Friday, June 15, 2012

Conspiracy Theories, Magical Thinking, and the Paranoid Style(s) of Mass Opinion, by J. Eric Oliver and Thomas J. Wood

June 2012, The University of Chicago, Conspiracy Theories, Magical Thinking and the Paranoid Style(s) of Mass Opinion, by J. Eric Oliver and Thomas J. Wood,


Although conspiracy theories have long been a staple of American political culture, no research has systematically examined their support in the mass public. Using four nationally representative surveys, sampled between 2006 and 2011, this paper examines the nature of “conspiracism” in the United States. We find that about half the American public endorses at least one kind of conspiratorial narrative, that conspiracy theories systematically differentiate along ideological and anomic dimensions, and that conspiracism is driven by predispositions towards “magical thinking” and an attraction to Manichean narratives. Belief in conspiracy theories also affects normal patterns of opinion formation on a host of policy items. These findings highlight the importance of conspiracism as an integral part of American public opinion.

Throughout their history, Americans have demonstrated high levels of suspicion towards centralized authority and their political elites (Hart 1978, Barber 1983). Often these sentiments go beyond a general distrust of government and encapsulate fears of larger, secretive conspiracy. From the anti-Catholic and anti-Masonic movements of the nineteenth century to the "Red Scares" of the twentieth, Americans periodically have organized themselves around narratives about hidden, malevolent groups secretly perpetuating political and social plots and calamities to further their own nefarious goals, what we would define as "conspiracy theory" (Davis 1971). Today, conspiratorial theories exist on subjects ranging from the Kennedy assassination to the 2010 BP oil spill and appear to have wide circulation in the mass population. For instance, in a recent study by Stempel et al. (2007), nearly a third of American respondents agreed that federal officials either assisted in the attacks of September 11th or did nothing to stop them in order to go to war in the Middle East.

Although scholars have long theorized about the "paranoid style" of American politics (Hofstader 1964, Barkun 2003, Fenster 1999), none have estimated the pervasiveness of conspiratorial thinking in the general public or considered its larger implications for mass opinion. A few studies have asked scattered questions about specific theories (e.g., Stempel et al. 2007) or about conspiratorial reasoning among specific subpopulations (Barreto et al. 2011, Crocker et al. 1999, Douglas and Sutton 2008, Goertzel 1994, Parsons et al. 1999), but there is no research that systematically examines support for a wide selection of conspiratorial narratives across a representative sample of the entire American population. Given the historical pervasiveness of conspiratorial thinking, this may, by itself, be a significant oversight in studies of American public opinion.

More importantly, if such conspiracy theories are as widely accepted as both the historical record and previous research would suggest, then it also would have important implications for our general understanding of mass opinion formation. Most scholarly models prioritize elite discourse and ideological predispositions as the driving engines of public opinion (e.g., Zaller 1992, Erikson et al., 2010). Yet if significant portions of the public believe that political elites are embroiled in nefarious, secretive plots or that observed politics is merely epiphenomenal to actual political reality, then these models come into question. Widespread support of conspiracy theories (what henceforth will be referred to as "conspiracism") would suggest the existence of unrecognized predispositions that shape political thinking and a potentially more complicated relationship between "elite cues" and mass policy opinion.

This article examines the widespread incidence of conspiracism in the United States. In four nationally representative survey samples collected in 2006, 2010, and 2011, over half the American population consistently endorsed some kind of conspiratorial narrative about a current political event or phenomena. Further analysis shows that conspiracism is distinct from paranoia and political mistrust and similar to conventional forms of public opinion in that it is driven by specific "elite" signals and latent predispositions. What differentiates conspiracism is that the signals come from unconventional sources and the predispositions (a proclivity toward "magical" and Manichean thinking) are usually not recognized as politically important. Conspiracism also has a direct influence on policy opinion, although this effect varies between those conspiracy theories infused with a particular ideological agenda and those more uniformly suspicious of power. These findings suggest that conspiracism is not only an important form of public opinion, but expressive of some latent organizing principles behind Americans' political beliefs.


Given the fantastical and implausible assertions of many conspiratorial narratives, it is understandable they are often dismissed as manifestations of a latent psychopathology (Clark 2002). Yet, regardless of their veracity, beliefs in conspiracy theory are structurally no different than any other type of political opinion. Consider conspiracism in reference to John Zaller's (1992) canonical "Receive-Accept-Sample" (RAS) model of mass politics. Zaller's model starts with the well-recognized fact that citizens greatly vary in their political awareness, with most being inattentive to public affairs. As a result, their attitudinal stability is largely a consequence of the political information they consume (i.e., what they "receive"), which consists largely of narratives generated by political elites.1 [1 Although peer cues can also exert an influence as well (see Lee 2002, Mutz 1998).] In turn, citizens "accept" or reject these elite narratives depending on their prior predispositions, such as their ideology or partisanship. Together, the tripartite combination of awareness, elite political discourse, and predisposition provides the basis from which public opinion is drawn. When the public is asked their opinions or forced to consider political issues, they effectively "sample" from the mix of prior information, elite signals, and predispositions to generate an opinion.

Although subsequent scholars have used the RAS model largely in the study of conventional political attitudes (e.g., Alvarez and Brehm 2002, Dalton 2002, Lupia and McCubbins 1998), Zaller's conception is sufficiently broad to encompass a wide range of mass sentiment, including conspiracism. In fact, the only meaningful differences between conventional political opinion and conspiracism are in the content of their specific elements and not in their constitutive structures. Take, for instance, elite discourse. In Zaller’'s framework, elites are "politicians, higher-level government officials, journalists, some activists, and many kinds of experts and policy specialists" (p. 6) primarily responsible for generating the political information that reaches the public. Their messages promote "a depiction of reality that is sufficiently simple and vivid that ordinary people can grasp it … it is unavoidably selective and unavoidably enmeshed in stereotypical frames of reference that highlight only a portion of what is going on." (p.13) Although Zaller largely focused on the ideological positioning of mainstream political actors, his conception of elite signals is sufficiently broad to include conspiratorial narratives, which are, if anything, vivid, selective, and enmeshed in stereotypical frames of reference. From this perspective, conspiracy theories essentially function like any other elite discourse that seeks to provide a frame of interpretation for public matters.

