Conspiracy theories are for losers: Science explains why conservatives see sneaky cabals in every defeat

The right has a conspiracy theory to explain everything they don't like. Living in a Fox News bubble doesn't help

Published March 19, 2016 7:30PM (EDT)

Antonin Scalia, Donald Trump   (Jeff Malet, Moloshok/Photo montage by Salon)
Antonin Scalia, Donald Trump (Jeff Malet, Moloshok/Photo montage by Salon)

Don't tell Donald Trump, but conspiracy theories are for losers. Seriously. I mean it. This is huge. And nobody wants to talk about it.

OK, it's actually more complicated than that. Other potential explanations paint an even less flattering picture of the current conservative conspiracy craze. But whatever it is, conservatives—at least in the current political moment—are significantly more prone to embrace conspiracy theories, and the more they know, the more they embrace them... at least if the conspiracies make liberals look bad. The same is not true of liberals—at least not now—according to a new paper published in the American Journal of Political Science that takes some major strides toward making sense of conspiracy theories as less of a puzzling black sheep phenomenon than it's usually taken to be.

While a lot of recent progress has been made in understanding the psychological underpinnings of conspiracy endorsement, the ideological dynamics have lagged behind until now. The new paper, “Conspiracy Endorsement as Motivated Reasoning: The Moderating Roles of Political Knowledge and Trust,” makes a promising start in catching up and pointing the way for future research. It may also shed light on what's happening in the unfolding GOP primary.

Lead co-author Joanne Miller, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota, explained the key concept to Salon. “In a nutshell, motivated reasoning is the notion that people like to maintain the attitudes they have, preserve the attitudes they have, the beliefs they have, protect their identities, especially if their attitudes are wrapped up in their identities,” she said. Political knowledge comes into the picture naturally, as motivated reasoning encounters favorable or unfavorable information, and the role of trust is equally obvious: distrust is the mother's milk of all conspiracy theories. The idea of viewing conspiracy theories as a form of motivated reasoning isn't new (see Salon's 2013 interview with Stephen Lewandowsky, for example) but bringing it into focus in this particular framework—foregrounding ideology, knowledge and trust—is new, and it potentially opens up important new lines of inquiry.

Researchers have identified a broad range of factors that can contribute to motivated reasoning; many of the politically relevant ones were integrated in the seminal 2003 paper “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition.” I interviewed the paper's lead author, Jonathan Jost, in March 2015. But it's not just conservatives the concept applies to; it's completely general, as Miller went on to explain:

When you are confronted with information that contradicts your attitudes, beliefs, impugns your identity, or groups that you identify with, you—we—all of us are motivated to reason through that information in a way that keeps our original attitudes intact. So, we'll counter argue, we'll criticize the data source, not pay attention to information that contradicts our pre-existing attitudes. At the very extreme we won't allow ourselves to be exposed, in the first place, to information that contradicts.

Conspiracy theories neatly fold into this, as the paper points out, “endorsing ones that attribute nefarious intent to political opponents can serve an ideological worldview-confirming function by reinforcing one’s political views through impugning opposing viewpoints.” Indeed, the elaborate, even ornate nature of many conspiracy theories is the mirror opposite of their strategic simplicity in fending off a threatening other. As Miller summed up, “It's a way to feel better about your own worldview, in that it's the other side that's doing all this conspiratorial plotting against the greater good.” In this context, adding more knowledge may only make the theories more elaborate, exactly the opposite of the hoped-for impact that more knowledge would have, and that democratic theorists have long assumed. Significantly, the paper found that knowledge did have this hoped-for effect overall, at least modestly, but not for conservatives when it came to conspiracies that make liberals look bad.

“When we look at all of our conspiracy theories together, don't pay attention to which ones impugn liberals, which ones impugn conservatives, and just create a whole index, it does turn out that people who know more about politics score lower on overall index of endorsement,” Miller explained. “So the conventional wisdom, in a sense, is right.”

