Particular cultural values are correlated with widespread belief in conspiracy theories, new research shows, posing a challenge for countries and governments struggling to combat the influence of such ideas.
According to an article published in Political Psychology on Dec. 5, values identified within psychology such as masculinity and collectivism help predict the prevalence of belief in conspiracy theories, which the authors defined as “beliefs that significant events are the result of malevolent groups who ‘pull the strings’ behind the scenes,” within a given country. The paper’s findings highlight the importance of culture in shaping beliefs and attitudes about the world and suggest deep-rooted links between beliefs and the larger social and cultural institutions through which they’re channeled.
Jais Adam-Troian, a social psychologist at the American University of Sharjah and a corresponding author of the article, noted that the term collectivism in a psychological context refers to a “tendency [by a cultural group] to think in terms of group relationships,” while the term masculinity is used to describe a culture’s emphasis of competition over cooperation or consensus building.
Drawing partly on the psychological theory that beliefs “are activated depending on the surrounding cultural context,” the article’s authors ultimately found empirical evidence to suggest that the cultural values of masculinity and collectivism help trigger a relatively high prevalence of belief in conspiracy theories in countries where those values predominate.
Those two values come from a theoretical framework developed by psychologist Geert Hofstede, who in the 1970s identified six dimensions to distinguish countries’ cultural differences. The other four include power distance, which captures the extent to which members of a society accept “unequal power distributions”; uncertainty avoidance, or how much people in a given society are made uncomfortable by ambiguity; long-term orientation, which captures attitudes toward tradition and social change in a culture; and indulgence, which refers to the extent to which societies allow members to freely pursue basic human drives associated with enjoying life and having fun.
While the researchers probed a series of hypotheses linking cultural values from Hofstede’s six-values model of culture to belief in conspiracy theories, they found evidence backing their predictions about how masculinity and collectivism correlate to conspiracy beliefs. In examining data gleaned from three analyses conducted on 25, 19 and 18 countries, respectively, ranging from China to the U.S. and Great Britain, Adam-Troian and his co-authors discovered positive associations between both masculinity and collectivism and belief in conspiracy theories.
The team then ran a cross-sectional study of U.S. citizens, using individual-level measures of Hofstede’s dimensions, and found correlations that replicated the team’s national-level findings.
“It was theoretically expected that collectivism, which is the tendency to think in terms of groups, would exacerbate the conspiracy mindset, but also that masculinity, which is defined as societal contexts where you have lots of intergroup tension, conflicts and competition … [would] exacerbate that kind of mindset,” Adam-Troian said.
In what the researchers called a “surprising result,” they didn’t find evidence that nations with high uncertainty avoidance, or discomfort with ambiguity, were more prone to widespread belief in conspiracy theories. Many psychologists have held that conspiracy theories play a role in imposing a sense of control over ambiguous situations.
While it’s true that conspiracy theories do quell anxiety about the unknown to some extent, Adam-Troian said, their prevalence isn’t likely to be accounted for in terms of their “meaning-making” power. People who espouse conspiracy beliefs are often already quite certain about the world, he noted, and probably don’t take psychological comfort in their often frightening, pessimistic views of it.
Analyzing such beliefs at the level of culture yields a more comprehensive picture of the way that the prevalence of conspiracy theories is also a function of social and economic contexts that transcend the individual.
Like with racially prejudiced attitudes, understanding conspiracy beliefs is “not only a matter of individual differences or personality traits,” he said, noting that “You have to understand the context” in which they arise. Both phenomena are likely amplified in times of competition for social and economic resources perceived as scarce and as politicians exploit feelings of distrust and suspicion for political gain, he added.
The pervasiveness of “conspiracy beliefs ... [has] stayed on a constant level since the dawn of time,” Adam-Troian said. And while their prevalence varies somewhat along with individual-level factors such as IQ, for example, “The social context is what really shapes and drives them.”
Adam-Troian believes the research suggests a range of measures leaders could explore in the fight against conspiracy theories. He and his co-authors are currently revising a paper which shows how critical thinking interventions they developed help combat conspiratorial thinking among French school teachers.
The team hopes to administer a similar program for students after pandemic-related restrictions are lifted.
Based on the link between a society’s political situation and its vulnerability to conspiracy beliefs demonstrated in the article, he said, effective interventions likely must have a political dimension themselves.
“When you act on the social context and you help people identify more with a common group and gain trust in institutions … you’re going to automatically lower conspiracy beliefs,” Adam-Troian said.
“Investigating the Links Between Cultural Values and Belief in Conspiracy Theories: the Key Roles of Collectivism and Masculinity” was published on Dec. 5 in Political Psychology by Jais Adam-Troian of the American University of Sharjah and a team of co-authors including Pascal Wagner-Egger, University of Illinois at Chicago; Matt Motyl, New York University; Thomas Arciszewski, Aix-Marseille University; Roland Imhoff, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz; Felix Zimmer, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz; Olivier Klein, Université Libre de Bruxelles; Maria Babinska, University of Warsaw; Adrian Bangerter, University of Neuchatel; Michal Bilewicz, University of Warsaw; Nebojša Blanuša, University of Zagreb; Kosta Bovan, University of Zagreb; Rumena Bužarovska, University of St. Cyril and Methodius; Aleksandra Cichocka, University of Kent; Elif Çelebi, Istanbul Sehir University; Sylvain Delouvée, Université de Rennes; Karen M. Douglas, University of Kent; Asbjørn Dyrendal, Norwegian University of Science and Technology; Biljana Gjoneska, Macedonian Academy of Sciences and Arts; Sylvie Graf, University of Bern; Estrella Gualda, Universidad de Huelva; Gilad Hirschberger, Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya; Anna Kende, Eötvös Loránd University; Peter Krekó, Eötvös Loránd University; Andre Krouwel, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam; Pia Lamberty, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz; Silvia Mari, University of Milano; Jasna Milosevic, Singidunum University; Maria Serena Panasiti, Sapienza University of Rome; Myrto Pantazi, University of Oxford; Ljupcho Petkovski, Macedonian Center for European Training; Giuseppina Porciello, Sapienza University of Rome; JP Prims, University of Illinois at Chicago; André Rabelo, Universidade de Brasília; Michael Schepisi, Sapienza University of Rome; Robbie M. Sutton, University of Kent; Viren Swami, Anglia Ruskin University; Hulda Thórisdóttir, University of Iceland; Vladimir Turjačanin, University of Banja Luka; Iris Zezelj, University of St. Cyril and Methodius; Jan-Willem van Prooijen, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.