Conspiracy Endorsement as Motivated Reasoning: The Moderating Roles of Political Knowledge and Trust

The article “Conspiracy Endorsement as Motivated Reasoning: The Moderating Roles of Political Knowledge and Trust” (AJPS 60:4 – October 2016) by Joanne M. Miller, Kyle L. Saunders, and Christina E. Farhart is summarized by the authors here:

Contrary to the popular conception that conspiracy theorists are a small group of tinfoil hat-wearing men who spend most of their time in bunkers, conspiracy theories are not solely the domain of extremists and paranoids. They cut across demographics and political identities, and are pervasive across the globe. Conspiracy beliefs can also affect policy attitudes, social behaviors, and even medical choices. Further, just the presence of these theories in the public zeitgeist can distract political elites from attending to more pressing public policy concerns. For example, President Bush had to repeatedly respond to accusations that he and Dick Cheney staged the 9/11 attacks, and President Obama had to hold a press conference for the sole purpose of releasing his long-form birth certificate.

Given the potential political and social significance of conspiracy beliefs, a substantial and growing body of work examines the individual-level correlates of conspiracy endorsement. Our article builds on this extant literature to posit that conspiracy endorsement is a motivated process that serves both ideological and psychological needs. In doing so, we develop a theory that argues that the tendency to endorse a conspiracy theory is highest among people who 1) have a particular ideological worldview to which the conspiracy theory can be linked (i.e. liberals or conservatives), 2) have the motivation to protect that worldview and the ability to see how endorsing the conspiracy would serve that purpose (i.e., political sophisticates), and 3) believe that the world is the type of place in which secretive, malevolent actions are not only possible, but also probable (i.e., people low in trust). In other words, knowledge should exacerbate ideologically-motivated conspiracy endorsement and trust should mitigate it.

To test the hypotheses derived from our theory, we administered an original survey via MTurk in 2013 and replicated our findings using the 2012 ANES. We assessed belief in “conservative” conspiracy theories (ones that impugn liberals/Democrats) and “liberal” conspiracy theories (ones that impugn conservatives/Republicans), as well as ideology, political knowledge, and generalized trust.

Consistent with the theory of motivated reasoning, conservatives are more likely to endorse the conspiracy theories that impugn their political rivals, and vice versa. Our results also confirm our hypothesis that political knowledge exacerbates ideologically-motivated conspiracy endorsement whereas trust simultaneously mitigates it. Interestingly, however, this hypothesis is only confirmed for conservatives (i.e. high knowledge-low trust conservatives are the highest endorsers of conservative conspiracy theories). For liberals, trust is negatively associated with endorsement of liberal conspiracy theories, but knowledge is either not associated with or independently negatively associated with endorsement of liberal conspiracy theories.

This ideological asymmetry—a result that was consistent across both datasets—was unexpected, but is consistent with the notion that conspiracy endorsement, and science denial more generally, is a more attractive worldview-bolstering strategy for conservatives than liberals. It is also consistent with an alternative explanation–given that both surveys were conducted during a Democratic presidential administration, conservatives may have been situationally induced to be more motivated to bolster their worldviews (as would have liberals if the political situation had been reversed). We consider these and other alternative explanations for the asymmetry in the article.

Our results have broader implications for an increasingly polarized political discourse. As we well know, political sophisticates tend to be among the most active citizens in the United States; our findings therefore highlight a normatively displeasing notion for those who wish to view democracy through even the most rose-colored of lenses. In today’s political environment, elites (however defined) can cast outrageous aspersions against their nemeses, and can count on at least a segment of their knowledgeable (and less trusting) base to endorse (and possibly spread) what is essentially misinformation. Not only does elite polarization increase motivated reasoning within the mass public, but it is precisely this kind of motivated reasoning (endorsing ideologically-consistent conspiracy theories) that would also exacerbate polarization and rancor among elites and active partisans.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.