Where conspiratorial narratives differ from mainstream signals is in the fact that these narratives are often explicitly oppositional to common explanations for political events. Although the sheer number and variety of conspiracy theories in the public domain defy any easy categorization, according to Michael Barkun (2003), conspiracy theories typically share three base characteristics. First, they attribute many social and political phenomena to unseen, intentional and malevolent forces. Second, they typically interpret politics in terms of a Manichean struggle between good and evil. As Hofstadter (1964) famously described, "the distinguishing thing about the paranoid style is [to think] that a vast or gigantic conspiracy is the motive force in historical events. History is a conspiracy, set in motion by demonic forces of almost transcendent power." Finally, they suggest that mainstream accounts of political events are a ruse or an attempt to distract the public from a hidden source of power (Fenster 2009).

Given their fundamentally transgressive nature, conspiracy narratives historically have been forced to circumvent dominant venues of public discourse, especially the mainstream political media (Fenster 2009). This situation, however, may be changing with America's rapidly diversifying media environment. Over the past twenty years ago, the number of widely accessible media outlets has increased dramatically and now includes scores of cable and radio stations and innumerable websites and blogs. This wide assortment of media venues not only allows for a greater variety of public signals, it also enables the wider propagation of extreme ideological perspectives or views that accuse predominant interpretations of public events as intentional distractions from reality (Prior 2008). As demonstrated by television commentator Glenn Beck or popular talk radio host George Noory, conspiracy narratives now have relatively easy access to wide audiences and significant portions of the population are now exposed to narratives that reject conventional views of politics and isolate themselves from conflicting points of view.2 [2 In addition, the past twenty years have seen the release of scores popular television shows, books, and movies have highlighted the roles of various conspiracy theories and often put the conspiracy theorist as a central protagonist. Examples include the X-files television show, Dan Brown's novels, and the Left Behind series of books.]

Conspiracism, like other forms of public opinion, is also shaped by the predispositions of its adherents. Zaller defined predispositions as "stable, individual-level traits that regulate the acceptance or non-acceptance of the political communication the person receives" (p.22). Zaller focused specifically on political traits, such as ideology, because "they seem to have a stronger and more pervasive effect on mass opinion than any other predispositional factors" (p.23) outside of race. But Zaller's framework also leaves open the possibility that psychological traits other than belief systems or racial views could shape opinion.

Conspiracism provides examples of such an alternative predisposition. We suggest that a "conspiracist predisposition" (i.e., a proclivity to be attracted to conspiracy narratives) is comprised of at least two primary elements. The first is a propensity to attribute the source of unexplained or extraordinary events to unseen, intentional forces. In the psychological literature, this tendency is often identified as "magical thinking" (Cottrell et al., 1996, Shweder et al. 1977) and originates in a highly adaptive and unconscious cognitive bias to draw causal connections between phenomena (Michotte 1963) and to presume predators are behind unknown or novel stimuli (Barrett 2004, Kassin et al. 2007). A common example is when someone presumes that a malevolent force is behind a strange noise in a dark house at night. Such causal attributions arise not only from cognitive biases but can also be motivated by emotional tensions. As with much religious, superstitious, and other types of beliefs, "magical" thinking provides a mean to project feelings of control and reduce anxiety or stress (Guthrie 2001, Keinan 1994).

The second element in a conspiracist predisposition is an attraction towards a Manichean worldview. The tendency to interpret political events relative to universal struggles between good and evil are consistent with a fundamental pattern in all human narratives to set up core oppositions between contradictory elements (Frye 1957, Greimas 1966). These patterns, in turn, seem to arise from basic processes in human cognition, particularly in the retrieval and storage of information (Boyd 2009). From this perspective, conspiracy theories are attractive because their narrative structures better comport with how people naturally process political information. In contrast to more complicated or nuanced explanations, conspiracy narratives may offer more compelling interpretations for political events. Individuals who are more drawn to Manichean themes or melodramatic narratives therefore may also find conspiracy theories more credible than mainstream accounts.

Several aspects of this "conspiracist disposition" are important to note. First, it is distinct from psychopathologies like paranoid personality disorder (Zonis and Joseph 1994) or attitudinal concepts like political trust. Although people with unusual levels of anxiety, paranoia, or personal mistrust are also likely to embrace conspiratorial narratives, the predisposition that underlies conspiracism in the mass public is not irregular and would not otherwise impair "normal" functioning in society. Indeed, our supposition is that a conspiratorial predisposition originates in cognitive tendencies that would appear "normal" or even appropriate in other circumstances, such as knocking on wood for good luck. And unlike the prosaic concept of political trust (Hetherington 1998, Stoker and Weir 2001), a conspiracist predisposition is not always oriented towards specific regimes (although many conspiracies are highly partisan in nature), but can be a general orientation towards political and economic systems writ large.

Second, conspiracism also differs from paranoia in that a conspiratorial attribution usually will crystallize into a specific set of attitudes only after someone encounters a specific conspiratorial narrative. Whereas the paranoid may see enemies everywhere, most conspiracists are unlikely to see conspiracies behind all political events.3 [3 This is partly why Hofstadter famously differentiated the "paranoid style" of conspiracy theories from paranoia.] This is largely because most political phenomena are not significant enough to motivate a suspicion of conspiracy. Few Americans, for instance, see secret conspiracies behind farm subsidies, food stamps, or tax deductions for home mortgages.4 [[4 Although see] In addition, few people generate their own conspiracy theories because fabricating such narratives is both cognitively demanding and must occur in the face of widely disseminated counter-explanations. Instead, most people will only articulate conspiracism after they encounter a conspiratorial narrative that gives "voice" to their underlying predisposition, assuming the particular incident was unusual or salient enough to raise these feelings in the first place. This is highly evident in the example of "Birther" conspiracies about President Barack Obama. There was no discussion of Obama's citizenship when he addressed the Democratic party convention in 2004; these views only became widespread after "Birther" narratives began circulating in 2008, largely in accordance with Obama's political rise.5 [5 The Obama "Birther" conspiracy narrative began during the Democratic primary in the spring of 2008 with anonymous email chains. These were picked up by online commentators during the general election. However, in the fall of 2008, only 60 percent of Americans reported hearing about this conspiracy and only 10 percent agreed with it. By April 2010, a Harris poll reported that over 80 percent of respondents had heard of this theory and that roughly a quarter of them (largely Republicans or ideological conservatives) believed that Obama was not really born in the United States (“Wingnuts and President Obama), Harris Polls, March 24, 2010 Retrieved July 18, 2010) .]

