Although I don’t do it as much as I used to, I still enjoy arguing about conspiracy theories with people on the Internet. As I’m generally pretty skeptical of conspiracy explanations, I usually find myself defending whatever the conventional explanation for something is, and as often as not I get accused of believing without question whatever the government (or Big Pharma, or whoever) tells me. Basically, people accuse me of being an authoritarian, which I’m decidedly not (much to my parents’ dismay).
There has been a lot of psychological research on authoritarianism, much of it by Theodor Adorno and Bob Altemeyer. Some has even concerned conspiracy theories, but as you’ll see, the results are a bit inconsistent. Some studies have shown that people who are more authoritarian are more likely to believe conspiracy theories. For instance, in a seminal study in conspiracy psychology, Marina Abalakina-Paap and colleagues showed that specific conspiracy beliefs tend to be associated with high levels of authoritarianism. Several studies by Monika Grzesiak-Feldman have shown that anti-Semitic conspiracy theories in Poland are more likely to be held by authoritarians. Likewise, a study in the 1990s by Yelland and Stone found that authoritarians are more amenable to persuasion that the Holocaust was a hoax, orchestrated by a massive Jewish conspiracy. Viren Swami, a psychologist at the University of Westminster, has demonstrated that anti-Semitic conspiracy theories are associated with authoritarianism in a Malaysian sample as well.
But there’s some evidence pointing the other way as well. In a separate study, Swami and his colleagues at the University of Westminster showed that 9/11 conspiracy beliefs are associated with negative attitudes toward authority, and John W. McHoskey found that people high in authoritarianism were more likely to be anti-conspiracist when it comes to the JFK assassination.
So what’s going on here? It looks like the content of the theories is what matters. The research on the psychology of authoritarianism has long shown that authoritarians tend to derogate and scapegoat minorities, which seems to be what’s going on in a lot of these anti-Semitic cases: a minority is being blamed by the majority for the ills of society. Swami’s Malaysian study actually proposes that the anti-Semitism shown by the Malaysian respondents might be a proxy for anti-Chinese racist attitudes: there are very few Jews in Malaysia, so Malaysian authoritarians might displace their ethnic aggression from a relatively powerful and socially accepted minority group (Chinese) onto one that is almost non-existent in their society and so can be scapegoated without consequence (Jews).
In contrast, a lot of modern conspiracy theories have a very populist and anti-government tone. They blame authorities for the evils of society, not minorities – the American government blew up the Twin Towers, MI6 killed Princess Diana, and so on. So it makes sense that authoritarians would be less likely to believe that their governments are conspiring against them and anti-authoritarians would find this idea more appealing. There’s no uniform association between authoritarianism and conspiracy belief – it seems to depend on the specifics of the theory in question.
As a side note: there is still some crossover between the anti-Semitic conspiracy world and the more anti-authoritarian theories like the 9/11 truth movement. 9/11 conspiracies are very popular in the Arab world, where there’s also a lot of anti-Semitism. There is also some crossover in the domain of anti-Zionism, which most anti-authoritarian conspiracy theorists seem to adhere to – David Dees is a good example (probably most of his cartoons feature anti-Zionist elements) – but anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism, it’s just a point on which authoritarian and anti-authoritarian conspiracy theorists often agree.
Still, antisemitism used to be much more socially acceptable than it is now, and its influence persists in the darker corners of even some modern conspiracy theories. You can see this a lot in editorial cartoons, where conspirators, especially bankers, are portrayed as having exaggerated hooked noses and tentacles straight out of Der Ewige Jude. The artists probably have nothing against Jewish people, but are instead following the conventions of anti-banker propaganda that were first established in the early 20th century, when Nesta Webster was in her prime, the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion were still a going concern, and people were generally just really worried that the Jews were up to something.