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Government and politics

Changes in conspiracy beliefs are rare, but possible

New study with mostly liberal sample finds that people do change their mind about conspiracy beliefs — but not often.

08 April 2024

By Emily Reynolds

Over the last few years, we've all heard more about conspiracy theories than perhaps we would care to. As they continue to widely circulate, however, it's beneficial for psychologists to study why people believe in them, what traits encourage such beliefs, and what we can do to curb their spread.

But while much research has been done on these aspects, relatively little has focused on how a person's belief in conspiracy theories evolves over time.

Springing forth to begin to fill this gap, Matt Williams and team's latest study took a closer look at just how much, if at all, everyday people's beliefs in conspiracies change over a specific six month span during which developing them may have been particularly tempting.

Adopting a longitudinal design, the team recruited 498 adult participants living in Australia and New Zealand. The study took place from March to September 2021, a period in which Covid-19 vaccinations were being rolled out, and many areas in Australia and New Zealand were still operating under lockdown conditions — according to existing theories, facing such widespread societal threat and uncertainty plausibly made this a time ripe for growth in conspiracy belief.

Throughout these six months, participants completed a survey on seven occasions, responding to questions focused on widespread conspiracies, such as SARS-CoV-2 being a bioweapon, 9/11 being an inside job, condensation from planes supposedly being harmful 'chemtrails', and vaccinations being a way to implant a chip in people's bodies. After reading the theories, participants indicated how much they agreed with each of them, allowing the team to create a general conspiracy belief score out of five for each participant.

Analyses revealed that there was very little change in participants' belief in conspiracy theories during the study. While some people did change their minds about conspiracy theories (both adopting and abandoning them) there was far less variance in individuals' conspiracy beliefs than there was as a group overall. Across the six months, the average change in score was small, with mean changes of 0.16 points, or 3.2% — representing very marginal changes in belief. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the moment at which this research was conducted, there was just one conspiracy theory that bucked this trend: the belief that SARS-CoV-2 was a biological weapon created by China, which increased slightly between May and June 2021. These shifts, however, were a marginal 3.8% increase, which the team argues is "difficult to reconcile" with explanatory theories such as the Existential Threat Model, which suggests that distressing societal events lead people to embrace conspiracy theories. With the Covid pandemic being one of the most distressing global events in recent memory, such models might expect a greater increase.

While these findings are somewhat reassuring, in that they suggest people's belief in conspiracy theories is relatively stable, even in the face of widespread societal threat, it's possible that the beliefs of this highly educated, young, and liberal sample might not paint the full picture. Findings from this demographic won't easily generalise to those with right-wing political beliefs — and with those at the extremes often cited as more readily embracing of conspiracy theories, we arguably need more studies that pursue participants who fall into this group. Conservative participants in this study (just 9% of the total cohort) showed higher levels of conspiracy belief, which suggests cause for a replication effort with a more diverse sample.

It's also important to note that most participants disagreed with the theories they were shown — the most popular overall was that pharmaceutical companies had suppressed a cure for cancer, which still only sat at an average of 2.23 out of 5 on the scale of belief. The fact that these participants had a generally low belief in conspiracies, therefore, may also act as a limitation, or at least a point for future research to address.

Finally, most of the conspiracies looked at in the study were popularised much earlier than the study's start date. Future research could look at how those prone to conspiracy beliefs come to embrace new theories as they emerge and take shape, which could hopefully offer further insights on how to protect against fringe beliefs.

Read the paper in full.