Third, a high conspiratorial predisposition will not necessarily lead to a uniform endorsement of all conspiracy theories; rather, the likelihood that a person subscribes to a particular conspiratorial narrative will be contingent on their other beliefs and their exposure to other political messages.6 [6 A conspiratorial predisposition is also different from concepts like alienation and political trust. Scholars have offered a wide range of conceptualizations of these terms (see Levi and Stoker 2000), and while conspiracism will undoubtedly share some elements with these prosaic concepts, it differs considerably in its targets. Political trust typically entails citizens’ evaluations of institutions and leaders relative to their governing performance at particular periods of time (Hetherington 1998). Although some conspiracy theories may emerge as mechanisms to discredit particular regimes (e.g., Obama as a secret Muslim or George W. Bush perpetuating massive voter fraud in Ohio in 2004), conspiracism is not always contingent on partisan political circumstance.] These alternative predispositions will not only shape the type of conspiracy that is endorsed (e.g., Republicans are more likely to believe "Birther" conspiracies than Democrats) but also the particular elements of the conspiratorial narrative (e.g., evangelicals are more likely to believe in supernatural sources of conspiracy than atheists). Consequently, even though the predispositions that motivate conspiracism should be consistent across a wide range of conspiracy theories, we should not expect a single "style" of conspiracism, a uniform embrace of all conspiracy theories, or for conspiracism to be limited to one side of the ideological spectrum; rather, a myriad of conspiratorial expressions should be endorsed by the public that are distinguishable from, and sometimes incommensurate with, each other.7 [7 Hofstader (1964) famously described the paranoid style as "heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy" with a focus primarily on conspiratorial narratives emanating from the political right. We suggest the existence of conspiracism in the mass public hinges more on the predispositions outlined above and thus allows for a greater ideological diversity.]

Together, these points are important for anticipating who is likely to embrace conspiracy theories and how this, in turn, relates to their general understanding of politics. If a conspiracist predisposition is magnified by a lack of information or feelings of uncertainty, then conspiracism should be more common among the less educated, the less politically informed, or from those who get information from only narrow sources. Not only are such groups more likely to embrace magical thinking (Vyse 1997), they are less likely to have systematic frames of reference for understanding political events that would make the conspiratorial narrative seem implausible (Lupia and McCubbins 1998). Similarly, if magical thinking is a psychological mechanism of self-empowerment, then conspiracism should be higher among more marginalized groups (e.g., women and minorities), during times of greater uncertainty (e.g., economic or political crises), or in response to unusual events (e.g., terrorist attacks, oil spills, nuclear meltdowns, etc.).8 [8 The only qualification to this hypothesis is that we might expect those with less political awareness will also be less be exposed to conspiratorial narratives because they consume less information about public events in general. So we should find conspiracism most common at the unusual intersection between low political awareness and exposure to particular types of messages.]

Conspiracism may also exert a direct influence on public opinion writ large, although this depends on the type of conspiracy in question. Many conspiracy theories are informed by a particular ideology and attribute secret and nefarious motives to specific partisan groups, such as "Birthers" or "Truthers." These ideological conspiracy theories may help reinforce a partisan orientation toward public affairs. When a person selectively embraces conspiratorial narratives that delegitimize specific regimes, then the conspiracism itself becomes an expression of a more intense ideological view. As with conventional forms of public opinion (e.g., Zaller 1991) ideological conspiracists should thus exhibit more concurrence with elite partisan cues and show more constraint in their policy viewpoints, particularly as their levels of political knowledge and information rise.
Most conspiracy theories, however, are not tied to a particular ideology but are more uniformly suspicious of prominent figures or political institutions (e.g., conspiracy theories about Queen Elizabeth, the Masons, and the Trilateral commission). Many interpretive scholars have suggested that this type of non-partisan conspiracism is an expression of an entire weltanschauung, in particular a populism that is orthogonal to traditional class politics (e.g., Hofstadter 1964, Dean 1998, Fenster 1999, Barkhun 2004). By emphasizing themes of persecution against customary "ways of life," particularly by foreign elements, and a distrust of state power, these general conspiracy theories putatively articulate a value system that is distinct from traditional ideologies that organize public opinion along economic and social dimensions (e.g., Feldman 1988). In other words, general conspiracism may help consolidate a set of "populist" political attitudes that normally do not cohere in either mainstream liberal or conservative ideologies (Hawkins 2003). These include moral traditionalism, xenophobia and ethnocentricism, isolationism, and anti-statism. This constellation of populist attitudes, in turn, may diminish ordinary linkages between political knowledge, ideology, and attitudinal constraint.

In sum, conspiracism is roughly similar to any other form of public opinion in that it is shaped by public narratives and individual predispositions. What differentiates conspiracism is the unconventional content of the narratives, the operative predispositions they activate, and the ways they mediate the relationship between elite signals, political awareness, and policy views. Conspiracism arises from the encounter between people with an elevated conspiratorial predisposition (which is likely a function of their education, social position, and political context) and a conspiratorial narrative. While people with higher conspiratorial predispositions should be uniformly more likely to endorse conspiracy theories, conspiracism may vary in relationship to other belief systems, depending on the specific narrative in question. Adherence to more general conspiracy theories may disrupt normal patterns of opinion formation and reflect of subset of distinct populist values. Adherence to ideological conspiracy theories, conversely, should amplify "normal" patterns of opinion, particularly in the relationship between ideology, elite cues, and belief constraint.