As for the role of trust, “There's an intuitive hypothesis there,” Miller's principle co-author, Kyle Saunders of Colorado State University, pointed out. “The less trusting citizens are, the more likely they are to engage in this motivated reasoning process, and therefore more likely to endorse conspiracy theories that impugn their rivals.”  There's a long history of survey data showing declining levels of trust in government and other institutions, and one set of data they drew on—the 2012 American National Election Study (ANES) Time Series survey—asked specifically about trust in government, but they also crafted their own online survey as well, using’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk).

“We wanted to get a broader measure of trust beyond whether you trust the federal government or whether you are not your trust in people,” Saunders explained. “And so in our own, in the MTurk measures we also have it [ask about] trust in the media as well as trust the police. Then we aggregated that from a measure of what we called generalized trust. Because I think it's tempting to say this is just about a declining trust in government; it's also about how connected, and how trusting citizens are with regard to the overall context of their daily lives and the other institutions that may or may not have power over them as well as other people who may have power over them.”

The resulting generalized trust measure was ideologically balanced, and their finding was that “The more trusting you are, the less likely you are to engage in overall conspiracy endorsement, as well as conspiracy endorsement that impugns political rivals,” Saunders said. A finding “that makes a lot of sense on its face.”

But the role of information, and the interactions involved produced a more complicated picture. Before we delve into that, it's helpful to take note of the role of psychological factors.

“Much of the research has been psychological, not disorders, but the predispositions that lead some people to be more likely to think in terms of conspiracies,” Miller said. One such factor she cites is “a need for control, but more specifically, a need to restore control. So if you think about the context in which conspiracies are thrown about, they tend to be when unexpected events happen, they're typically scary, they typically either involve loss of life or threats to life, and there's a lot of speculation about what the heck happened.” In such situations,”we're all motivated in a sense to a search for meaning, for understanding of those events, because they're scary, and because we feel like we've lost control, and if only we could understand the event we could gain better control, or feel like we have better control over our environment.”

The fact that conspiracies can be wholly imaginary might be odd, but not inexplicable. Miller pointed to experiments showing that people experiencing loss of control are much more likely to see images in random dots on a computer screen. “So if you think of conspiracy theories as making connections between things that don't really belong together, conspiracy theories are one of the things that we go to in order to try to explain something that is unexplainable, because we need to restore control,” she said.

Reducing anxiety is another motivation, she noted, but “What's always odd about it to me, frankly, is that believing that someone plotted to do something awful actually reduces anxiety. Wouldn't you think that that would do the exact opposite? But it's something about the not knowing that's more anxiety producing than the knowing, or the believing that one has the answer.”

“What's intriguing to me about this is this whole line of research is so full of these paradoxes,” Saunders added. It's not a research field that's easily navigated. Which is why this paper is so promising. First, there's the main findings it established about roles of ideology, knowledge and trust, and confirming the soundness of viewing conspiracy theories through the lens of motivated reasoning. Second, there are significant wrinkles in the findings, such as the fact that the most intensely believed liberal conspiracy theory—that the Bush administration lied about WMDs in Iraq—isn't a conspiracy at all. And, third, it opens up promising lines for further research, most notably by establishing a model that can be applied in other countries, with a range of other conditions and conspiracy theories.

Three Core Hypotheses

The paper's main findings are organized around a set of hypotheses it set out to test. The first was that  “conservatives will evidence greater motivated conspiracy endorsement than liberals,” which is “consistent with the 'conspiracy theories are for ideologically motivated losers' argument.”

“The results bear that out,” Miller said. In particular a “conservative index” of conspiracy theories making liberals look bad reflected higher levels of conservative endorsement than a similar “liberal index” of conspiracy theories that make conservatives look bad. This was true both for the ANES and the MTurk surveys.“If that didn't happen we would've packed up and gone home,” she added, since the rest of their theorizing depends on that foundation.

