Beliefs in Contradictory Conspiracy Theories

Dead and Alive: Beliefs in Contradictory
Conspiracy Theories
Michael J. Wood1
, Karen M. Douglas1
, and Robbie M. Sutton1
Conspiracy theories can form a monological belief system: A self-sustaining worldview comprised of a network of mutually
supportive beliefs. The present research shows that even mutually incompatible conspiracy theories are positively correlated
in endorsement. In Study 1 (n ¼ 137), the more participants believed that Princess Diana faked her own death, the more they
believed that she was murdered. In Study 2 (n ¼ 102), the more participants believed that Osama Bin Laden was already dead
when U.S. special forces raided his compound in Pakistan, the more they believed he is still alive. Hierarchical regression models
showed that mutually incompatible conspiracy theories are positively associated because both are associated with the view that
the authorities are engaged in a cover-up (Study 2). The monological nature of conspiracy belief appears to be driven not by conspiracy theories directly supporting one another but by broader beliefs supporting conspiracy theories in general.
conspiracy theories, conspiracism, contradiction, explanatory coherence
A conspiracy theory is defined as a proposed plot by powerful
people or organizations working together in secret to
accomplish some (usually sinister) goal (Coady, 2006; Douglas
& Sutton, 2008; Goertzel, 1994). Popular contemporary examples include the theory that the 9/11 attacks were planned and
carried out by elements within the American government (Kay,
2011) and the belief that evidence of a causal link between
autism and childhood vaccination is being suppressed by an
unscrupulous medical industry (Goertzel, 2010). Conspiracy
theories are not by definition false; indeed, many real conspiracies have come to light over the years. Suspicions of President
Nixon’s involvement in a burglary at the headquarters of the
Democratic National Committee began as a seemingly outlandish conspiracy theory but turned out to be true (Bale, 2007).
However, conspiracy beliefs, even when wrong, are notoriously resistant to falsification, and can take on the appearance
of a ‘‘degenerating research program’’ (Clarke, 2002, p. 136),
with new layers of conspiracy being added to rationalize each
new piece of disconfirming evidence.
Spurred in part by the growth of new media, conspiracism
has become a major subcultural phenomenon. This shift has not
gone unnoticed in academia. In recent decades, there has been
an explosion of research into the psychology of belief in conspiracy theories. Much of this research interest has focused
on the individual correlates of conspiracy belief, but perhaps
the most consistent finding in the work on the psychology of
conspiracy theories is that belief in a particular theory is
strongly predicted by belief in others—even ostensibly unrelated ones (Douglas & Sutton, 2008; Goertzel, 1994; Swami,
Chamorro-Premuzic, & Furnham, 2010; Swami et al., 2011).
For instance, someone who believes that the American government was behind the 9/11 attacks is very likely to also believe
that Princess Diana was deliberately assassinated. One proposed explanation for this connection is that beliefs in conspiracy theories somehow support one another (Goertzel, 1994).
Even though the perpetrators may be different in each case, the
fact that one massive, sinister conspiracy could be successfully
executed in near-perfect secrecy suggests that many such plots
are possible. Over time, the view of the world as a place ruled
by conspiracies can lead to conspiracy becoming the default
explanation for any given event—a unitary, closed-off worldview in which beliefs come together in a mutually supportive
network known as a monological belief system (Clarke, 2002;
Goertzel, 1994; Swami et al., 2010, 2011).
However, some conspiracy theories emphatically do not
support one another; indeed, many provide mutually contradictory explanations for the same event. These contradictions
among conspiracy theories are the focus of the present article.
For instance, the theories surrounding the death of Princess
Diana vary widely; some claim that she was killed by MI6, others allege that she was killed by Mohammed al-Fayed’s
1 University of Kent, Canterbury, United Kingdom
Corresponding Author:
Michael J. Wood, School of Psychology–Keynes College, University of Kent,
Canterbury, Kent, CT2 7NP, United Kingdom
Email: [email protected]
Social Psychological and
Personality Science
3(6) 767-773
ª The Author(s) 2012
Reprints and permission:
DOI: 10.1177/1948550611434786
business enemies, still others that she faked her own death.