To examine conspiracism in the American public, four nationally representative surveys were fielded in 2006, 2010, and 2011 as modules in the Cooperative Congressional Election Studies (CCES).9 [9 The CCES sample was drawn from the YouGov/Polimetrix online panel which recruits a large pool of respondents who make themselves available to complete surveys in exchange for points that can be redeemed for various gift items. YouGov/Polimetrix uses sample matching for each module so that the panel is generally representative in terms of various demographic and attitudinal traits of a national random sample (for a full description and comparison with other survey methods, see Ansolobehere and Shaffner 2011). In 2006 and 2010 these questions were asked in the second part of a panel survey design after the November elections, hence the smaller sample sizes due to the attrition in the survey research pool. In 2011, these same questions were asked in October and November on two different survey modules administered by teams from REDACTED and REDACTED.] Table 1 lists the distribution of responses to questions about 10 different conspiratorial narratives.10 [10 The conspiratorial narratives were drawn from a number of sources included a variety of internet searches on search terms like “conspiracy theory” along with other contemporary phenomena. In the 2011 surveys, respondents were first presented with a one sentence conspiratorial narrative and asked whether they had heard it before and afterwards asked about how much they agreed or disagreed with it. In 2010 and 2006 they were only asked about their agreement with the statement.] The surveys show that Americans have a high degree of familiarity with conspiracy narratives, high levels of agreement with them, and a strong consistency in the distribution of survey responses across samples and time. Almost the entire sample in 2011 said they had heard at least of one of the conspiratorial narratives. In addition, over 55 percent of respondents in 2011 and 49 percent of respondents in 2010 agreed with at least one specific conspiratorial narrative, usually the ones that were most recognizable. The distributions of responses on the familiarity questions and Likert scales are highly consistent over all the samples.

For instance, slightly more than 40 percent of the respondents in 2011 said they had heard that "The U.S. invasion of Iraq was not part of a campaign to fight terrorism, but was driven by oil companies and Jews in the U.S. and Israel" (i.e., the Iraq War conspiracy) and, across all four samples, roughly 20 percent of respondents agreed with this statement.

Roughly half the respondents in 2011 had heard that "The current financial crisis was secretly orchestrated by a small group of Wall Street bankers to extend the power of the Federal Reserve and further their control of the world's economy" (i.e., the financial crisis conspiracy) and, in all three years, roughly 20 percent also agreed. Two-thirds of the 2011 respondents had heard that "U.S. government officials either planned the attacks of September 11, 2001 or did nothing to stop them because they wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East" (i.e., the Truther conspiracy) and in 2006, 18 percent agreed with it, a number that dropped to 11 percent in 2010 but rose back up to 18 and 20 percent in the 2011 surveys. Ninety-four percent of the 2011 sample had heard that "President Barack Obama was not really born in the United States and does not have an authentic Hawaiian birth certificate" (i.e., the Birther conspiracy). In 2010, 22 percent of the sample agreed with the Birther conspiracy, a number that dropped to 19 percent in one 2011 survey and rose to 28 percent in another 2011 survey despite the fact of President Obama releasing a copy of his birth certificate earlier in the year.


Lower support is evident for conspiratorial narratives that are less familiar to survey respondents. For instance, roughly 30 percent of the 2011 respondents had heard that "Billionaire George Soros is behind a hidden plot to destabilize the American government, take control of the media, and put the world under his control" (i.e., the Soros conspiracy), a narrative propagated by Fox News commentator Glen Beck. In these two 2011 samples, 16 and 22 percent of respondents agreed with the Soros conspiracy. In the 2011 surveys, roughly 18 percent of respondents had heard that "Vapor trails left by aircraft are actually chemical agents deliberately sprayed in a clandestine program directed by government officials" (the ChemTrails conspiracy) and under 10 percent in both samples agreed.

Although respondents in 2010 and 2006 were not asked about their familiarity with conspiracy narratives, lower percentages were evident for conspiracy theories in these years that are less common in public discourse. For instance, eight percent of respondents agreed, in 2010, that "Government officials are covertly building a 12-lane NAFTA superhighway," (i.e., the NAFTA conspiracy) and, in 2006, that "Government officials purposely developed and spread drugs like crack-cocaine and diseases like AIDS in order to destroy the African American community" (i.e., the Crack conspiracy). In 2006, only six percent of respondents agreed with the notion that "God sent Hurricane Katrina to punish America for its sins" (i.e., the Katrina conspiracy). 11 [11 As of February, 2012, a Google search on the terms, "chemtrails conspiracy" yields over 3.1 million hits, on "NAFTA superhighway" generated 250,000 hits, on "government crack conspiracy" over 9 million hits, and "George Soros conspiracy" over 8 million hits.]

One immediate concern with these findings is how much respondents are really endorsing these conspiracy theories versus offering "non-attitudes" or exhibiting acquiescence bias towards the Likert scales. Evidence in support of the non-attitudes hypothesis appears to be found in a 2011 survey item about the statement "The U.S. government is mandating the switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs because such lights make people more obedient and easier to control" (i.e., the CFLB conspiracy). This conspiracy narrative was made up by the researchers and has not been visible in public discourse. Yet, in the two 2011 surveys, 16 and 18 percent of respondents said they had heard of this conspiracy and 8 and 13 percent, respectively, said they agreed with it. Given that nearly a sixth of the sample reported hearing of a novel conspiratorial narrative and that roughly a tenth of sample agreed with it, this raises concerns that all of the conspiracy items are not capturing authentic sentiments.

