Conspiracy theories can affect people’s beliefs and behaviours in significant ways. For example, they can influence decisions on important issues such as climate change and vaccination. Despite their importance, however, all of the existing research on conspiracy theories has been conducted with adults, and questionnaires to measure conspiracy beliefs have been designed only with adults in mind. Therefore, we do not currently know when and why conspiracy beliefs develop in young people, and how they change over time. This timely project – funded by the British Academy – has developed and validated a conspiracy beliefs questionnaire suitable for young people, called the Adolescent Conspiracy Beliefs Questionnaire (ACBQ).
We tested the ACBQ on a range of young people in the UK, allowing us to finalise 9 questions that measure young people’s belief in conspiracy theories. The ACBQ includes questions such as “secret societies influence many political decisions” and “governments have deliberately spread diseases in certain groups of people”. Participants completing the scale are asked to respond to each statement on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). A higher mean score indicates a higher belief in conspiracy theories.
14 could be a peak age for believing in conspiracy theories
It was during the process of testing the ACBQ that we found that conspiracy theories flourished in teenage years. More specifically, we found that 14 is the age adolescents are most likely to start believing in conspiracy theories. We uncovered this by examining whether age group differences existed in conspiracy beliefs. In the second stage of testing the ACBQ – where we questioned 178 adolescents – we found as teenagers join Year 10 at age 14 (i.e. Key Stage 4 in the UK national curriculum), their conspiracy beliefs are higher than their younger counterparts. Learn more on this finding here.
Read the paper published in British Journal of Developmental Psychology (open-access)
Download the 9-item ACBQ