Is Belief in Conspiracy Theories Pathological?

A Survey Experiment on the Cognitive Roots of Extreme Suspicion

Article appearing in British Journal of Political Science 47(1)

  • Co-Author:
  • Scott Radnitz with Patrick Underwood
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Date: 2017

What are the origins of belief in conspiracy theories? The dominant approach to studying conspiracy theories links belief to social stresses or personality type, and does not take into account the situational and fluctuating nature of attitudes. In this study, a survey experiment, subjects are presented with a mock news article designed to induce conspiracy belief. Subjects are randomly assigned three manipulations hypothesized to heighten conspiracy perceptions: a prime to induce anxiety; information about the putative conspirator; and the number and identifiability of the victim(s). The results indicate that conspiratorial perceptions can emerge from both situational triggers and subtle contextual variables. Conspiracy beliefs emerge as ordinary people make judgments about the social and political world.