Although measurement error and acquiescence bias are undoubtedly a small part of these results, there are several reasons for believing that these survey items largely are capturing authentic sentiments. First, the responses to the CFLB conspiracy are not necessarily evidence of a non-attitude; respondents may simply be reporting a familiarity with the very real government mandated switch to compact fluorescent lights and their agreement with the statement may be triggered by a conspiratorial predisposition, issues that will be discussed below. Second, across the other survey items, there is a remarkably high level of consistency in the distributions of the survey items across the five years these questions were asked and across the four survey modules. If responses to these items were the result of non-attitudes or acquiescence bias, there would be much greater variance in the distribution of responses across categories (Saris and Sniderman 2004).12 [12 As another check against acquiescence bias comes from research by Berinsky (2011) who finds remarkably similar distributions to the Truther and Birther items even though they were asked in an entirely different format.]

Third, the most common response among respondents who had not heard of a conspiracy theory was to say they neither agreed nor disagreed with the statement; if survey respondents were giving non-attitudes as answers, such differences would not exist. Fourth, there is relatively little overlap in agreement amongst the conspiracy items. For example, amongst the respondents in 2011 who agreed with at least one conspiracy theory, about half endorsed just one and about 27 percent endorsed only two. Looking at the entire sample, we find that only 12 percent of respondents endorsed three or more conspiracies. Similarly low levels of conspiracy congruence also occur in the 2010 and 2006 samples. If the results were a manifestation of serious acquiescence bias, then one would find higher levels of multiple agreements.


Finally, those respondents who do endorse multiple conspiracies generally do so in ways that are ideologically consistent. Figure 1 depicts loadings from a factor analysis of the items from the two 2011 CCES studies. Across both samples, the conspiracy items are differentiated by two dimensions, what we alternately label as “general” and “ideological” conspiratorial scales. Responses that load most highly on the general scale include support for the Financial Crisis, CFLB, and ChemTrails conspiracies. Together, these items reflect a broad-ranging tendency to view events as the consequence of orchestrated conspiracies and are less aligned with particular groups or ideologies. These contrast with the items that load highly on an ideological scale, including the Iraq War, Birther, Truther, and Soros conspiracies. These conspiracies generally make reference to explicitly ideological figures (Soros, Obama) or to actions under the Bush administration (9/11 attacks, Iraq war) and load on a dimension that is distinct from the more general conspiratorial items.13 [13 These dimensions are also apparent when comparing polychoric correlations among the seven indicators of conspiratorial reasoning in the 2011 survey. The highest correlations are among those items that only load on the general conspiratorial factor, i.e., the CFLB, ChemTrails, and Financial Crisis conspiracies. The lowest correlations occur amongst those items that load at the two ends of the ideological conspiracy dimension. The correlation of between liberal conspiracy indicators (i.e., the Truther and Iraq War) and the conservative conspiracy indicators (i.e., the Soros and Birther) is less than .17 in all cases.]


The dimensionality of conspiratorial thinking is also evident when comparing average levels of agreement with the two conspiracy scales (the general and ideological scales) by individual self-reported ideology.14 [14 To construct the general scale, the three general conspiracy items from the 2011 surveys (ChemTrails, CFLB, and Financial Crisis) were all coded from strongly disagree (-2) to neither agree nor disagree (0) to strongly agree (2) and averaged. The ideological scales were calculated from averaging the two liberal items (Truther, Iraq War) which were reverse coded (i.e., strongly disagree = 2, strongly agree = -2) and the two conservative items ( Soros, and Birther). Thus respondents with high scores on the ideological conspiracy scale are both strongly disagreeing with the liberal conspiracies and strongly agreeing with the conservative conspiracies.] As illustrated in Figure 2, there are few differences and no linear trends in the average scores on the general conspiracy scale by individual self-reported ideology. Self-described liberals or moderates are not significantly more likely to agree or disagree with conspiratorial statements about vapor trails or compact fluorescent light bulbs than self-described conservatives. This is in sharp contrast with the average scores on the conservative-scored, ideological conspiracy scale, where a strong linear shift occurs. Self-described liberals score over one point lower, on average, on the ideological conspiracy scale than self-described conservatives.

In sum, these findings indicate three important characteristics of conspiracism in the American public. First, conspiracism is a wide-spread and stable aspect of public opinion, with most Americans being familiar with a wide range of conspiracy narratives and roughly half agreeing with at least one. Second, conspiracy narratives are differentiated somewhat between those that are uniformly suspicious of power and those that are ideologically oriented. Third, conspiratorial reasoning is not simply a style of one subset of the population but is evident across the ideological spectrum and manifests itself in a variety of different and distinguishable forms.


To examine the elite cues and predispositions that underlie conspiracism, survey respondents in 2011 were asked a series of questions about their sources of media consumption and a battery of survey items designed to gauge their conspiratorial predispositions. For the media sources, respondents were asked, at the beginning of the survey, to check from a series of boxes the various news information sources that “in a typical week, they had watched, read, or listened to.”15 [15 Their choices included local television news, national network news (i.e., NBC, CBS, ABC, etc.), MSNBC, Fox News, CNN, PBS, NPR, talk radio, Nationally syndicated newspapers (i.e., the New York Times, Wall Street Journal), Local newspaper, politically oriented website, news oriented website, or an individual blog.]

To derive these figures, the proportion of respondents who consumed each media source was first calculated within each cohort of those who expressed belief in each conspiracy theory; the overall proportion who consumed that media source were then subtracted from the conspiracist proportions. Figure 3 depicts these differences on the vertical axis—positive values indicate a particular conspiracy’s proponents consume more of that media source than the population at large, while negative values indicate that a conspiracy’s adherents consume proportionately less of that medium.


Two characteristics are immediately apparent from the media patterns of American conspiracists. First, they show lower levels of nationally oriented media consumption, especially network news, national newspapers, news websites, and individual blogs. This tendency is particularly evident for general conspiracists (i.e., financial crisis, Chemtrails, and CFLB) but is also evident for the other ideological conspiracists as well. The low consumption of national newspapers is particularly striking among all conspiracists: whereas 14 percent of the survey sample reported reading a national newspaper in a typical week, under 8 percent of adherents to general conspiracies reported doing so. Second, ideological conspiracists tend to draw more heavily on partisan oriented news sources. Adherents to the Soros and Birther conspiracies consume information from Fox News and talk radio at much higher levels than the survey sample but other sources of information at lower levels. Adherents to the more liberal Truther and Iraq War conspiracies are much less likely to consume information from Fox News and more likely to watch CNN or MSNBC.

