When it comes to predicting conspiracy beliefs, much of the literature focuses on political partisanship. But new research published in American Political Research, suggests that there are other more important factors. The national study revealed that antisocial personality traits, anti-establishment orientations, and support for Trump were stronger predictors of conspiracy than left-right orientations.
Conspiracy theories and misinformation continue to circulate around COVID-19, QAnon and the 2020 US election. Studies show that these beliefs have adverse outcomes — for example, beliefs about voter fraud and QAnon have been linked to criminal activity. When it comes to discovering predictors of these beliefs, study author Joseph E. Uscinski and colleagues say political scientists have neglected to look beyond political partisanship.
“During the Trump years, several conspiracy theories became politically relevant and highly visible,” said Usinski, a political science professor at the University of Miami. “We wanted to explore the factors that were associated with belief in these conspiracy theories. “In addition, we were very interested in how different personality traits were associated with these different conspiracy theory beliefs.”
While much research has focused on political orientation, Usinski and his team suggested that partisanship is not sufficient to explain belief in conspiracy theories. For example, while Republicans may be more likely to believe in QAnon, a majority of them do not.
The researchers aimed to test additional predictors that might be related to beliefs in recent conspiracy theories. Among other factors, they examined the influence of antisocial personality traits and a political trait that is independent of partisanship—an anti-establishment worldview.
Between July and August 2021, researchers looked at 2,065 adults in the US. In addition to sociodemographic measures, the questionnaires included 17 items assessing belief in disinformation about COVID-19, conspiracy theories about COVID-19, QAnon conspiracy theories, and voter fraud conspiracy theories.
The surveys also included measures of political orientation, support for Donald Trump, tendency toward interpersonal conflict, and the dark traits of narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. Finally, the surveys assessed anti-establishment orientations — “a deep rivalry and suspicion of the political establishment, including the dominant parties, politicians and the media.”
The results revealed that anti-establishment orientations, dark personality traits (including propensity for interpersonal conflict), and support for Trump were strongly related to beliefs in conspiracy theories and misinformation about the pandemic, election fraud, and QAnon. While political orientation was also related to conspiracy theory beliefs, these associations were weaker and less consistent.
Although partisanship may still be a valuable predictor, the findings help explain which particular Republicans or Democrats are more likely to support certain conspiracy beliefs and when those beliefs may be endorsed regardless of political affiliation.
The authors suggest that antisocial personality traits can be seen as traits that are common among people who are attracted to conspiracy theories, while politics can be the additional factor that encourages certain beliefs and actions. “Specifically,” say the researchers, “the public endorsement of conspiracy theories and misinformation by prominent trusted leaders may connect antisocial, conflicted people with these ideas, subsequently motivating them to act.” This claim is supported by the finding that support for Trump was strongly associated with conspiracy beliefs.
“There is more to believe in politicized conspiracy theories than partisanship or left-right ideology. People’s personality factors matter a lot and seem to determine to some extent which conspiracy theories they will believe,” Uscinski told PsyPost.
Usinski and his colleagues say their findings may have implications for efforts to prevent or correct studied conspiracy beliefs. Previous evidence has shown that many people resist giving up their conspiracy beliefs. The current findings suggest that this may have to do with antisocial and confrontational personalities that make some more difficult to persuade. Conspiracy beliefs may stem from more than a lack of understanding or education, requiring more sophisticated strategies to prevent them.
“Some conspiracy theories appeal to people who have anti-social and abnormal characteristics and who exhibit anti-social behaviour. This may explain why it is so difficult to ‘correct’ some people’s conspiracy theory beliefs: these people are not open to correction or negotiation,” Usinski said.
Among limitations, the authors note that their study was conducted over a single time period and focused on conspiracy beliefs around atypical events (ie, the 2020 US election and the COVID-19 pandemic), and their findings may not be generalizable. beyond this context.
The study, “How Antisocial Personality Traits and Antiestablishment Views Drive Beliefs in Election Fraud, QAnon, and Conspiracy Theories and Disinformation About COVID-19,” was authored by Adam Enders, Casey Klofstad, Justin Stoler, and Joseph E Uscinski.