The “conspiracy theory is for losers” argument has historical support, Miller explained, documented in the 2014 book "American Conspiracy Theories" by Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent, which looked at letters to the editor to the New York Times from 1890 to 2010, and found that the villains in conspiracy theories were more often on the left when a Democrat was president, and on the right when a Republicans was in the White House. But that analysis couldn't say anything about who the letter-writers were. Moreover, ideology and party ID are not the same thing, though Saunders points out, “They're very very highly correlated, and increasingly so for the last two or three decades.” So it was reasonable to expect this hypothesis to hold, but it hadn't been tested—until now.

“So, confirmed,” Miller said. “Conservatives endorse conspiracy theories that make liberals look bad to a greater extent than liberals endorse conspiracy theories that make conservatives look bad.” But it's not a complete confirmation of the underlying “loser” theory, Miller warned, since “we don't have a condition under which liberals are on the losing side, in terms of the presidency.”

The second hypothesis was that “the more knowledgeable conservatives/liberals are, the more likely they will be to endorse ideologically consistent CTs,” with a sub-hypothesis that conservatives would do it more, given the “conspiracy theories are for ideologically motivated losers” argument. But this time the main hypothesis was dis-confirmed: “We see it on the conservative side but we don't see it on the liberal side,” Miller said.

More specifically, the paper explains:

Among MTurk respondents, knowledge is not related to endorsement of the liberal CTs for liberals, but negatively related to endorsement for conservatives. Among ANES respondents, knowledge is negatively related to endorsement of the liberal conspiracies for both liberals and conservatives, but the slopes are not significantly different from one another.

So—at least under current conditions—it's only conservatives who are more conspiracy-minded if they are more knowledgeable. Liberals act just as Enlightenment theory predicts—the more knowledgeable they are, the freer of parochial viewpoints.

“For the corollary—that it would be high-knowledge conservatives that would do this more than high-knowledge liberals—that is confirmed, because high-knowledge liberals don't do it at all,” Miller said. “We weren't expecting that. We were expecting [the effect in] both high-knowledge conservatives and high-knowledge liberals, just that the high-knowledge conservatives' [effect] would be bigger.”

The third hypothesis was that “trust will 'turn off' the positive effect of knowledge on conspiracy beliefs,” so that “knowledge will have a positive effect on endorsement of ideologically consistent CTs among low-trust conservatives/liberals, but a negative effect on endorsement of ideologically consistent CTs among high-trust conservatives/liberals.” A sub-hypothesis said that “the three-way interaction among ideology, knowledge, and trust will be larger for conservative CTs than for liberal CTs,” in line with the “ideological loser” argument.

The reasoning behind this hypothesis was intuitively straightforward, Miller explained. “If you generally trust the world, if you trust people, the governments, institutions—whether it be police, the media—it's going be harder for you to believe that people would do this kind of thing, would conspire, because you're more trusting.”

But, “Again, we find this only for conservatives,” Miller reported. “For both conservatives and liberals the more trusting you are the less likely you believe conspiracy theories,” she explained. “But this combination of knowledge and trust—so, high knowledge/low trust are the most likely to believe—only showed up for conservatives, and not the liberals.” This was rooted in the earlier finding. “For liberals either knowledge had no effect, or a negative effect, and trust always had negative effect. And so in a sense those variables didn't interact.”

Some Complications: When Conspiracies are True, for Example

In the present moment, at least, it's clear that liberals and conservatives do act differently; they're not mirror images of one another. But it's not just the main results of this study that tell us that. A closer look at the details adds further evidence—and raises new questions. When you examine the conspiracy theories that were tested for (four liberal/four conservative, with two of each appearing in both surveys), a number of things stand out. First, the strength of the conservative theories is relatively uniform, and strong, while the strength of the liberal ones is not. Second, at least two conspiracy theories deviate from the described form.

In particular, all the conservative conspiracy theories seem fairly robust, with high levels of conservative support and significantly less support from liberals. They are: that Obama not born in United States, that Obamacare contained “death panels,” that  global warming is a hoax, and that Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks. The weakest of the four is the last one, which is not actually a conspiracy theory impugning liberals, but merely one justifying the invasion of Iraq—a crucial controversial conservative policy. So it's not that surprising that a relatively large number of liberals might believe it.

