London School of Economics
Whenever threatening, high profile events take place, conspiracy theories offering alternative explanations to the official narrative tend to emerge. One does not need to look far on social media to find sweeping statements about recent events, such as ‘Israel’s national intelligence agency Mossad committed the Charlie Hebdo attacks’, ‘Islamic State beheadings were staged by Hollywood producers’, or ‘the economic crisis in the EU was deliberately caused by the International Monetary Fund’.
Far-fetched as these conspiracy theories might be, it would be a mistake to portray conspiracy theorists as simply mentally ill: indeed some conspiracy theories – including theories that the CIA was behind the John F. Kennedy assassination, or that 9-11 was an inside job – are endorsed by a surprisingly large number of citizens. Moreover, conspiracy beliefs can have harmful consequences: people who believe that climate change is a hoax will be less motivated to reduce their carbon footprints; while people who believe that the pharmaceutical industry tries to harm instead of help the public through vaccines are less likely to get their child vaccinated. There is therefore good reason for the social sciences to conduct serious research on the psychology behind belief in conspiracy theories.
The link between political ideologies and conspiracy theories
Conspiracy theories often assume that politicians, or governmental institutions, are playing a role in a scheme or plot designed to harm or deceive the public. It therefore stands to reason that political ideology matters for the conspiracy theories that people consider to be plausible. As might be expected, the political left tends to be suspicious of the political right, and the political right tends to be suspicious of the political left. But the best predictor of belief in a given conspiracy theory is belief in another conspiracy theory: put simply, people often exhibit a ‘conspiratorial mindset’ that seems to transcend traditional left-right distinctions.