Measuring belief in conspiracy theories

On a scale of 1 to 7, do you think JFK was killed by the C.I.A.? The moon landing was faked? The Queen is an alien reptile? That might sound trite, but it’s how most psychological research into conspiracy theories has measured belief. Is this the best way to go about it?

Measurement is an important issue. To understand why people believe conspiracy theories, first we need a good way to measure the extent to which different people accept or reject them. It’s not simply a matter of belief and disbelief. Few people reject or accept conspiracy theories with complete certainty. Most people are somewhere in between, varying in their degree of uncertainty. A few different scales have been created to measure these individual differences. Most scales list about 10 or 15 different popular conspiracy theories – usually things like JFK’s assassination, 9/11, the moon landing – and ask people to rate how likely they think each theory is likely to be true on a scale of 1 (meaning definitely not true) to 7 (meaning definitely true).

In many ways, this is a sensible approach. One of the most consistent findings from psychological research is that a person who believes one conspiracy theory probably believes many others. That might not surprise you – we can probably all think of someone who believes that literally everything is part of a conspiracy. But it ought to be surprising. The question of whether the footage of Neil Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind was shot on the surface of the moon or in a terrestrial film studio is unrelated in any obvious sense to the question of whether Queen Elizabeth II, George W. Bush, and other powerful figures from throughout history are in fact descended from shape-shifting alien lizards. These separate issues each deserve impartial evaluation of the relevant evidence, and presumably an individual might assign each claim a different degree of plausibility. Yet people who buy into one conspiracy theory tend also to accept many others – even theories with no logical relationship, or which directly contradict one another.

The good thing about this, at least for psychologists, is that it means we can treat belief in conspiracy theories as a personality trait. We don’t have to ask someone what they think about every conspiracy theory under the sun (which is lucky, because otherwise our experiments would take all day to complete and nobody would take part!). Instead, if we know someone’s attitude towards a few conspiracy theories, we have a pretty good idea about what their attitude is towards all conspiracy theories. This trait – a person’s tendency to evaluate all conspiracy theories similarly across the board – is called conspiracist ideation.

The problem is, how do we decide which few theories to ask people about? We have a virtually infinite number to choose from, yet we have to narrow it down to just 15 or so. Psychologists have generally just gone for the most popular theories at the time they created their measure. But this means that measures have a shelf-life. Conspiracy theories go out of fashion over time, and new theories take their place. One scale created in 1994 refers to a Japanese conspiracy to destroy the US economy – a popular theory at the time, but obscure and irrelevant now. It also means that a measure created in the UK might not be suitable for use in the USA, for example – conspiracy theories about the 7/7 London bombings are well-known in Britain, but not so much in the States.  It’s also hard to know whether the handful of theories you choose to ask people about really provide a valid measure of conspiracist ideation. There are different flavours of conspiracy theory. A good measure should represent them all.

So what can we do instead? In a recently published study, I suggest that instead of asking people about specific theories like JFK or 9/11, we should ask people relatively generic questions. Does the government carry out assassinations, frame people as patsies, and let terrorist attacks take place? Do groups of people routinely conspire to control world events, manipulate the public, and cover up important information? To figure out exactly what questions we should ask, we first came up with a long list of generic questions like these. 500 people filled out the questionnaire, and we analysed their responses for clusters – groups of questions which people tended to answer similarly. This revealed 5 underlying flavours of conspiracy:

  1. Government conspiracies (governments routinely conspire against their own citizens)
  2. Small-group conspiracies (a small, secret, nefarious group of powerful people are pulling the strings behind world events)
  3. Alien conspiracies (someone is covering up the existence of aliens)
  4. Personal conspiracies (someone is out to get you)
  5. Information control conspiracies (technological advances and other important facts are kept from the public)

We created a 15-item scale (the Generic Conspiracist Beliefs scale, or GCB for short) with questions about each of these 5 kinds of conspiracy. Conspiracy theories in the real world usually merge the themes together (think of theories proposing that a small group of elites within the US government is in cahoots with aliens to enslave the human race using advanced mind-control technology). But by keeping them separate in our scale, we can be sure that our measure represents each of the important aspects of conspiracist ideation. Because the questions are generic they are equally relevant to everyone, and they won’t go out of fashion.

If you’re a researcher who wants to measure belief in conspiracy theories, or if you just want to know more about how we designed and validated the scale, the paper (Brotherton, French, & Pickering, 2013) is published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Psychology and is freely available online.

Here’s what we ask people…

Beliefs About the World
There is often debate about whether or not the public is told the whole truth about various important issues. This brief survey is designed to assess your beliefs about some of these subjects. Please indicate the degree to which you believe each statement is likely to be true on the following scale: 1: Definitely not true; 2: Probably not true; 3: Not sure / cannot decide; 4: Probably true; 5: Definitely true.

