Conspiracy theory17.01.2022

Extreme political circles, fertile ground for conspiracy theories

The results of two international surveys of more than 100,000 participants across 26 countries show a correlation between belief in conspiracies and identification with the extreme left and, even more so, with the extreme right. Adrian Bangerter, University of Neuchâtel, Sylvie Graf, University of Bern, and Pascal Wagner-Egger, University of Fribourg led the Swiss part of the study.

Political opinions and the tendency to believe in conspiracy theories go hand in hand. This has been shown by two recent surveys conducted around the globe. «Respondents at the extreme ends of the political spectrum were more entrenched in their belief that the world is governed by secret forces operating in the dark,» the authors write in their study published in Nature Human Behaviour. The two studies, coordinated by Professor Roland Imhoff of the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, also show that the conspiracy mentality is particularly pronounced among supporters of the extreme right, especially among those who vote for traditional, nationalistic and authoritarian parties. The two studies constitute the largest investigation of the conspiracy mentality to date, both in terms of size, with approximately 100,000 respondents, and in the fact that they were conducted in 26 countries.

Largest survey ever conducted
The first survey produced a unique data set, based on information provided by 33,431 respondents living in 23 countries, including non-European nations such as Iceland, Brazil and Israel. The researchers also sought to determine whether the perception of a lack of political control – because, for example, an individual's preferred political party had been excluded from government – had an influence on the link between political orientation and conspiracy mentality; the result was predictable because of the effects of what psychologists call «control deprivation».

The second survey, with 70,882 respondents, complemented the first by providing additional data on 13 European countries. The surveys were conducted using a standardized questionnaire. The political orientation of the respondents was determined in two ways: the respondents themselves were asked to rank their political opinions on the right or left on an ad hoc scale and to indicate their preferences in terms of parties. The political position of these parties on the right-left spectrum was pin-pointed by an international team of experts.

Geographical differences
The researchers also discovered some differences between countries. While in Central and Western Europe – Belgium (especially Flanders), Germany, France, the Netherlands, Austria, Poland and Sweden – supporters of the political right are more prone to embrace conspiracy theories, the conspiracy mentality is more pronounced among supporters of the political left in Southern and Eastern European countries such as Romania, Spain and Hungary. In Switzerland, these beliefs are most prevalent on the extreme right of the political spectrum.

«Conspiracy theories are for losers»
Conspiracy theories are generally more easily accepted by individuals close to parties that do not form part of the government, so that their supporters see themselves as totally deprived of political control. This factor plays a role especially in the case of individuals located on the extreme right of the political scale. In analyzing the results, it was found that people with a low level of education were more prone to adopt a conspiratorial mindset.

The results of the two surveys therefore support the view according to which «conspiracy theories are for losers», as the American academic Joseph Uscinski put it. The authors point out, however, that the identification of cause and effect is far from clear. It may simply be that voters who find themselves on the losing side following an election are more susceptible to finding conspiracy theories appealing. Similarly, it is possible that parties that are outside the mainstream and therefore have little chance of electoral success are particularly attractive to those with a conspiratorial mindset. In other words, people who are attracted to conspiracy theories will also tend to vote for parties that lose elections.

R. Imhoff et al, Conspiracy Mentality and Political Orientation across 26 countries, Nature Human Behaviour, 17 January 2022. DOI: 10.1038/s41562-021-01258-7