more. Further statistical analysis showed that the link between conspiracy mentality/beliefs and support for autocracy could be achieved through political powerlessness. Political cynicism stopped being a significant link when political powerlessness was entered into the equation.
The third study’s results bolstered the notion that feelings of political powerlessness might connect conspiracy beliefs with autocratic support. Those exposed to the conspiracy-rich text felt more politically powerless and showed greater endorsement of autocratic leadership.
“The current contribution presents evidence for a relationship between belief in conspiracy theories and support for autocracy. From a societal perspective, these findings may appear as alarming, especially considering how widespread online conspiracy theories are. At the same time, a certain level of skepticism towards politicians may be essential for a democracy to function as it holds politicians accountable. As long as critical and skeptical views are solely directed at specific politicians or policies, and not at the democratic system as a whole, we can anticipate a healthy functioning democracy,” the researchers concluded.
The study makes an important contribution to the scientific understanding of the links between conspiracy beliefs and support for autocracy. However, it also has limitations that need to be taken into account. Notably, the story in study 3 was about politicians in a fictitious country. Also, the obtained links need not imply that conspiracy beliefs are linked to autocratic behavior – the study only asked about attitudes.
The study, “Is democracy under threat? Why belief in conspiracy theories predicts autocratic attitudes”, was authored by Kostas Papaioannou, Myrto Pantazi, and Jan-Willem van Prooijen.