How does a conspiracy-believing observer reconcile the presence of these competing, mutually contradictory accounts? If
beliefs in conspiracy theories are correlated with one another
because the theories are in direct agreement, one would not
expect reliable correlations between beliefs in theories that
are mutually exclusive.
In the present research, we seek to determine whether the
coherence of the conspiracist belief system is driven not by
direct relationships among individual theories, but by agreement between individual theories and higher-order beliefs
about the world. For instance, the idea that authorities are
engaged in motivated deception of the public would be a cornerstone of conspiracist thinking due to its centrality in conspiracy theories. Someone who believes in a significant number of
conspiracy theories would naturally begin to see authorities as
fundamentally deceptive, and new conspiracy theories would
seem more plausible in light of that belief (Read, Snow, &
Simon, 2003; Simon, Snow, & Read, 2004). Indeed, the two
conspiracy theories mentioned above—an autism/vaccine
connection and 9/11 as an inside job—both revolve around
that central proposition. Likewise, whether one believes that
Princess Diana was killed by MI6 or Mohammed Al-Fayed’s
business enemies, belief in a cover-up would support (and be
supported by) both theories. In spite of that, the two theories
contradict each other. Would it be possible for their contradiction to be overruled by their coherence with a broader conspiracist worldview, such that they display a positive
correlation in endorsement?
Some literature on stereotyping suggests that coherence with
strongly held worldviews may well be sufficient to overwhelm
contradictions between individual beliefs. Adorno, FrenkelBrunswik, Levinson, & Sanford (1950) found strong positive
correlations in endorsement between contradictory negative
stereotypes of Jews, such that highly prejudiced participants
found them to be both too isolated from the rest of society and
too eager to participate in it. Adorno proposed that this paradoxical perception has its roots in ‘‘a relatively blind hostility which
is reflected in the stereotypy, self-contradiction, and destructiveness’’ of anti-Jewish stereotyping (p. 76). In spite of their contradictory nature, both stereotypes drew enough credibility from
their one common element—a negative perception of Jewish
people—to end up with a strong positive association. The same
may well be true of contradictory conspiracy theories; conspiracy advocates’ distrust of official narratives may be so strong
that many alternative theories are simultaneously endorsed in
spite of any contradictions between them.
The phenomenon of global coherence overruling local
contradictions is perhaps best understood in the context of
Thagard’s (1989) explanatory coherence model (ECHO) of
social inference. Explanatory coherence theory characterizes
explanations and pieces of evidence about actors and events
as either coherent or incoherent with one another. These elements are represented by nodes in a connectionist network.
Activation flows from evidence nodes and higher-order knowledge structures (Read, 1987) to the various explanations, which
in turn excite or inhibit one another depending on whether they
are mutually coherent or contradictory. This process of excitation and inhibition continues until the system reaches a stable
equilibrium, at which point the highly activated explanations
are accepted and those with little activation are discarded. Activation has been shown to flow the other way, as well: Not only
do evidence and higher-order knowledge structures change
one’s perception of explanations, emerging conclusions in the
network also change perceptions of evidence and alter broad
worldviews (Read et al., 2003; Read & Miller, 1993).
For instance, imagine that someone is heavily invested in
conspiracism and strongly believes in a wide variety of different conspiracy theories. A view of authority as fundamentally
deceptive is coherent with all of these theories, and as such
draws activation from them until it becomes a strongly held
belief in itself. When a novel conspiracy theory is presented,
it immediately seems more credible because it agrees with this
now strongly held view and disagrees with the officially
endorsed narrative. Such higher-order beliefs may be so
strongly held that any conspiracy theory that stands in opposition to the official narrative will gain some degree of endorsement from someone who holds a conspiracist worldview, even
if it directly contradicts other conspiracy theories that they
also find credible. In other words, a natural consequence of
the explanatory coherence approach to social explanation is
an instantiation of the principle ‘‘the enemy of my enemy is
my friend.’’