The tendency towards "magical thinking" and an attraction towards Manichean narratives that underlie a conspiracist disposition were measured in 2011 with a battery of survey items about belief in supernatural phenomena (e.g., the Devil and angels), paranormal phenomena (e.g., ghosts and ESP), and agreement with the following statements: "Politics is ultimately a struggle between good and evil" (Manichean); "Much of what happens in the world today is decided by a small and secretive group of individuals" (Secret Cabal); and, "We are currently living in End Times as foretold by Biblical prophesy" (End Times).16 [16 For three of the items (ghosts, angels, and the Devil), respondents were asked "For each of the following items, please indicate whether it is something you believe in, are not sure about, or don’t believe in." They were then given a series of boxes to check. Other items in this list included God and Darwin's theory of evolution. For the other items, respondents were asked to indicate, on a five point Likert scale, how much they agreed with the following statements: "Some people have Extra Sensory Perception (ESP) and can read other people's minds or see events before they happen," "Politics is Ultimately a struggle between Good and Evil," and "We are living in End Times as foretold by Biblical prophesy."] The distribution of these items are listed in Table 3.


Americans express a broad willingness to believe in unseen or supernatural forces and exhibit a strong agreement with Manichean narratives about politics. Roughly a third of the sample either says they believe in ghosts or agree that some people have ESP. These two items are strongly correlated (.436) and can be combined together into a Paranormal belief scale (alpha = .78). Even higher percentages of Americans believe in angels (66 percent) or “the Devil” (57 percent). Once again, these two beliefs are highly correlated (.785) and are combined together into a Supernatural belief scale (alpha = .83). Over half the sample agreed with the Secret Cabal statement, over a third embraced the Manichean worldview, and nearly a quarter agreed with the End Times statement.

These widely held predispositions, in turn, are highly predictive of support for conspiracism. Table 4 lists the results of ordinary least squares regressions with the responses to the five-point conspiracy questions asked in 2011 regressed on the measures of conspiracist predispositions (i.e., the five point Supernatural and Paranormal scales and the five point Likert responses for the Secret Cabal, Manichean, and End Times statements) and other measures including education, race, sex, ideology (measured as dummy variables for liberal and conservatives), partisanship (measured as dummy variables for Democrats and Republicans), political interest, and factual political knowledge. 17 [17 The measure of a respondent’s political knowledge was constructed from eleven binary indicators. Respondents were asked to name the party in control of the US Senate and House, and their State’s upper and lower legislative chambers. They were then asked to name their current Governor, their US Representative and both US Senators. They were then asked to recall the vote of their US Representative and both Senators in the debt ceiling negotiation. A simple Rasch Item Response model was used to estimate each respondent’s political knowledge from these observed binary responses.] To differentiate the conspiratorial predispositions from related attitudes, items were also included in the equation for interpersonal trust, external and internal political efficacy, and a battery on right-wing authoritarianism.18 [18 Interpersonal trust was measured by two questions: “Do you think most people would try to take advantage of you if they got a chance or would they try to be fair?” and “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?”. External efficacy was measured by two Likert scale items: “Public officials don’t care much about what people like me think” and “People like me don’t have much say in what government does.” Internal efficacy was measured by two Likert items “I consider myself well qualified to participate in politics” and “Sometimes politics and government seem so complicated that a person like me can’t really understand what’s going on.” Right wing authoritarianism was measured by a battery of three forced choice items. Respondents were told “Although there are a number of qualities that people feel children should have, every person thinks that some are more important than others. Listed below are pairs of desirable qualities. For each pair, please mark which one you think is more important for a child to have: Independence versus Respect of Elders, Obedience versus Self-Reliance, and Curiosity versus Good Manners.” The RWA scale was coded by compiling the more “authoritarian” responses (i.e., Respect for Elders, Obedience, Good Manners).]


Although the results of the equations vary somewhat depending on the particular conspiracy theory in question, some overall patterns are clearly evident. Less educated and politically knowledgeable respondents exhibit higher levels of conspiracism as do Latinos and African Americans in most instances. These results are consistent with prior research that suggests conspiratorial cognition is more common among the politically marginalized (Crocker et al. 1999). “Ideological” conspiracies find differential support by individual-level partisanship and ideology. For example, self-identified Republicans and conservatives are more likely to agree with the Soros and Birther conspiracies than independents or moderates, respectively. Self-identified liberals were no more likely than moderates to identify with any conspiracy theory, but Democrats were far less likely to identify with the Birther conspiracy than Independents. Other attitudes like interpersonal trust, political efficacy, and right-wing authoritarianism have no consistent relationship with conspiracism. Although less trusting and authoritarian respondents were slightly more likely to agree with the financial crisis conspiracy, these effects are relatively small and are not seen in any other equation.

The most robust predictors of conspiracism are the conspiracist predispositions. Not only are respondents who score highly on the Manichean, End Times, Secret Cabal, and Paranormal scales uniformly more likely to agree with all of the conspiracy theories, the magnitude of these effects are far greater than any other variable. The strongest predictor of conspiracism is agreement with the End Times. The consistency of this predictor is remarkable considering that End Times belief is much more prevalent amongst political conservatives; yet, End Times adherents are also more likely to subscribe to all the conspiracies, including the more liberal Truther and Iraq War statements. The Manichean variable is the second strongest predictor of conspiracism and, in the instance of the Financial Crisis conspiracy, actually exceeds the predictive power of the End Times variable. Following behind these variables are the Paranormal and Secret Cabal measures which are strongly predictive of all but the Birther conspiracies. Indeed, the only predisposition measure that doesn’t predict conspiracism is the Supernatural belief in angels and the Devil, which may partly be a function of the wide acceptance in the population and their specific theological connotations; consequently, the effects of the Supernatural variable are largely displaced by the End Times measure.19 [19 If the End Times variable is excluded from the equation, the Supernatural measure becomes a robust predictor of all conspiracy theories except for the Truther and Iraq War variable.]

