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Sat Jan 21, 2023, 10:57 PM Jan 2023

What Are Conspiracy Theories? A Definitional Approach to Their Correlates, Consequences, and Communi




Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, social media were rife with conspiracy theories about the origins, spread, and treatment of the virus. One conspiracy theory alleged that the virus was deliberately manufactured in a Chinese laboratory to wage war on the West. Another put forward the notion that it was all a hoax. In early 2022, a conspiracy theory alleged that there were US chemical weapons laboratories in Ukraine, and another conspiracy theory advanced the argument that the war in Ukraine was started deliberately by billionaires while they prepared a new virus to let loose on the world. Conspiracy theories like these—allegations that two or more actors have coordinated in secret to achieve an outcome, and that their actions are of public interest but not widely known by the public—abound in social and political discourse. However, even though they are more visible due to advances in communication technology, they are not a new phenomenon. For instance, in earlier decades conspiracy theories have alleged that Diana, Princess of Wales, was assassinated by the British secret service; that the 9/11 attacks were an inside job; and that the Apollo moon landings were a hoax. Conspiracy theories have therefore always been with us. When we hear news about important social and political events and circumstances, we also hear conspiracy theories about them.

Despite the prominence of conspiracy theories, psychological scientists have only begun to study them in earnest in the past 20 years. The development of this research agenda is important for many reasons. To give just one example, belief in COVID-19 conspiracy theories has been linked with reluctance to take the behavioral precautions and vaccines required to protect public health. Throughout their history, conspiracy theories have been associated with violence, war, terrorism, prejudice, poor health choices, and denial of climate change. In many important ways, therefore, conspiracy theories matter.

Progress in the study of this important topic has been spectacular. We have prepared this article to review this progress, highlighting what we know, and what we are yet to learn, about the psychology of conspiracy theories. Moving beyond the boundaries of a descriptive review, we argue that significantly more progress will be achieved if we pay more careful attention to determining exactly what we are studying. We argue therefore for analyzing the essential features of conspiracy theories and their implications for the causes, consequences, and transmission of conspiracy beliefs.

We begin by reviewing the empirical literature on conspiracy theories, highlighting both the abundance and the disorganization of empirical discoveries in this literature. We then take a step back to propose a reasoned definition of conspiracy theories. From this, we derive an inventory of some of their most important inherent characteristics. We then articulate a metatheoretical framework in which hypotheses about the acceptance, sharing, and impacts of conspiracy theories can be inferred from these defining characteristics. We argue that this framework synthesizes hitherto disconnected insights into the antecedents, transmission, and consequences of conspiracy belief, and it promises to promote and direct innovation in further research.


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