Indeed, this is a principle found explicitly in Heider’s (1958)
theory of psychological balance, which shares a considerable
common ground with explanatory coherence. In balance theory, perceptions of an object or social actor are affected by its
relationship with other actors about which opinions already
exist. For instance, people’s evaluations of a novel product
endorsed by a known celebrity are more positive if they view
the celebrity positively, or more negative if their views of the
celebrity are negative. In the case of conspiracy theories, we
propose that a similar mechanism is at work: Officials are seen
as deceptive, perhaps even actively malevolent, so any explanation that they endorse is at a disadvantage, while alternative
explanations are more credible from the start. Explanatory
coherence has been shown to naturally instantiate many of the
Gestalt principles on which balance theory is based (Read et al.,
2003), and others have noted the applicability of balance theory
to the study of conspiracy belief, such as Inglehart (1987).
Thus, we predict that for someone with a conspiracist worldview, nearly any theory that assumes deception by officialdom
in its explanation for a world event and stands in opposition to
the ‘‘mainstream’’ account will garner some agreement. This
relationship may hold even to the point that people who believe
in a world governed by conspiracy are likely to endorse contradictory conspiracy theories about the same topic. Just as Adornoet et al. (1950) found positive correlations in endorsement of
contradictory stereotypes, we expect to see positive relationships between endorsement of contradictory conspiracy theories about the same event. For example, the more that
participants believe that a person at the center of a death768 Social Psychological and Personality Science 3(6)
related conspiracy theory, such as Princess Diana or Osama Bin
Laden, is still alive, the more they also tend to believe that the
same person was killed, so long as the alleged manner of death
involves deception by officialdom.
Study 1
We first elected to examine the relationship between contradictory conspiracy theories regarding the same event by asking
about several rival accounts of Princess Diana’s death.
Participants. One hundred and thirty-seven undergraduate
psychology students (83% female, mean age 20.4) were
recruited from a second-year research methods class at a
British university. Participation was voluntary and no compensation was given.
Materials and procedure. For the purposes of the present
study, we used the conspiracy theory belief scale used by
Douglas and Sutton (2011). The questionnaire was 17 items
long and used a 7-point Likert-type scale (1 ¼ strongly disagree, 7 ¼ strongly agree) to ascertain participants’ agreement
with a variety of different conspiracy theories. These included
9/11 as an inside job, global warming as a hoax by scientists and
politicians, and the idea of a fake moon landing. Crucially, there
were 5 items regarding the death of Princess Diana (Douglas
& Sutton, 2008, 2011; a ¼ .83):
1. One or more rogue ‘‘cells’’ in the British secret service
constructed and carried out a plot to kill Diana.
2. There was an official campaign by MI6 to assassinate
Diana, sanctioned by elements of the establishment.
3. Diana faked her own death so that she and Dodi could
retreat into isolation.
4. Business enemies of Dodi and his father Mohammed AlFayed assassinated Dodi, with the death of Diana a
cover-up for the operation.
5. Diana had to be killed because the British government
could not accept that the mother of the future king was
involved with a Muslim Arab.
Not all of these items are mutually contradictory. Diana
might conceivably have learned of a plot to kill her and faked
her own death in response, so #3 and #2 do not necessarily
contradict one another. #1 and #2 differ in the degree to which
the operation to kill Diana was officially sanctioned, though not
all participants would necessarily pick up on that difference.
Likewise, #5 indicates the existence of a plot to kill Diana but
does not specify whether it was successful, so it does not explicitly contradict any of the other theories. However, there are
some unambiguous contradictions. #1, #3, and #4 all propose
different accounts of Diana’s apparent death: Either she was
killed by a rogue cell of the British secret service (#1) or by
business rivals of the Fayeds (#4), or she faked her own death
(#3). These three theories are mutually incompatible and will
be the focus of analysis in the present study.
