Researcher Identifies Political Roots of Conspiracy Theory Belief

Claire Jeantheau ’21, Staff Writer

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A professor and social researcher said in a recent lecture that “contrary to the popular belief that people who believe conspiracies are just middle-aged men in tin foil hats living in their parents’ basement,” conspiracy theories are “believed by a wide swath of the population.”

Joanne M. Miller, an associate professor of political science, psychology and brain science at the University of Delaware, delivered the talk “Why People Believe Conspiracy Theories,” during which she explained her research on why different demographics are attracted to certain theories. Miller drew from her own research on politically-diverse individuals.

Conspiracy theories satisfy a desire to restore control after “we’re scared, we’ve lost control, we don’t understand, we can’t figure things out,” Miller said. “As bizarre as it might sound, believing in a conspiracy theory as an explanation for an event ties it up in a nice little bow and makes it less scary.” 

According to Miller’s research, which began during former president Barack Obama’s second term, conspiracy theories are often consumed by peripheral political groups trying to minimize threats to their personal anxieties. When a Republican is in office, for example, Democrats are more likely to perpetuate conspiracy theories centered around that individual’s party, and vice versa. She also found that on average, individuals who identified as Republicans and believed in conspiracy theories held their faith in the theories most intensely. Miller’s study has continued into President Donald Trump’s administration, which she referred to as “the elephant in the room.” 

“Donald Trump is the first president in modern history to refer rhetorically to conspiracy theories as explanations for events a lot,” Miller said.

The ties between Miller’s research and the current political climate drew-in Tom Wegman ’20.

“The part where she brought up the data in the current presidential administration still being high for Republicans instead of being the opposite for the Obama administration, I thought that was really interesting,” Wegman said. “It would be cool to see that [data] when we don’t have Trump in office.”

Fiona Keane ’19 was interested by Miller’s findings on political independents, which placed their belief in conspiracy theories at a midway point between Democrats and Republicans. 

“I was surprised that [political independents] fell in the middle,” Keane said. “There are certain areas where independents would lean more towards Democrats and Republicans. It seems like independents aren’t always true moderates.”

Lara Dunkelberg ’20, who acted as the student project manager for the event, had an interest in Miller’s research from the lecture’s inception, describing herself as “really interested in conspiracy theories.”

“I thought [Miller’s lecture] was really, really interesting,” Dunkelberg said. “I think that she talks about conspiracy theories in a way that’s not really talked about by people in our generation. [She talks about] the motivators. I studied why people believe, but I think she highlighted some very interesting points. She debunks some of the things we thought before.”

“Why People Believe Conspiracy Theories” was held on Monday, Feb. 4 at 7 p.m. in the Anita Tuvin Schlechter Auditorium. The lecture was sponsored by the Clarke Forum for Contemporary Issues and the Bruce R. Andrews Fund.