One immediate concern from these findings is whether these predispositions are a distinct source of variation in conspiratorial attitudes, particularly in relation to the other exogenous variables. In other words, are respondents more likely to support conspiracy theories because of their education, sex, or ideology or because of their conspiracist predisposition? To test this possibility, we conducted a series of mediational analyses, adopting Baron and Kenny’s (1986) method to estimate how much of each independent variable used in the models in table 3 is mediated by the five conspiratorial dispositions (see also Imai et al. 2010). More formally, we estimated two sets of models, the first predicting variation in the five predispositions: Σ( ) where i indexes predispositions (represented here by p), and j indexes demographic and attitudinal independent variables (represented here by x) . The second set of models were of the form: Σ( ) Σ( )
where k indexes conspiracies. Each b parameter was estimated via ordinary least squares. With one set of models that regress each disposition on all the independent variables and another set that regress the conspiracies on the independent variables, two quantities are estimated: the Average Causal Mediation Effect (ACME- how much of a variable’s effect on a conspiracy is mediated by a particular predisposition) and the Average Direct Effect (ADE-how much of a variable’s effect on a conspiracy runs directly from the variable to the conspiracy.) The mediation effects can then be depicted figuratively relative to each explanatory variable.

To explain this relatively novel estimation procedure and depiction of results, we offer a brief illustration in figure 5. The independent variable whose causal effect is being tested (in this case the effect of education) is listed on the right hand side. The size of the relationship between the primary independent variable and the dependent variable (i.e., support for the conspiracy theory) is listed on the left. Within the graph, the points indicate the impact of the five mediating variables (in this case, the conspiracist predispositions) for each independent variable/conspiracy combination: the hollow points represent the ACME, the solid points the ADE, and the size of the point indicates the magnitude of the weighted, mediated effect.20 For each figure, there are two important factors to note: the distance between the solid point and the dashed line, which indicates the direction and size of the effect for the unmediated independent variable, and the distance between the hollow points and the dashed lines, which indicates how much the effect of the specific independent variable is mediated by the predisposition.

In the example of Figure 5, education has a directly negative relationship to support for the Truther conspiracy, indicated by the position of the solid points below the dashed line across all five predispositions. And, as indicated by the low position of the hollow point in the Secret Cabal column, education is also having a mediated effect via agreement with this predisposition measure. In other words, this graph shows that one reason why the Secret Cabal variable has such a strong relationship with support for the Truther conspiracy (see Table 3) is because less educated people are more likely to agree with the Secret Cabal statement. Conversely, the positive position of the hollow point in the Paranormal column indicates that the positive relationship between the Paranormal scale and the Truther conspiracy in Table 3 is occurring in spite of the mediating effects of education. In other words, even though less educated people are more likely to believe in ghosts and ESP, the positive relationship between support for the Truther conspiracy and Paranormal belief is not a reflection of these educational differences.


Figure 6 depicts the fully estimated set of causal mediation effects for the five predisposition measures, the remaining independent variables, and the seven conspiracy theory items. In most instances, the hollow points sit in close proximity to the dashed lines, which indicates that the effects of the five predispositions are occurring independently of the other explanatory variables. For instance, the impact of End Times, Manichean, or Paranormal belief on support for conspiracism is rarely a consequence of differences in education, race, partisanship, ideology, or political interest, knowledge, or efficacy. The only exception to this is with the interpersonal trust item: although interpersonal trust rarely has a direct relationship to conspiracism, in several instances, the Manichean and Secret Cabal measures are mediating the effects of trust. In other words, one reason why people who have a Manichean worldview or believe that a small, secret group is behind much of what happens in the world are also likely to agree with conspiracy narratives about 9/11, the Iraq War, florescent lights, or Obama’s birth certificate is because they are less trusting of people in general. Nevertheless, such large mediated effects are uncommon; instead, the causal mediation models demonstrate that conspiracist predispositions are largely an independent factor behind support for conspiracy theories.


The statistical robustness and consistency of the conspiracist predisposition highlights a crucial and unrecognized factor in studies of public opinion: the impact of a willingness to believe in the power of unseen forces in general, and unseen political forces in particular, as an explanation for political events. Manichean and magical thinking are not only quite common in the mass public, they also work, via conspiracy narratives, to shape people’s view of the political world. This is also evident in the relationship between conspiracism and policy opinion. Table 4 lists selected results from a large battery of OLS regressions for policy preferences and political attitudes on the two conspiracy scales and the same set of control variables listed above including age, sex, education, race, partisanship, ideology, political interest and knowledge. The dependent variables include measures of opinions on actual pieces of legislation, questions about illegal immigration, abortion rights, gay marriage, foreign military intervention, racial resentment, and five questions on “moral foundations” of politics (Haidt and Green 2009). The full list of items are presented in the Appendix while Table 4 lists, simply for comparative purposes and interpretive ease, the standardized beta coefficients for the two conspiracy scales.21 [21For example, because many of the policy items are dichotomous measures, the OLS coefficients will be unreliable estimates of the effects of the variables. However, in order to simply show where statistically significant relationships occur between the two conspiracy theory scales and the large number of dependent variables with some degree of comparability, the standardized coefficients are used. Replications of these estimations with logistic regressions yield effects of similar size and statistical robustness.]


The ideological conspiracy scales are highly correlated with most policy items, even when individual self-reported ideology and partisanship are taken into account. Respondents who have a high liberal score on the ideological conspiracy scale (i.e., they both agree with the Truther and Iraq War conspiracies and disagree with the Soros and Birther conspiracies) provide a more consistently liberal preference on nearly every policy item than low liberal scorers on the ideological conspiracy scale. The only items the ideology scale does not have a significant relationship with are the items regarding foreign military interventions, interpersonal trust, and three of the moral foundations items. The ideological conspiracy scale is, for nearly every item, the most robust predictor of policy preferences, often outsizing the effect of self-reported ideology.