Results and Discussion
We first performed an exploratory principal components analysis to investigate the factor structure of the scale. Based on a
scree plot, we extracted two unrotated factors which together
accounted for 46.9% of scale variance. All items had loadings
of at least .35 on the first factor in the unrotated solution, suggesting that it represents generic conspiracy belief; the second
factor drew loadings only from the 5 items concerning climate
change conspiracy theories, and thus appears to be related to
beliefs in these conspiracies in particular.
In line with this factor structure, and with previous findings
of high correlations among beliefs in different conspiracy theories, the scale showed reasonable reliability (a ¼ .78). Most of
the questions were significantly correlated with one another
despite covering different topics; for instance, a belief that a
rogue cell of MI6 was responsible for Diana’s death was correlated with belief in theories that HIV was created in a laboratory (r ¼ .39), that the moon landing was a hoax (r ¼ .34),
and that governments are covering up the existence of aliens
(r ¼ .23; all ps < .01). In line with this general pattern, there
was a network of significant positive relationships among
the majority of the Princess Diana conspiracy theories (see
Table 1). People who believed that Diana faked her own death
were marginally more likely to also believe that she was killed
by a rogue cell of British Intelligence (r ¼ .15, p ¼ .075) and
significantly more likely to also believe that she was killed
by business enemies of the Fayeds (r ¼ .25, p ¼ .003). Similarly, participants who found it likely that the Fayeds’ business
Table 1. Correlations Between Endorsement of Princess Diana Conspiracy Theories in Study 1
Official MI6
Campaign to
Kill Diana
Dodi and Diana
Killed by Al-Fayeds’
Business Enemies
Diana Had to Die
Prevent Her From
Marrying an Arab
Diana Faked
Her Own Death
Diana killed by rogue cell of British Intelligence .749 *** .614*** .670*** 0.15y
Official MI6 campaign to kill Diana 1 .660*** .622*** .206*
Dodi and Diana killed by Al-Fayeds’ business enemies 1 .607*** .253***
Diana had to die to prevent her from marrying an Arab 1 .242**
Note. Correlations between mutually contradictory items are bolded. All correlation coefficients are Pearson r.
***p < .001. **p < .01. *p < .05. Italics indicate p < .10.
Wood et al. 769
rivals were responsible for the death of Diana were highly
likely to also blame a rogue cell (r ¼ .61, p < .001).
As can be seen in Table 1, the correlations in agreement with
the idea that Diana faked her own death appear much lower
than the rest, to the point that the only nonsignificant correlation involves that theory. We believe this to be due to a floor
effect rather than any sort of response to contradiction; endorsement of the faked-own-death theory was extremely low in
this sample, with a mean of only 1.52 on a 7-point scale. This
level of endorsement was significantly lower than that of the
other theories, for which agreement ranged from 2.51 (business rivals) to 2.98 (rogue cell; all ps < .001). As an alternative approach to the relationship between the faked-death
theory and the rogue cell theory, we dichotomized responses
to the faked-death item, comparing those who gave the
lowest possible response with those who responded more
positively. In accordance with the general pattern of results,
participants who strongly disagreed with the faked-death
theory showed a lower level of agreement with the rogue
cell theory (M ¼ 2.75) than those who responded otherwise,
M ¼ 3.47; t(134) ¼ 2.56, p ¼ .01.
In line with our hypothesis, the results show mostly clear
positive correlations in endorsement of contradictory conspiracy theories. Intuitively, this does not make sense. One would
think that there ought to be a negative correlation between
beliefs in contradictory accounts of events—the more one
believes in a particular theory, the less likely rival theories will
seem. One possible alternative explanation for these results is
acquiescence bias: Participants may have simply replied in the
same way to every question, resulting in positive correlations
across the scale, regardless of the questions’ content. However,
the scale included a reverse-coded Diana conspiracy item
which read, ‘‘The death of Princess Diana was an accident.’’
Contrary to the acquiescence hypothesis, this item was consistently negatively correlated with the rest of the scale, most
notably r ¼ .75 with the rogue-cell item and r ¼ .65 with
the MI6 item (both ps < .001).