1. The government is involved in the murder of innocent citizens and/or well-known public figures, and keeps this a secret
2. The power held by heads of state is second to that of small unknown groups who really control world politics
3. Secret organisations communicate with extraterrestrials, but keep this fact from the public
4. The spread of certain viruses and/or diseases is the result of the deliberate, concealed efforts of some organisation
5. Groups of scientists manipulate, fabricate, or suppress evidence in order to deceive the public
6. The government permits or perpetrates acts of terrorism on its own soil, disguising its involvement
7. A small, secret group of people is responsible for making all major world decisions, such as going to war
8. Evidence of alien contact is being concealed from the public
9. Technology with mind-control capacities is used on people without their knowledge
10. New and advanced technology which would harm current industry is being suppressed
11. The government uses people as patsies to hide its involvement in criminal activity
12. Certain significant events have been the result of the activity of a small group who secretly manipulate world events
13. Some UFO sightings and rumours are planned or staged in order to distract the public from real alien contact
14. Experiments involving new drugs or technologies are routinely carried out on the public without their knowledge or consent
15. A lot of important information is deliberately concealed from the public out of self-interest

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About Rob Brotherton

Rob is a Visiting Research Fellow at Goldsmiths, University of London, and assistant editor of The Skeptic [www.skeptic.org.uk]. Follow Rob on Twitter: @rob_brotherton
This entry was posted in Personality and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Measuring belief in conspiracy theories

  1. One issue I see with the generic question is in some situations you ask things such:

    “The government is involved in ”
    “The government uses people ”

    This is fine in some respects, but in reality the conspiracy theorist may assign this to another countries government and not their own, or the liberal government and not the republican, conservative and labour but not liberal. The belief may be predicated upon a distrust of ‘the enemy’ government or a political affiliation they inherently distrust. The whole belief could rest upon a politicised belief system or even a religious belief for some individuals.

    For this reason I think the wording of the generic questions could be improved for this circumstance.

  2. User says:

    I’m interested in the idea that conspiracy theory is based on a generalized way of thinking rather than specific consideration. In “What About Building 7?”, there was a brief discussion of the attitudes expressed toward other conspiracies:

    “a post-hoc examination of the data revealed that 23 comments mentioned the JFK assassination conspiracy theory favorably, while only nine mentioned it negatively. The 7/7 bombing conspiracy theories showed a similar pattern, with 6 negative mentions to 16 positive. Other theories, such as those concerning the moon landing (27 negative, 6 positive), Elvis (21 negative, 0 positive), aliens (20 negative, 2 positive), and David Icke’s reptilian shapeshifters (8 negative, 1 positive), showed the opposite pattern.”

    What are your thoughts about the variety of opinions 9/11 conspiracy commentators have toward other conspiracies? And if your thesis is that conspiratorial thinking comes from a generalized worldview, what accounts for the lack of uniformity in these positive/negative evaluations of other conspiracies?

  3. G says:

    Excellent work! You’re definitely making headway with this one. And I fully agree that measures are needed that are internationally viable and don’t become obsolete over time. I can see it becoming a generalized measure of CT, though it needs a little fine-tuning.

    Item 1 might pick up some false positives from people opposed to the use of drones in warfare, including a large segment of the American left.

    Item 9 as worded, could also pick up some false positives from people who are ideologically opposed to the mass media notably TV.

    Item 10 could be worded “…is being actively targeted and deliberately suppressed.” This would filter out the false positives such as “advanced-design nuclear reactors aren’t being built due to unfair burdens of un-informed public opinion plus a regulatory system that is geared toward traditional reactor designs.”

    Item 15 can almost be considered a “control” question, because mundane examples are so widely reported in the news. For example the horsemeat scandals in the UK and Europe clearly involved meat processors concealing the existence of horsemeat in their products. That wasn’t a “conspiracy,” it was merely their own self-interest and lawbreaking, but none the less they did conceal information from food regulatory agencies and the public. Stronger wording of the question could separate out those types of issues and shades of opinion as distinct from CT.

  4. hybridrogue1 says:

    Well Rob, here is a question for you:

    Have you ever considered a poll to figure out the processes behind ‘anti-conspiracist ideation’?.

    You have a select group, including yourself that could be given a test under those auspices.

    ~Willy Whitten

  5. hybridrogue1 says:

    Anyway, this article is about as useful as a bikini in Antarctica.

    I have some advice for those who want to frame “Conspiracy Theory” as a mental disease; You had damned well better know the facts of the conspiracies throughout history that have been proven beyond reasonable doubt.

    The topic must also be understood from a systemic analysis. Otherwise there is nothing of substance behind the ‘psychological theories’ being put forth. Cass Sunstein has had his pants yanked down in public, displaying his micro-penis, that is; the lack of any substance whatsoever in his quack nonsense.

    Unless this agenda to frame Conspiracy Theory as a form of psychosis is successful in creating legislation criminalizing such thought, and we end up with show trials akin to the absurdities in the Soviet Union under the tutelage of Beria: Those who promote this fraudulent nonsense under the banner of “science” will remain liable the judgment of the rational analysis of an awakened public. Those who throw their lot against the side of truth can never survive the long run.
    \\][//

  6. Pingback: The Generic Conspiracist Beliefs Scale  « The Jury Room

  7. Robert says:

    Trying to answer the generic conspiracism Qs for myself, I thought of a simple way you could improve the questionnaire: Instead of asking whether each statement is “likely to be true”, ask, “How frequent is it that…?”, scaling it from “never” to “most of the time”. Only minor changes to conform to that format would be needed in most statements; however, Qs 3 & 8, dealing with aliens or extraterrestrial knowledge, are not amenable to the same format, it not making much sense to consider the “frequency” at which such secrets could be kept. Still, I think the gain in discrimination in the other questions would be worth having to ask those 2 questions in a separate format.

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