In contrast, both the liberal conspiracy theories that appeared in both surveys show only small differences in belief levels between liberals and conservatives, even though one claims the Bush administration knew about 9/11 in advance, while the other accuses the government of intentionally flooding the poorer districts of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. The only liberal conspiracies that show differences comparable to the conservative ones are that the Bush administration lied about WMDs in Iraq, and that Republicans stole the 2004 election via voter fraud in Ohio. However, both these "conspiracy theories" are problematic, though to significantly different degrees. First, the WMD "conspiracy theory" is not a conspiracy theory at all—it's a well-documented fact, even supported by Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, a lifelong Republican, who was Secretary of State Colin Powell's chief of staff at the time, and who has said the intelligence was “politicized in addition to being wrong at its roots.... And the leader of that politicization was the vice president of the United States, Richard Cheney.” So even good Republicans have good reason to believe this.

“We agree with you,” Saunders said, when I raised this objection. And Miller went on to explain:

The original version of this paper didn't include the WMD question, but we sent it off to review, we had a footnote that said we did had a fourth one on the liberal side, for parallelism, it was WMDs, we're choosing not to include in these analyses because in retrospect it's really not a conspiracy theory. It was at a time, at the very beginning, it was a theory about a conspiracy, that then was borne out to be true. And when we left it out, the reviewer said 'No, no. Put it back in.'

And, Saunders added, “There's a footnote in here; everything works either way.” So it doesn't undermine the study's findings. But it does qualitatively add to the sense that liberals and conservatives aren't just mirror images.

As for the Ohio voter fraud question, it's more muddled, for two reasons. First, because there definitely were severe problems in Ohio, with thousands of voters giving up in frustration, while others waited up to 10 hours to vote, and large numbers of provisional ballots went uncounted. As a result, there was a detailed congressional staff report. So there was definitely good reason to be concerned about the integrity of the process—that is, in addition to the left-over record of the 2000 election. But the second problem is that conservatives are even more likely to believe an election has been stolen, even without good reason. Just after the 2012 election, PPP Polling reported:

49% of GOP voters nationally say they think that ACORN stole the election for President Obama. We found that 52% of Republicans thought that ACORN stole the 2008 election for Obama, so this is a modest decline, but perhaps smaller than might have been expected given that ACORN doesn't exist anymore.

“You will see this, if the question was asked, going back forever,” Miller said. “That the party that loses the election says the other party won because of election fraud or stole the election. Whether there was even a real conspiracy theory going on at the time, or whether there was evidence of some irregularity.” People would simply prefer to believe the other side had cheated, rather than winning legitimately. Saunders added another contributing factor: “These processes are occurring in what they see as a black box,” which is inherently disturbing. “They need an explanation because they cannot basically observe an exercise in power,” he said.

A Wealth of Questions

These seem like extremely plausible explanations for a generalized background of distrust and suspicion. Given how frequently elections are held, this could provide a very fruitful line of investigation: Conduct surveys after every election to see how many losers vs. winners suspect a stolen election. Control for the margin of victory, as well as the factors in this study, and then see who's more likely to suspect a stolen election, as well as what roles trust and information play. Since one problem with trying to scientifically study conspiracy theories is their lack of uniformity, this would seem to represent a helpful addition to the investigatory project.

But a more urgent line of research would seem to be replicating this same sort of study in other countries, such as Britain or Germany, where conservatives are firmly in control of their governments. Do the liberals there, as ideological losers in elections, behave more like conservatives do here? There are at least three distinct explanations for why conservatives behave as shown in this study: that they're short-term ideological losers in elections; that they're long-term ideological losers, pitted against an inexorably changing world in which they've been ideological losers for several centuries now; or that they're intrinsically more susceptible to conspiratorial thinking.

