The Conspiratorial Mindset in an Age of Transition


Executive summary

  • Conspiracy theories should not be dismissed as a psychological problem that only affects a small minority – a subtler suspicion of political institutions and their power is far more pervasive.
  • The current period of transition in Europe has resulted in increased uncertainty about national identities and a perceived loss of control. These are in turn the ideal conditions for the proliferation of conspiracy theories about the role of government.
  • In France, Hungary and Slovakia, we found that very significant numbers agree that it is not the government that governs, but that someone else is pulling the strings. Respondents indicated that international finance, other countries and, especially in France, large media empires were the major conspirators.
  • Demographic factors such as gender, age, education and employment are not the key determinants for these beliefs. Politics (especially party politics) matters much more than social status in shaping a conspiratorial mindset – a firm belief that conspiracies can be used to explain all sorts of events and decisions.
  • Comparing survey results from France, Hungary and Slovakia points to a deep relationship between conspiracy theories, populism and democracy. A conspiratorial mindset and a populist mindset are connected to lower levels of institutional trust and reflect a significant concern about the quality of democracy in contemporary political institutions. Supporters of populist parties in France and Hungary are more likely to agree that the government does not run the country and that others are pulling the strings.
  • The danger of conspiracy theories is not only the link between a conspiratorial mindset and undemocratic attitudes or populism, but also the link to xenophobic and anti-Semitic prejudices. There is evidence of substantial levels of anti-Semitic conspiracy theorising in Hungary and Slovakia. (This could not be tested in France.)
  • The key to developing an appropriate response to the conspiratioral mindset is to appreciate how the roots of dangerous conspiracy theories can play a role in short-circuiting them. Merely unpicking the logic of conspiracy theories or debunking the theories and trying to dissuade believers is unlikely to have the desired effect. To challenge conspiracy theories campaigners should therefore be conscious of and address the deeper considerations underpinning them, including political transitions, perceived loss of control, institutional distrust, and populism.

Read the full study here.

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