These results suggest that those who distrust the official
story of Diana’s death do not tend to settle on a single conspiracist account as the only acceptable explanation; rather, they
simultaneously endorse several contradictory accounts. In
Study 2, we set out to conceptually replicate these findings in
another setting and also to ask why mutually contradictory
conspiracy theories are simultaneously endorsed.
Study 2
On May 2, 2011, it was reported in the news media that Osama
bin Laden had been killed in an American raid on a compound
in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Conspiracy theories alleging that bin
Laden had not actually been killed in the raid immediately
started to propagate throughout the Internet and traditional
media, mostly. Proponents claimed that their suspicions were
aroused by several actions of the Obama administration,
including a refusal to release pictures of bin Laden’s body and
the decision to bury him at sea shortly after the raid.
The conspiracy theories surrounding the death of Osama bin
Laden can be divided into two major categories: those that propose he was already dead at the time of the raid, and those that
propose he is still alive (Kingsley & Jones, 2011). The former
seems to have currency among the 9/11 conspiracist Truth
Movement; many ‘‘Truthers’’ allege that bin Laden died in
2000 or even earlier, and his video appearances since then were
in fact staged productions made with a body double. The latter
theory varies; some people believe that he is still at large, while
others think that he was captured alive and is being secretly
held for interrogation by the CIA. Naturally, these two theories
are irreconcilable; bin Laden cannot be both alive and dead at
the same time. However, as in Study 1, we predicted that belief
in the two conspiracy theories would be positively correlated.
Further, in order to test the idea that perceived deception by
authorities underlies the positive correlation between contradictory conspiracy theories, we asked participants to what
degree they found the American government’s actions surrounding the raid to be suspicious and indicative of a coverup. This was intended to operationalize the central principle
of conspiracism outlined above: the idea that authorities are
engaged in motivated deception. If belief in a cover-up is
indeed responsible for the positive association between contradictory conspiracy theories, controlling for it should cause the
correlation between the contradictory theories to disappear.
Participants. One hundred and two undergraduate students
(58% female, mean age 21) at a British university were
recruited to participate in the study between 1 and 6 weeks after
the announcement of bin Laden’s death. In exchange for their
participation, they received a randomized prize of either a
snack or a small monetary reward of GB£1.00 or 2.00
(*US$1.50 or 3.00).
Materials and procedure. Participants were directed to read a
brief summary of the official story of Osama bin Laden’s death,
including the details regarding the refusal to release pictorial
evidence and the burial at sea, followed by a short paragraph
explaining that some people doubt the official story. They were
then asked about their opinion of the official story, followed by
three conspiracy items:
1. Osama bin Laden was killed in the American raid.
2. Osama bin Laden is still alive.
3. When the raid took place, Osama bin Laden was already
4. The actions of the Obama administration indicate that they
are hiding some important or damaging piece of information about the raid.
Each of these statements was followed by a series of questions based on the composite endorsement measure used by
Douglas and Sutton (2011). This asked participants to rate their
agreement with each statement on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 6 (strongly agree), as well as to what degree they
770 Social Psychological and Personality Science 3(6)
found the statements plausible, convincing, worth considering,
and coherent, again on a scale from 1 (not at all) to 6 (very
much). These ratings were then averaged to obtain a composite
measure of endorsement for each statement (a > .87 for each
statement). While the original measure used by Douglas and
Sutton also asked participants to judge the interestingness of
each statement, there is no contradiction in finding two rival
theories equally interesting, so we excluded interestingness
from the present study in order to avoid artificially inflating the
relevant correlations.
Results and Discussion
The idea that bin Laden was killed in the raid enjoyed a high
level of endorsement (M ¼ 5.00, SD ¼ 1.19), indicating a fairly
high level of trust in the official story, though participants on
average found the Obama administration’s actions to be suspicious (M ¼ 4.74, SD ¼ 1.41). Participants seemed less likely
to endorse the idea that bin Laden is still alive (M ¼ 3.05,
SD ¼ 1.39) or was already dead (M ¼ 3.19, SD ¼ 1.39). In a
replication of our Study 1 result, a correlational analysis
revealed a significant positive correlation between composite
endorsement ratings of the two contradictory conspiracy theories, r ¼ .21, p ¼ .04.
