Conspiracy theory beliefs: measurement and the role of perceived lack of control
Despite conspiracy theory beliefs’ potential to lead to negative outcomes, psychologists have only relatively recently taken a strong interest in their measurement and underlying mechanisms. In this thesis I test a particularly common motivational claim about the origin of conspiracy theory beliefs: that they are driven by threats to personal control. Arguing that previous experimental studies have used inconsistent and potentially confounded measures of conspiracy beliefs, I first developed and validated a new Conspiracy Mentality Scale, and then used it to test the control hypothesis in six systematic and well-powered studies. Little evidence for the hypothesis was found in these studies, or in a subsequent meta-analysis of all experimental evidence on the subject, although the latter indicated that specific measures of conspiracies are more likely to change in response to control manipulations than are generic or abstract measures. Finally, I examine how perceived lack of control relates to conspiracy beliefs in two very different naturalistic settings, both of which are likely to threaten individuals feelings of control: a political crisis over Macedonia’s name change, and series of tornadoes in North America. In the first, I found that participants who had opposed the name change reported stronger conspiracy beliefs than those who has supported it. In the second, participants who had been more seriously affected by the tornadoes reported decreased control, which in turn predicted their conspiracy beliefs, but only for threat-related claims. Tentatively, I conclude that threats to control can motivate conspiracy ideation, but only under particular conditions, such as when the threat is extreme and a conspiracy theory is available that offers a relevant explanation, although further research is necessary to explore the boundaries of the effects.
Advisor: Halberstadt, Jamin; Bering, Jesse
Degree Name: Doctor of Philosophy
Degree Discipline: Department of Psychology
Publisher: University of Otago
Keywords: conspiracy beliefs; control; conspiracy theories
Research Type: Thesis