New research published in Political Psychology provides the first evidence that culture can shape the endorsement of conspiracy theories. The researchers analyzed data from multiple countries and found that the cultural values of masculinity and collectivism were consistent predictors of conspiracy belief.
The psychology behind the belief in conspiracy theories has attracted much attention from scholars. While the field has extensively studied the personality and motivational predictors of conspiracy belief, a team of researchers has recently noted a gap in the literature. A study led by Jais Adam‐Troian, an assistant professor at American University of Sharjah, was the first to consider the cultural factors that might influence conspiracy thinking.
Adam-Troian and his team point out that certain motivational factors have been linked to conspiracy belief, such as the need to feel safe and the need to feel in control. The researchers say that motivational processes like these do not arise on their own but are influenced by culture. This means that culture should be expected to play a role in shaping belief in conspiracy theories.
“Research on conspiracy beliefs has so far excessively focused on individual differences (personality, cognitive ability) and motivational processes (e.g. uncertainty management),” Adam‐Troian told PsyPost. “Yet, people’s brains and behavior do not operate in a vacuum! So we started to wonder whether the type of culture individuals live in may foster (or inhibit) conspiracy beliefs.”
The researchers conducted a series of studies to explore the link between conspiracy belief and culture. They concentrated on Hofstede’s six cultural values: power distance, individualism, masculinity, uncertainty avoidance, long-term orientation, and indulgence.
In an initial study, the researchers reanalyzed data from a study of 25 countries. They looked at each country’s average score for conspiracy belief, and compared these scores to Hofstede’s country indices for the six cultural values. The analysis found that individualism was negatively related to belief in conspiracy theories (e.g., conspiracies about the death of Princess Diana). Masculinity, on the other hand, was positively related to these beliefs.
Next, Adam-Troian and his colleagues analyzed data from a world poll that asked about belief in a conspiracy theory concerning the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This analysis replicated the previous findings by showing that individualism was negatively linked to belief in a 9/11 conspiracy, while masculinity was positively linked to this belief. Moreover, a third analysis of data from 18 countries found that a conspiracy mentality was positively linked to individualism and negatively linked to masculinity.
Finally, the researchers conducted their own study among 350 Americans, this time looking for effects at the individual level. The self-report questionnaire replicated the previous findings, providing further support for the roles of the cultural values of masculinity and individualism in shaping conspiracy belief.
The study authors suggest that collectivism (the inverse of individualism) might inform belief in conspiracy theories because the value has been linked to greater ingroup vigilance, which reflects a perception that others have negative intentions. Individualist cultures, on the other hand, encourage analytic thinking which has been shown to reduce conspiracy belief.
“We found out that some cultures may indeed promote conspiracism,” Adam‐Troian explained. “Countries with cultural values that emphasize the primacy of groups (over the individual), conformity and reliance on authority (rather than reason-debate) to make decisions all display higher levels of population conspiracy beliefs.
“This is also true of cultures that emphasize competition between individuals and enforce traditional gender roles. This may be because these types of cultural environments (high masculinity, collectivism) are more stressful, foster less interpersonal trust, are more hierarchical and sometimes do contain more occurrences of political conspiracies.”
But like all research, the new study includes some caveats.
“The research is entirely correlational and – although we did control for heavy socio-economic factors – other variables may explain the links between culture and conspiracy beliefs. Also, we did not highlight specific mechanisms or explanations for the relationships we found,” Adam‐Troian said.
The researchers conclude that their findings offer convincing evidence that cultural values can impact conspiracy belief — particularly the values of masculinity and collectivism. These findings were consistent across all studies, which were conducted among multiple countries and with varying measures of conspiracy belief.“Although conspiracy beliefs may reflect a form of irrationality at the person level, the level of conspiracy beliefs circulating in a society seems to be the product of broader societal and cultural factors,” Adam‐Troian remarked.
The study, “Investigating the Links Between Cultural Values and Belief in Conspiracy Theories: The Key Roles of Collectivism and Masculinity” was authored by Jais Adam‐Troian, Pascal Wagner‐Egger, Matt Motyl, Thomas Arciszewski, Roland Imhoff, Felix Zimmer, Olivier Klein, Maria Babinska, Adrian Bangerter, Michal Bilewicz, Nebojša Blanuša, Kosta Bovan, Rumena Bužarovska, Aleksandra Cichocka, Elif Çelebi, Sylvain Delouvée, Karen M. Douglas, Asbjørn Dyrendal, Biljana Gjoneska, Sylvie Graf, Estrella Gualda, Gilad Hirschberger, Anna Kende, Peter Krekó, Andre Krouwel, Pia Lamberty, Silvia Mari, Jasna Milosevic, Maria Serena Panasiti, Myrto Pantazi, Ljupcho Petkovski, Giuseppina Porciello, J. P. Prims, André Rabelo, Michael Schepisi, Robbie M. Sutton, Viren Swami, Hulda Thórisdóttir, Vladimir Turjačanin, Iris Zezelj, and Jan‐Willem van Prooijen.