Believing Conspiracy Theories

A The New York Times story suggests Democrats are becoming more interested conspiracy theories, that “there has been a noticeable increase in the flow of dubious and unsupported claims among liberals.” The article also points to this fine study of conspiracy beliefs. Warning, serious social science in that link. Follow if you dare.

Let’s look at some different data. It’s from 2012, so it’s a bit dated, but its advantage is the national survey includes questions about four conspiracy theories or common misperceptions, two from the left, two from the right. They were:

  • President Obama was born outside the U.S., the so-called birther theory
  • The “death panels” as part of Obamacare
  • The government knew in advance about the 9/11 attack
  • The government directed the Katrina floodwaters into poor New Orleans neighborhoods.

As you’d expect, Republicans were more likely to believe the first two conspiracy theories about the Obama Administration than they were about the last two theories about the Bush Administration. And, as you’d expect, Democrats were more likely to believe the Bush theories. For example, only 10.2 percent of Democrats believed the birther story as compared to 42.9 percent of Republicans, and on the flip side 26.0 percent of Democrats believed the Katrina story as compared to 12.1 percent of Republicans. So there’s a strong partisan component to these beliefs, with each side more than willing to think poorly of the other side.

This doesn’t help us understand why Democrats may suddenly be more susceptible to conspiracy theories — if indeed they are. As the NYT’s article notes from the cited research paper, this may have to do with a sense of threat and predispositions people share. My interest here is in predispositions. The literature on conspiratorial beliefs includes a number of factors that may increase one’s likelihood to belief in such theories. I looked at three of them: financial uncertainty, anxiety, and interpersonal trust.

Of these three, the best performance is seen by trust. The more you trust people, the less you believe in all four conspiracy theories. This holds for both Democrats and Republicans, and even theories critical of the other side. Trust matters, and those who don’t trust other folks are far more likely to believe in conspiracy theories regardless of their partisan direction.

The other two factors, anxiety and financial uncertainty, aren’t as clear cut, but they are suggestive. Financial uncertainty, for example, is associated with believing the two Obama theories for both Republicans and Democrats. Given that Obama was the current president when the poll was conducted, this suggests having financial worries makes you more likely to believe conspiracy theories about the president at the time. You have to blame someone, and blaming powerful others is a useful psychological approach. Anxiety is also fascinating. Among Democrats, the more anxious you were, the more likely you were to believe in all four conspiracy theories. Among Republicans, this works for only two theories — one about Obama (death panels) and one about Bush (Katrina).

If indeed Democrats are more anxious, a reasonable assumption given President Trump’s surprise victory and rocky first couple of weeks in office, then it stands to reason they will be more susceptible to conspiracy theories, more likely to believe them and to share them with their unlucky Facebook friends. In fairness, though, this is not unlike Republicans during President Obama’s eight years in office who seemed willing to believe and share via social media even the wackiest of stories.