Conspiracy theories might offer a straightforward and simple explanations for complex events. But new research published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that they do not do much to help people cope with the experience of anxiety, uncertainty, and threat.
“In the social psychological literature on conspiracy beliefs, it has been debated for some time whether conspiracy beliefs are ‘functional,’ that is, whether they are adopted because they reduce uncertainty, give people a sense of control, or make them feel better in other ways,” explained Luisa Liekefett, a doctoral candidate at Osnabrück University and the corresponding author of the new study.
“In the beginning of the pandemic, my supervisor Julia Becker and I thought that it was a good opportunity to examine this question longitudinally. Usually, people’s conspiracy beliefs are relatively stable over time. However, during the pandemic, many new conspiracy theories developed, and changes in conspiracy beliefs could be expected. We focused on variables related to uncertainty and fear, because we found these particularly relevant in the context of the pandemic, as well: many people experienced more anxiety, uncertainty and threat than usual.”
Liekefett and her colleagues conducted two longitudinal studies to examine the psychological consequences of believing in conspiracy theories.
The first study consisted of 405 German participants recruited via Prolific and the second study consisted of a nationally representative sample of 1,012 German individuals. In the first study, which was conducted between March 2020 and April 2020, participants were surveyed once every two weeks. In the second study, which was conducted between May 2020 and May 2021, the participants were surveyed once every four months.
In both studies, the participants completed a measure of conspiracy mentality, meaning the general tendency to believe that important events are the result of conspiracies. The measure assessed the extent to which participants agreed with statements such as “events which superficially seem to lack a connection are often the result of secret activities” and “many very important things happen in the world, which the public is never informed about.”
Both studies found that increases in conspiracy mentality at one time point predicted subsequent increases in conspiracy mentality at the next measurement wave. Liekefett and her colleagues also found that increases in uncertainty aversion were associated with subsequent increases in conspiracy beliefs, but only in Study 2.
But the researchers found no evidence that increases in conspiracy mentality were associated with subsequent reductions in anxiety, uncertainty aversion, or existential threat. In fact, their first study provided evidence “that people who believe in conspiracies might suffer due to their beliefs,” Liekefett said.
“On average, people who believe in conspiracies are more anxious than other people, can handle uncertainty less well, and feel more threatened,” she told PsyPost. “People’s beliefs in conspiracies likely grow stronger over time, resulting in a self-reinforcing circle. Experiencing such increases in conspiracy beliefs, however, does not make people feel better. Instead, it may even exacerbate people’s uncertainty and fear.”
The researchers used a statistical model known as a random intercept cross-lagged panel, which allowed them to separate stable between-person differences from within-person changes over time.
“Both studies observed that conspiracy beliefs did not make people feel better over time,” Liekefett said. “However, only in Study 1 (using short time intervals) did we observe that increases in conspiracy beliefs exacerbated anxiety, uncertainty aversion and existentially threat. Thus, we cannot conclude finally that conspiracy beliefs make people feel worse (only that, most likely, they do not make people feel better).”
“Future research using different time intervals is needed to better understand these longitudinal effects. Further, we examined only variables pertaining to uncertainty and fear. It is possible that conspiracy beliefs make people feel better in other ways, e.g., by increasing self-esteem or providing social connections.”
Another study, which was conducted in the United States and Canada, found that individuals who reported believing in COVID-19 conspiracy theories, such as the belief that the virus is a secret bioweapon, tended to have heightened levels of anxiety one month later compared to those who didn’t believe such conspiracy theories.
“Most people who hold conspiracy beliefs are probably honestly scared, and want to protect themselves from what they perceive to be a significant threat to themselves, their families and society,” Liekefett added. “This should be considered when engaging in discussions, or in interventions against conspiracy beliefs or misinformation more generally.”
The study, “Can Conspiracy Beliefs Be Beneficial? Longitudinal Linkages Between Conspiracy Beliefs, Anxiety, Uncertainty Aversion, and Existential Threat“, was authored by Luisa Liekefett, Oliver Christ, and Julia C. Becker.