your crazy uncle

Many of us love a good conspiracy theory. Some of us, though, love them more than others.

It’s no surprise liberals are more likely to buy into a conspiracy theory critical of the right, or conservatives are more likely to believe one critical of the left. The data supports exactly that, proving we often dare research the obvious. Here I’m going to discuss four specific conspiracy theories, two from each side of the political spectrum, and sketch what a national sample of over 5,000 U.S. adults tells us about who does, and does not, believe in them.

conspiracy-oneFirst, the conspiracies. The first two, from the right, the last two, from the left:

  • The “birther” theory that Barack Obama was born outside the U.S.
  • The notion that the health care law included “death panels.”
  • The “truther” idea the government knew in advance about the 9/11 attacks.
  • And finally, that federal officials purposely aimed Hurricane Katrina flood waters at poor New Orleans neighborhoods.

Set aside the kooky nature of the theories. Looking at 2012 national survey data, I’ve been teasing out who believes in all of the theories, left or right, and I’m starting to untangle the media’s role in all of this.

If you haven’t read the previous research on conspiracy theories — don’t. It’s damned depressing. I just finished one that finds people who don’t believe in climate change also believe Princess Diana was assassinated and HIV does not cause AIDS. Scary stuff. Maybe Bigfoot pops up in there too. Anyway, I’m more interested in the stuff that might explain belief in all four of the theories above. Below I’ll list a few candidates and tell you, briefly, how they’re looking so far.

Before we go any further, a nerd moment. I’m discussing results based on multiple regression analysis. Simply put, you throw stuff into a model (age, education, party ID, race, etc.) and allow them to statistically control for one another to see who wins. So below when I say something seems to predict belief in conspiracy theories, that means it does so even after all controlling for all these other possible factors. Okay, nerd moment complete. So far:

Financial Uncertainty — I had big hopes for this. I’ve used two measures, the financial uncertainty people have now and how uncertain they are about the future. So far, the results are mixed, but in general the uncertainty about the future does modestly predict belief in theories of the left and the right.

Neuroticism — The formal name sounds weird, but it’s one of the Big 5 Personality Traits. Think of it as anxiety and the opposite of emotional stability, if that helps. This predicts three of the four theories (not the “birther” one).

Interpersonal Trust — This is how much you trust other people. Turns out, as suggested in some previous studies, this one is a major factor in belief in conspiracy theories. The more you trust people, the less you believe all of the theories.

So anxious, uncertain people who don’t like other people — they love conspiracy theories. Sounds like your crazy uncle, right? The one you want to avoid sitting next to at Thanksgiving. I should point out that even with all of these factors in the model, the less educated also buy into all four conspiracy theories. So do those of lower income. As you’d expect, party ID and ideology more or less break the way you’d expect, believing theories that make the other side look bad. The role of uncertainty makes sense. This makes you a prime target for believing that powerful external forces beyond your control are doing bad things and that you are powerless before them.

I’m only just now getting into how the media fit into all of this, but I can’t pass up a few of the more entertaining results.

Radio — I was curious, so I looked at listening to NPR versus listening to Rush Limbaugh. Listeners of Limbaugh break just the way you’d expect them to, believing in the bad stuff about Obama, not buying into the bad stuff about the Bush Administration. NPR listeners, even after all these controls, don’t believe in any of the theories.

Faux News — Viewers of Stewart and Colbert resemble NPR listeners above. The more you watch these shows, the less likely you are to believe in any of the four theories.

Fox News — Sigh, you know where this is going. It breaks not unlike partisanship.

There’s disagreement in the literature whether some people are just made to believe in conspiracies, though I think the more recent studies are breaking this way, that there’s an underlying individual difference that exists here in less PhDweeby terms, some of us are just made that way.

Image: Created for at from the results reported
Barry Hollander

Barry Hollander

Former hack at daily newspapers, now hack journalism professor at the University of Georgia, number cruncher and longtime Net user, caffeine addict, writer of weird fiction, and a semi-retired god in an online fantasy world where godhood suits him quite well, thank you very much. He also blogs at