In contrast, the general conspiracy scale has a significant statistical relationship with only a small number of items that include: attitudes about climate change, abortion, gay marriage, military interventions, and three items from the moral foundations questionnaire about the importance of family loyalty, gender roles, and doing “disgusting” acts. General conspiracists thus exhibit a pattern of policy opinion that is somewhat idiosyncratic: they are more likely to endorse conservative positions on abortion and gay marriage but they are also generally more opposed to foreign military intervention. Despite some of their conservative social opinions, they do not exhibit any systematic differences in their opinion on economic or redistributive issues.

These findings have implications for more general models of public opinion. Zaller’s RAS model predicts that citizens who are politically attentive will “sharply mirror” the ideological divisions of elites. Such patterns may be influenced by conspiracism. As noted above, adherents to ideological conspiracy theories should exhibit even greater coherence in their views as their political knowledge increases; adherence to general conspiracy theories, however, will disrupt conventional patterns of belief constraint because they introduce an orthogonal value dimension.

To demonstrate these trends, Figure 4 reports the predicted effect of a survey-weighted logistic regression model, which regresses respondent ideology on both conspiratorial dimensions, political knowledge, and the crossed set of the three variables’ interactions.22 [22 The loadings which comprised this dependent variable, and the results of the model itself, are provided in the appendix. The dependent factor is a classic scope of government dimension—loading mostly on indicators like support for the 2009 stimulus package, the 2010 healthcare reform, and the willingness to tax the wealthy to redress budget deficits.] Each panel in Figure 4 reports these effects for a different value of the ideological conspiratorial dimension.23 [23 The ideological conspiracy dimension was held at its tenth percentile (the left facet, indicating an adoption of liberal conspiracies and a rejection of conservative conspiracies), its median (the central facet) and it’s ninetieth percentile (the right facet, indicating both an adoption of conservative conspiracies and a rejection of liberal conspiracies. There are two ways to be scored a moderate on this dimension: by adopting an equivocal “neither agree nor disagree” position on these indicators, or by adopting a heterodox pattern of ideological conspiratorial attitudes. For instance, if a respondent expressed a belief that President Obama was not born in the US, and then also agreed that the US government was complicit in the September 2011 attacks, they would be moved toward the moderate position of the ideological conspiracy factor, something that occurs for less than 1 percent of the sample.] Within each facet, solid lines indicate the predicted values when the general conspiratorial dimension is set at its tenth percentile, and dashed lines indicate where this conspiracy is held at its ninetieth percentile.


The findings depicted in Figure 4 show that while the ideological conspiratorial dimension increases the degree to which knowledge constrains a respondents’ policy preferences, general conspiratorial dimension suppresses this effect. At almost all levels of political knowledge, for both liberal and conservative conspiracists, the general dimensional ideology makes respondents more moderate and less ideologically constrained. There is, however, a slight exception to this trend—the ideologically moderating effect of the general conspiratorial dimension has assymetric effects amongst liberals and conservatives. Among conservative conspiracists, the general conspiracy does not significantly diminish their ideological constraint. The effect is the opposite among liberal conspiracists—there, the moderating effects of the general conspiratorial dimension actually increase with political knowledge. These results partially redeem Hofstadter’s (1964) original claim that conspiracy theories are more prevalent among the American right. While conservative conspiracies are neither more prevalent nor more determinative of attitudes in general, they are more durable to the counter-constraining effects of general conspiracies.


In the popular media and scholarly community, it is quite common to disparage conspiracy theories as an expression of either paranoid cranks (e.g., the 1997 film Conspiracy Theory) or a particular type of right-wing politics (e.g., Hofstadter 1964, Barreto et al 2011). Nationally representative survey data provide a much more complex picture of conspiracism’s place in mass opinion. While the active propagators of conspiracy theories may be limited to fringe groups or the paranoid, the willingness to agree with conspiracy theories or see them as valid explanations for political phenomena is quite commonplace in the American public. Not only does half the American population express agreement with at least one of only seven conspiracy theories offered, large portions of the population exhibit a strong inclination towards a conspiracist predisposition. Far from being an aberrant expression of some political extreme, conspiratorial political cognition is a wide-spread tendency across the entire political spectrum, especially among those with less political information or awareness.

The prevalence of conspiracism offers new possibilities for the study of political cognition. Ever since Converse's (1964) seminal description of American belief systems, political scientists have struggled to identify the central organizing principles behind public opinion. Given the near random quality to survey responses among the less-engaged half of the population, scholars have tended to focus their attention on variables like ideology and race that seem to work among the politically interested, even if this yields only partial explanations for how ordinary citizens comprehend political life. Conspiracism may illuminate some alternative mechanisms that organize public opinion. For people who are unpracticed in political analysis, complicated or nuanced explanations for political events are both cognitively taxing and have limited appeal. Among this group, a conspiracy narrative may provide a more accessible and convincing account of political events, especially because it may coincide with their tendencies toward magical or Manichean thinking. For the politically naïve, attitudinal constraint may come from a set of ostensibly non-political views about the world. Conspiracy theories highlight what some of those views may be.

The power of conspiracy theories is not limited, however, to the uninformed. Even highly engaged or ideological segments of the population can be swayed by the power of these narratives, particularly when they coincide with their other political beliefs. Just because someone adopts a political ideology or consumes a great deal of political information, it does not mean they will cease having an inclination toward “magical thinking” or will find Manichean narratives less intuitively compelling. In fact, many predominant belief systems in the United States, be they Christian narratives about God and Satan (LaHaye and Jenkins 1995) or left-wing narratives about neo-liberalism (e.g., Klein 2007), draw heavily upon the idea of unseen, intentional forces shaping contemporary events. The fact that a Birther conspiracy persists largely amongst knowledgeable and engaged Republicans or that large numbers of liberals still maintain that "9/11 was an inside job" illustrates how powerful these elements can be for sustaining a particular set of views. Conspiracy theories can thus reveal not only how people come to interpret specific events, but the tendencies of all people for understanding their political world.


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