Why well-read conservatives fall for conspiracy theories

A University of Minnesota study found that politically attuned Republicans are more susceptible to conspiracy theories.

A University of Minnesota study found that politically attuned Republicans are more susceptible to conspiracy theories.

We roll our eyes when they clog our Facebook feeds. They back their wild claims with articles from blogs no one’s ever heard of. With a magazine of dubious “truth” bullets always at the ready, right-wing conspiracy theorists may actually know more than we think. In a sense.

A new University of Minnesota study shows that highly knowledgeable conservatives are more susceptible to conspiracy theories. U of M political science professor Joanne Miller and Ph.D. candidate Christina Farhart, along with Colorado State prof Kyle Saunders, examined how political leanings affect one’s proneness to conspiracy theories.

“Contrary to the popular conception that conspiracy theorists are a small group of tinfoil hat-wearing men who spend most of their time in bunkers, conspiracy theorists are not solely the domain of extremists and paranoids,” the authors wrote.

Starting with a hypothesis that rabid political news watchers, Republican or Democrat, are more likely to catch the conspiracy bug, the academic trio looked at a 2012 study and conducted a fresh one of their own. They asked respondents whether they buy in to a range of popular conspiracy theories — did the government know the 9/11 attacks were coming? Did the GOP steal the 2004 election? Is the whole global warming thing a ruse?

Some of their findings were fairly expected. Conspiracy theorists gravitate toward theories that reinforce their beliefs. Naturally, the bleeding heart liberal is more likely to latch on to a theory making George W. Bush look like a scumbag, while right-wing nuts would get swept up in Obama death panel theories.

“Knowledge helps people to see connections between politics and their attitudes and their views, and it makes them better able to, ironically, believe things that we might think are bizarre,” Miller says.

But while the study buddies predicted both Dems and Repubs in the know would fall for conspiracy theories, only high-knowledge conservatives were more inclined to believe the theories. Do knowledgeable liberals see the world so clearly that they’re able to avoid the pitfalls of their own biases? Hardly.

Miller speculates that the difference between the liberal-conservative gap is that the Democrats control the White House. Regardless of who controls Congress or state legislatures, people tend to think their team is losing if the president is on the other side. The poli-sci prof notes a recent Pew Research Center poll that found 79 percent of Republicans think they’re currently on the losing side, compared to 52 percent of Democrats.

“We think what’s happening here is that high-knowledge conservatives are picking up the cues that their Republican leaders are putting out there,” Miller says. “They’re more likely to pick up those cues than low-knowledge Republicans because they’re more likely to be the ones paying attention to the news, listening to a debate, and engaging in pol discussions.”

Meanwhile, Democratic leaders are less likely to throw wacko shade while their guy’s in the White House, Miller says, in so many words.

Okay, that makes sense. But what about the borderline illiterate tinfoil hat guy who can’t tell a Clinton from a Cruz? Aren’t the weirdo dummies eating these theories up, too?

They have to be. According to the study, a whopping 42 percent of Americans believe the government probably or definitely knew the 9/11 attacks were coming.

“When you take partisanship out of the mix, it is the case that the less you know the more conspiracy theories you believe,” Miller says.