Expert Commentary

Knowledgeable conservatives more likely to back conspiracy theories

Conservatives who are familiar with politics and have little trust in institutions are more likely than liberals to endorse conspiracy theories, argues a recent study.

Conservatives are more likely than liberals to endorse conspiracy theories. Many are highly knowledgeable about politics and have little trust in institutions, a new study finds.

The issue: President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, goes one common conspiracy theory. Another: George W. Bush knew in advance about the 9/11 attacks and let them happen. Conspiracy theories can spread quickly in this era of social media, especially as people sort themselves into information silos, only sharing information with the like-minded. During the 2016 presidential election one candidate frequently leveled charges against his opponent with little evidence, sometimes framing them with the noncommittal phrase “people say.” He won.

A 2009 paper defines conspiracy theories as “an effort to explain some event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who attempt to conceal their role.” Other researchers add that conspiracies often allege the illegal usurpation of political or economic power.

The authors of a 2014 paper found “over half of the American population consistently endorse some kind of conspiratorial narrative about a current political event or phenomenon.”

They are also powerful distractions. Politicians responding to conspiracy theories must often turn their attention away from more pressing issues.

Psychologists have described how conspiracy theories allow believers to explain complicated events and how they may address feelings of alienation. Because many conspiracy theories hinge on politics, some researchers have noted how they impugn competing ideologies and solidify political attitudes. Indeed, a 2012 paper showed party affiliation correlated with the endorsement of particular theories.

But the authors of a new paper feel these explanations alone are not enough, and ask if political knowledge and trust play a role.

An academic study worth reading: “Conspiracy Endorsements as Motivated Reasoning: The Moderating Roles of Political Knowledge and Trust,” published in the American Journal of Political Science, October 2016.

Study summary: Joanne Miller, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota, and her team hypothesize that people endorse conspiracy theories to serve “both ideological and psychological needs.” They also expect that people who do are “both highly knowledgeable about politics and lacking in trust.”

Miller and her team explain that people with deeper political knowledge are better equipped to make connections between abstract political ideas, that they are more likely to seek to protect their positions, and thus more likely to endorse “ideologically congruent” conspiracy theories – that is, theories that are consistent with their political positions.

Trust mitigates the role of knowledge in this equation, the authors expect, because “trust in people and institutions makes it difficult for people to muster up the evidence necessary to substantiate conspiracies that put ideological rivals in a bad light while simultaneously maintaining an illusion of objectivity.”

The authors ask over 2,200 Americans who self-identify as liberal or conservative to consider and weigh eight conspiracies: four designed to appeal to conservatives and four to liberals (for example, respectively, Obama was not born in the U.S. and the Bush Administration knew about 9/11 before it happened). The authors also code for political ideology on a scale of 1 to 7, and create a trust index based on how much respondents trust the federal government, law enforcement, media and public to do what is right. Then they test their hypotheses against another data set of 2,485 conservatives and liberals who answered similar questions for the 2012 American National Election Studies survey.


  • Conservatives are more likely to endorse ideologically congruent conspiracies than liberals.
  • Individuals with a high level of trust in institutions are less likely to endorse conspiracy theories.
  • Conservatives knowledgeable about politics are more likely to endorse ideologically congruent conspiracy theories. There is no evidence of a similar correlation among liberals.
  • Conservatives knowledgeable about politics who also have little trust in institutions are most associated with endorsement of ideologically consistent conspiracy theories: “Highly knowledgeable conservatives are more likely to engage in ideologically motivated endorsement, especially if they believe that the world is an untrustworthy place.”
  • Conservatives and liberals knowledgeable about politics are less likely than their unknowledgeable counterparts to endorse incongruent conspiracies – for example, a liberal is less likely to endorse the theory that President Obama was not born in the United States.
  • For liberals, greater knowledge about politics and greater trust in institutions both appear to decrease their tendency to endorse conspiracy theories.

The authors acknowledge that context may have some bearing on their results. Because they carried out the survey during Barack Obama’s Democratic administration, conservatives may be more motivated by contemporary conspiracies about Obama and his government. Still, they conclude that conservatives are more likely, overall, to endorse conspiracies: “Conservative politicians and pundits can more readily rely on conspiracies as an effective means to activate their base than liberals. And to the extent that ideologically motivated endorsement is most evident among the least trusting of the knowledgeable conservatives, there is all the more incentive for conservative elites to stoke the fires of distrust.”

Helpful resources:

  • A number of fact-checking websites respond to politicians’ claims. PolitiFact, run by the Tampa Bay Times, is one of the most established.
  • Fake news was a defining feature during the 2016 presidential campaign. This news article looks at a fake news operation run purely for profit in the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

Other research:

  • A 2014 study of letters to the editor published in the New York Times between 1890 and 2010 found the target of various conspiracy theories more likely to be associated with the party in power. The authors write, “Sharing conspiracy theories provides a way for groups falling in the pecking order to revamp and recoup from losses.” The practice, they write, is a form of scapegoating that allows conspiracy theorists to channel their anger.
  • A 2016 study in Judgement and Decision Making examined if neoliberal conservatives are more “susceptible to bullshit.”
  • Journalist’s Resource has written several times about misinformation and fact-checking. Another piece looks at how misleading poll questions can perpetuate conspiracy theories.


Keywords: Politics, political bias, polarization, post-truth, Facebook, fake news, spin, information operations

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