The evidence of  letters to the editor in American Conspiracy Theories would support the short-term loser hypothesis, and this study adds crucial evidence about just where such theories are coming from—at least for now. But that doesn't yet foreclose other explanations—especially in combination, as is commonplace in the social sciences. Miller freely admits that another explanation for their results is that “conservatives are fundamentally different from liberals, in ways that might make them more likely in general to engage in conspiratorial thought.” She notes, “There's a biological difference, their physiological difference that may make conservatives more vigilant, very sensitive to threat, and therefore more likely to notice threat, in their environment, or more likely to notice things as threats, perceive things as threats in the environment than liberals.”

Indeed, John Hibbing's work on negativity bias, which I wrote about in 2014, indicates that conservatives' heightened sensitivity to physical threats, disease and so on underlies and helps explain a significant degree of differences in political ideology. It's a difference that registers at the physiological level, below the level of conscious thought. Miller referred to some of Hibbing's work: “If you show liberals and conservatives pictures of scary images like a big spider on somebody's face, conservatives have a stronger, more sensitive sweat response, skin conduct than liberals do.” However, she said, “There's a big leap from that to conservatives supporting protectionist policies, or being afraid of everybody who's not like them. And we don't have the evidence linking everything in that chain.”

So, it remains in the realm of possibility, not proven fact, according to Miller. “It is possible that this phenomenon is a phenomenon that is just, across contexts, more likely to be seen among conservatives.” To find out, “We need to track these data in a case in which Democrats are the losers,” which seems to depend on who holds the White House. Repeating the study “two years into a Republican administration” would be one way to do it. “My hypothesis would be that we see the asymmetry in both cases,” Miller said, “but that the asymmetry would be bigger during a Democratic administration a Republican,” because there's an intrinsic component as well as a political loser component. Since you can't do the experiment without a Republican in the White House, a good alternative is to turn to other countries where conservatives are already in charge.

But there's also the question of long-term loser status, as distinct from intrinsic differences. The sense of lost white male entitlement helping to fuel Donald Trump's campaign is a case in point. So, too, is the trope of “constitutional conservatives” whose approach is one of veneration, while not so subtly reading their own ideology back into the object of their worship. The trope became wildly popular with conservatives in the aftermath of the spectacular failures of the Bush administration's actually existing conservative policies and governance. It's a complex phenomenon, as these two examples suggest, but one way social scientists could begin investigating is quite straightforward: compare white male conservatives' responses to the responses of female conservatives and conservatives of color, using the exact same sort of study design. This would be a significant test of whether long-term loser status was part of the causal mix contributing to belief in conspiracy theories.

As the 2016 campaign continues to unfold, conspiratorial thinking keeps popping up again and again. Vague though it was, Marco Rubio's robotic meltdown—“Let's dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing. He knows exactly what he's doing. Barack Obama is undertaking a systematic effort to change this country, to make America more like the rest of the world...." clearly involved the repetition of a conspiratorial accusation against President Obama, as noted by David Weigel, Ed Kilgore, Media Matters and others.

It's particularly amazing that Rubio chose to defend himself against widespread scorn by re-affirming both the truth and the overriding importance of that message—“I hope they keep running it and I'm going to keep saying it because it's true... it happens to be one of the main reasons why I am running”—and that he's widely regarded as the GOP establishment's only hope!

That episode could almost be viewed as an Aaron Sorkin/"West Wing"-style dramatization of the findings in this study. When Donald Trump joins in to promote conspiracist responses to Antonin Scalia's death, that's noteworthy, but not nearly so surprising: he doesn't represent the GOP establishment, and his support base includes a lot of low-information and low-trust voters. But Rubio's strategically calculated embrace of conspiracism is a whole different story—a story that dovetails perfectly with what this new study has found: the most knowledgeable folks on the conservative side fully embrace this paranoid view of the world. It's a fundamental fact that the rest of us ignore at our peril. We'll all be losers if we don't respond to stop what's unfolding now.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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