Perceived loss of control may lead to an increase in conspiracy theories, study finds

Psy Post/December 15, 2022

By Vladimir Hedrih

Studies of North Macedonians immediately after their country was renamed and of U.S. residents affected by a series of tornadoes showed that people who felt a loss of control over important events tended to increase their beliefs in conspiracy theories. The study was published in Psihologija.

Conspiracy theories are generally thought of as “implausible claims that significant events are being caused by malevolent clandestine groups.” Claims of these “theories” typically run counter to explanations of events provided by relevant authorities and scientists. Belief in conspiracy theories tends to be associated with various psychological and social factors.

Research studies indicate that overall beliefs in conspiracy theories have likely not changed much in recent history, but that it is only the specific conspiracy “theories” that people believe in that have changed. Nonetheless, beliefs in conspiracy theories attract a lot of research attention and much of that attention is focused on explaining the psychological mechanisms underpinning such beliefs.

One possible explanation of why people believe in conspiracy theories proposes that conspiracy theory beliefs “help those who have lost a sense of personal control to restore their worldview that existence is non-random, ordered and structured”.

However, existing research has not definitely established the link between the sense of personal control and beliefs in conspiracy theories. Ana Stojanov and her colleagues from New Zealand used the opportunity provided by two large-scale events in different parts of the world to study the possible link between the perceived lack of control over events and beliefs in conspiracy theories.

The first event was the renaming of the country of FYRO Macedonia into the Republic of North Macedonia. After the dissolution of the socialist Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia became an independent country. This led to a diplomatic conflict with the neighboring Greece that sees the name “Macedonia” as part of its cultural heritage and was not willing to accept a neighboring country using that name.

The dispute was resolved in 2018, after an agreement with Greece to rename the country to the Republic of North Macedonia was reached. In spite of strong popular opposition to renaming the country and a small voter turnout on the referendum about name change, renaming went through.

Researchers assumed that this event likely led to a feeling of a loss of control in those who voted against renaming, but not in those who voted in favor. Their expectation was that, because of this, conspiracy theory beliefs would increase in those who voted against renaming the country, but not in those who supported it.

To test this, they assessed conspiracy theory beliefs of 307 ethnic Macedonians (ethnic majority, expected to have strong feelings about the name of the country) who voted at the referendum about changing the name of the country. Participants were recruited through a market research company immediately after the referendum and resurveyed one year later.

The second study included 266 MTurk workers from the U.S. states of Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas. These are states that were hit with a series of tornadoes in 2019.

The researchers used a questionnaire to assess how much study participants were affected by the tornadoes. They also assessed perceived control of the participants (Pearlin and Schooler’s Mastery Scale) and used three different assessments of beliefs in conspiracy theories – generic conspiracy beliefs (Conspiracy Mentality Scale), beliefs in specific theories (Conspiracy Theory Beliefs Inventory) and weather-related conspiracy beliefs (3 questions created by authors – “The adverse weather conditions we are experiencing right now are a result of a weather manipulation experiment”; “The trails left in the sky by planes are evidence of a technology used to change the weather”; “The weather is controlled by multiple governments to help various industries and hurt others.”).

As the authors expected, results in North Macedonia showed that, in the year after the referendum on renaming the country, conspiracy theory beliefs of participants who voted against the name change in the referendum had increased, while these beliefs remained at the same level in the group of participants who supported the name change.

In the U.S. study, the researchers found that lower levels of perceived control were linked to higher levels of beliefs in conspiracy theories. Participants who were more affected by tornadoes tended to have lower levels of perceived control and higher levels of conspiracy theory beliefs.

This link was the strongest with weather-related conspiracy theories. Data also supported the authors’ hypothesis that being affected by a tornado leads to a decrease in the sense of control, which then leads to increased belief in weather-related conspiracy theories.

“Present studies suggest that the link between perceived control and conspiracy beliefs may be more nuanced than previously thought,”  the authors conclude. The studies represent an important contribution to the study of psychological mechanisms behind conspiracy theory beliefs, but they also have certain limitations. Notably, there were no experimental controls due to the naturalistic design of the studies and the study designs do not allow any cause-and-effect conclusions about the studied factors.

The study, “Perceived Lack of Control and Conspiracy Theory Beliefs in the Wake of Political Strife and Natural Disaster”, was authored by Ana Stojanov, Jesse M. Bering, and Jamin Halberstadt.

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