People on the extreme left and right are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories

By Matthew Warren

Belief in conspiracy theories has been linked to various factors, including low levels of critical thinking, a need to feel special, and even a yearning for excitement and thrills. But how does political ideology come into it? Some studies suggest that there is a straightforward association, in which people with more extreme right-wing views are more prone to conspiracy theories. But other work has found a “U-shaped” relationship, where conspiratorial thinking is more common among people on the extremes of both the right and left compared to those with more moderate views.

The latter finding has tended to come from research into a small group of relatively prosperous nations, note the authors of a new study in Nature Human Behaviour. But now, looking at data from more than 100,000 people across 26 countries, the team finds further evidence that conspiracy theories are more common among the far left as well as the right, and provides some suggestions as to why this is the case.

Across two studies, Roland Imhoff from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz and colleagues recruited 104,253 participants from European nations, as well as Brazil, Israel and Turkey. Each participant rated their political orientation on a single scale from extreme left to extreme right, and also indicated what party they would vote for (or had voted for in the previous election). They also completed the Conspiracy Mentality Questionnaire, which taps into endorsement of conspiracy theories with questions like “I think that there are secret organizations that greatly influence political decisions”.

The team did find some evidence, in the first study at least, that there was an overall linear relationship between political orientation and having a conspiracy mentality, with people on the extreme right more likely to endorse conspiracy theories. But this effect wasn’t consistent on a country-by-country basis: in some countries there was no relationship, and in others it was actually people on the extreme left that endorsed conspiracy theories more.

Instead, the researchers found that the data better fit a U-shaped relationship, where belief in conspiracy theories rose both for extreme right-wing and extreme left-wing participants. This relationship proved significant for both studies, and was more consistent across individual countries.

Why would people on the fringes of the political spectrum be more likely to endorse conspiracy theories? One possibility is that these people don’t see their political views reflected in government — after all, extreme political groups do not make it into government as often as more moderate parties — and turn to conspiracy theories to try and make sense of this apparent lack of political control.

To test this theory, the researchers looked at whether conspiracy beliefs differed between those who supported a party in government and those who supported a party that wasn’t in power. They found that participants whose preferred party was not in power did indeed show stronger endorsement of conspiracy theories. But even after controlling for this, the researchers still found that U-shaped relationship between political ideology and conspiracy beliefs, suggesting that a lack of political control can’t be the only reason that people on the extremes endorse conspiracy theories.

An alternative explanation is that the extreme left and right actually share some views that are also related to conspiracism. These people often demonise the outgroup, for instance, and subscribe to authoritarian views – themes which also crop up in conspiracy beliefs. Indeed, the team found evidence that supporters of extremely left-wing parties were only prone to conspiracy beliefs when those parties were nationalistic and authoritarian, and not when they were socially liberal.

Overall, then, the results suggest that people are more likely to endorse conspiracy theories if they don’t see themselves represented in government — but also that subscribing to an extreme political ideology also has an effect above and beyond that of a lack of representation.  There are some limitations though. As the authors note, it could be that people who believe in conspiracy theories are drawn to fringe parties, rather than conspiracy theories developing as a reaction to a lack of power. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the team also found evidence that political unrest within a nation and conspiratorial language from its leaders can also have a profound effect on who endorses conspiracy theories. Further work could look in more detail at how political rhetoric can give rise to conspiracy beliefs.

Conspiracy mentality and political orientation across 26 countries

Matthew Warren (@MattBWarren) is Editor of BPS Research Digest