Conspiracy theories have circulated at all times, in all cultures, and among all populations. They routinely appear in conjunction with major incidents, such as those that today take the form of terrorist attacks, the COVID-19 pandemic, and presidential elections. As two recent surveys undertaken in 26 countries demonstrate, an individual's belief in conspiracies tends to go hand-in-hand with his or her predilection for political extremism. This tendency occurs on both extremes, but is more pronounced with supporters of the far-right.
André Krouwel: “In previous studies Jan-Willem and I already showed that both extremes are more prone to conspiracy belief than political moderates, but now we were able to show that this proclivity holds across many political contexts and cultures. The scope of this study, with respondents from 26 countries, helps us understand reactions from supporters of the far left and extreme right during the Covid-pandemic.”
The international research team aimed to explore a possible relationship between political orientation and conspiracy mentality. The two surveys constitute the largest investigation of the subject of conspiracy mentality conducted to date, both in terms of their size with around 100,000 respondents and the fact that they were undertaken in 26 different countries. The researchers of VU Amsterdam used Kieskompas for the surveys, of which Krouwel is the founder.
The study revealed a correlation between political views and the tendency to endorse conspiracy theories. "Respondents at the extreme ends of the political continuum expressed more pronounced beliefs that the world is governed by secret forces operating in the dark," write the authors in their paper for Nature Human Behaviour. In addition, the two surveys show that a conspiracy mentality is particularly pronounced in those who support the far-right, above all among those individuals who vote for traditional, nationalist, and authoritarian parties.
The researchers also found some differences between countries: While in countries in Middle and Western Europe – such as Belgium (Flanders, in particular), Germany, France, the Netherlands, Austria, Poland, and Sweden – supporters of the political right exhibit a more marked disposition to embrace conspiracy theory, the conspiracy mentality is more prominent among those rooted in the political left in southern European countries such as Romania, Spain, and Hungary.
Krouwel: “In the Netherlands you see particular strong tendencies to belief in conspiracies among supporters of the populist extreme right. The more people feel threatened, the more likely they are to believe populists peddling unsubstantiated conspiracies that provide a simplistic ‘explanation’ of who is behind the threat. Conspiracies are basically a cognitive shortcut for people that do not grasp the increasing complexity of the world around us.”
R. Imhoff et al., Conspiracy Mentality and Political Orientation across 26 countries, Nature Human Behaviour, 17 January 2022
For more information on this publication and to get in touch with André Krouwel and Jan-Willem van Prooijen, contact press officer Ciska Schippers.