We next examined the contribution of belief in a cover-up to
the positive relationship between the two contradictory theories
using a hierarchical multiple regression analysis. Endorsement
of the cover-up item significantly predicted endorsement of
the ‘‘bin Laden is still alive’’ theory, b ¼ .373, t(97) ¼ 4.04,
p < .001 (the same was true of the already-dead theory,
b ¼ .346, t(97) ¼ 3.63, p < .001). Adding endorsement of the
contradictory theory ‘‘bin Laden was already dead’’ to the
regression equation, however, explained no additional variance
(DR2 ¼ .006), and this theory was not itself a significant predictor, b ¼ .086, t(96)¼ 0.86, p ¼ .40. This indicates that the correlation in endorsement of the two contradictory theories is
explainable entirely by their connection with belief in a deceptive cover-up by authority (see Figure 1). The degree to which
someone believes in a cover-up helps determine their endorsement of the official story, and of both conspiracy theories as
well. This result is in line with our predictions and supports the
idea that conspiracy theories are defined not by adherence to a
particular alternative account but by opposition to the official
story and a belief that deception is taking place.
General Discussion
While it has been known for some time that belief in one conspiracy theory appears to be associated with belief in others,
only now do we know that this can even apply to conspiracy
theories that are mutually contradictory. This finding supports
our contention that the monological nature of conspiracism
(Goertzel, 1994; Swami et al., 2010, 2011) is driven not by conspiracy theories directly supporting one another but by the
coherence of each theory with higher-order beliefs that support
the idea of conspiracy in general. As demonstrated in Study 2,
perceived deception by authority is one such belief, and it is
likely that there are many others as well. For those who hold
such beliefs, the specifics of a conspiracy theory do not matter
as much as the fact that it is a conspiracy theory at all.
There are strong parallels between this conception of a monological belief system and Adorno et al.’s (1950) work on prejudice
and authoritarianism. In an attempt to explain the strong positive
correlations between contradictory antisemitic beliefs, Adorno
suggested that incompatibilities between beliefs at a local level
are dwarfed by coherence with broader beliefs about the
world—‘‘nuclear ideas’’ which ‘‘tend to ‘pull in’ numerous other
opinions and attitudes and thus to form a broad ideological system.’’ (p. 92). Such a system ‘‘provides a rationale for any specific
idea within it and a basis for meeting and assimilating new social
conditions’’ (p. 93). Our findings support an equivalent explanation for beliefs in contradictory conspiracy theories, with a belief
in deceptive officialdom as the nuclear idea in question.
If Adorno’s explanation for contradictory antisemitic beliefs
can indeed be applied to conspiracy theories, conspiracist
beliefs might be most accurately viewed as not only monological but also ideological in nature. Just as an orthodox Marxist
might interpret major world events as arising inevitably from
the forces of history, a conspiracist would see the same events
as carefully orchestrated steps in a plot for global domination.
Conceptualizing conspiracism as a coherent ideology, rather
than as a cluster of beliefs in individual theories, may be a fruitful approach in the future when examining its connection to
ideologically relevant variables such as social dominance
orientation and right-wing authoritarianism.
Figure 1. Illustration of the observed correlations in endorsement of
Study 2 items. The two conspiracy theories display a significant zeroorder correlation (above) but have no significant direct relationship
when belief in a cover-up is taken into account (below).
Wood et al. 771
Although we have demonstrated the importance of a belief
in deception by authority as an important antecedent of conspiracy belief and a partial explanation for correlations between
contradictory theories, there are certainly other broad beliefs
which could make a similar contribution. For instance, conspiracy theories would seem much more plausible to those with a
belief in the effectiveness of intimidation and bribery. In a
more abstract sense, a belief in the essential malevolence of
officialdom—or in the specific malevolence of a certain powerful entity—would make many conspiracies seem more likely.
