The researchers conducted five studies to investigate whether conspiracy theories were appealing because they had entertainment value.

New research sheds light on the psychological payoff of believing in conspiracy theories

PsyPost/September 8, 2021

By Eric W. Dolan

The exciting nature of conspiracy theories helps to facilitate their belief, according to new research published in the British Journal of Psychology. The study indicates that people are more likely to believe conspiracies theories when they find them to be entertaining.

“Explanations of conspiracy beliefs typically focus on the negative: People who are anxious or uncertain are more likely to believe conspiracy theories. Also, research stresses that conspiracy beliefs have mostly negative consequences,” said study author Jan‐Willem van Prooijen, an associate professor of psychology at VU Amsterdam.

“What interested me was the question: If conspiracy thinking really is associated with only negative feelings and negative consequences, then why are so many people so irresistibly drawn to them? What is the payoff of believing in conspiracy theories?”
In the first study, 300 U.K. participants read an article about the Notre Dame fire in Paris on 15 April 2019. The participants were randomly assigned to either read a version of the article describing the fire as a deliberate conspiracy or a tragic accident. In the second study, 301 U.S. participants read an article about the death of convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, which either described the event as a murder carried out by powerful people who feared his testimony or as a suicide.

The conspiracy version of each story tended to be viewed as more interesting, entertaining, important, engaging, mysterious, adventurous, captivating, exciting, attention-grabbing, and frightening than the official version of events. Moreover, van Prooijen and his colleagues found that participants who viewed the conspiracy as more entertaining were more likely to endorse it.

In the third study, 500 U.S participants read about a hotly contested election in another (fictional) country. The participants were randomly assigned to either read an exciting version of the story, which contained emotionally evocative language, or a boring version of the story, which contained detached and bureaucratic language.

Participants were more likely to agree with conspiratorial statements such as “There will be cheating in the results counting process” and “The winner has already been decided in secret before the election” after reading the entertaining version of the story.

In their fourth study, which included 296 U.S. participants, the researchers found that those who scored higher on an assessment of sensation seeking tended to endorse organizational conspiracy theories, which are “defined as beliefs among employees that their managers secretly conspire to pursue malevolent goals.” In the fifth and final study, which included 410 U.S. participants, they found that sensation seeking predicted increased belief in specific conspiracy theories, such as the belief that the U.S. government had advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks or that the moon landing was a hoax.

“Conspiracy theories have a storyline that actually has a lot in common with entertaining works of fiction, such as a scary movie or a detective novel,” van Prooijen told PsyPost. “This also explains their appeal: People find conspiracy theories entertaining, that is, interesting, exciting, and attention-grabbing narratives. This is important, because our results show that the more people feel entertained by conspiracy theories, the more likely it is that they believe them.”

The findings provide some new insights into why conspiracy theories are appealing to people. But belief in conspiracy theories, like most social phenomena, is complex and influenced by a host of factors. Just because someone finds conspiracy theories entertaining does not necessarily mean they will believe in them.

“There are many different ways of being entertained, and not all forms of entertainment are likely to increase belief in conspiracy theories,” van Prooijen explained. “For instance, one may find the flat earth movement really funny, but that does not mean one also buys into the notion that the earth is flat. We believe that only forms of entertainment that include a serious fascination is driving these effects, but we need more research to establish that.”

The results also have some practical implications for the journalism industry.

“Our studies also show that sensationalizing news events (such as an election) to increase their entertainment value heightens conspiracy beliefs,” van Prooijen said. “This, I think, entails a lesson for how news is often presented. It may be tempting to sensationalize news, as it gains higher viewer ratings. But these findings suggest that such sensationalizing may increase citizens’ tendency to believe conspiracy theories. For the benefit of us all, a boring truth is preferable to entertaining misinformation.”

The study, “The entertainment value of conspiracy theories“, was authored by Jan-Willem van Prooijen, Joline Ligthart, Sabine Rosema, and Yang Xu.

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