The social element must not be neglected either; many conspiracy theories are associated with specific groups or even organized movements, such as the 9/11 Truth Movement. Clarke
(2007) found a trend of increasing vagueness in these modern
conspiracist communities, which he characterized as a reaction
to the antagonistic atmosphere of Internet discourse. Our
results suggest an alternative possibility: A genuine uncertainty
within individuals regarding the true nature of the conspiracy
behind a particular event (beyond the fact that there was one),
and a willingness to consider and even endorse mutually contradictory accounts as long as they stand in opposition to the
officially sanctioned narrative. There may also be an element
of self-presentation and conflict avoidance in the vagueness
observed by Clarke: If multiple contradictory theories are
simultaneously believed by many in a conspiracist community,
endorsing one in particular is tantamount to denying the others
and may provoke a backlash. In any event, the development of
conspiracy theories almost certainly owes a great deal to social
engagement and discussion of alternative narratives, and the
dynamics of conspiracist communities may be a fruitful avenue
for future investigation with reference to previous work on
opinion-based groups (e.g., Musgrove & McGarty, 2008).
Conspiracist belief systems may also be well captured by connectionist models of social inference such as Thagard’s (1989)
ECHO. ECHO has been shown to accurately predict the degree
to which higher-order beliefs about social actors affect judgements of their actions as sinister or innocent, honest or deceptive
(Read & Miller, 1993). However, there has been little or no
investigation into the ability of ECHO to model the influence
of broad worldviews. Based on the present research, one would
expect that when broad beliefs are relevant to the interpretation
of a particular situation, they serve as a constraint on the conclusions that are likely to be drawn from it in the same way as specific beliefs about the actors and situations involved. A
conspiracist belief system consisting of many such beliefs would
inhibit the acceptance of official narratives but may not discriminate among several different conspiracy theories. Some might be
discarded, but even contradictory theories might be simultaneously accepted. Almost any account of events which accords with
the broader beliefs in question is likely to garner some endorsement by adherents of a conspiracist worldview. Modelling such a
network might provide an instructive insight into the processes
underlying the development of conspiracist beliefs, and of other
beliefs influenced by superordinate ideological considerations.
It must be noted that not all conspiracy theories fall under
the ‘‘deceptive officialdom’’ umbrella. Antisemitic conspiracy
theories are a notable and historically important exception;
instead of alleging abuse of power by elites, historical theories
of Jewish conspiracy usually detailed supposed attempts by a
minority to seize power for themselves (Graumann, 1987). It
would be instructive to examine whether beliefs in such conspiracies are correlated with belief in those that fit more
closely into the ‘‘deceptive officialdom’’ template, and if such
relationships are mediated to the same degree by endorsement
of that central belief.
In any case, the evidence we have gathered in the present
study supports the idea that conspiracism constitutes a monological belief system, drawing its coherence from central beliefs
such as the conviction that authorities and officials engage in
massive deception of the public to achieve their malevolent
goals. Connectivity with this central idea lends support to any
individual conspiracy theory, even to the point that mutually
contradictory theories fail to show a negative correlation in
belief. Believing that Osama bin Laden is still alive is apparently no obstacle to believing that he has been dead for years.
Declaration of Conflict of Interest
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interests with respect
to the authorship and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship,
and/or publication of this article.
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processes in social reasoning. In the Proceedings of the TwentyFifth Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society.
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consistency theories: Evidence judgments by constraint satisfaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86, 814–837.
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Michael J. Wood is a PhD candidate at the University of Kent, United
Kingdom. His research focuses on the psychology of conspiracy
Karen M. Douglas is a reader in psychology at the University of
Kent, United Kingdom. She has published widely on topics such as
language and stereotyping, persuasion, the psychology of the Internet,
and the psychology of conspiracy theories.
Robbie M. Sutton is a reader in psychology at the University of Kent,
United Kingdom. His research interests include the psychology of justice, gender, and intergroup processes.
Wood et al. 773

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