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March 05, 2015

Half of Americans believe in conspiracy theories

Researchers say that political environment fosters belief in them

Not all conspiracy theorists exist on the fringes of society, making hats out of tin foil and living in constant fear of government surveillance.

According to a recent article published by political scientists Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood, a lot of Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory. Per the article's abstract: 

Using four nationally representative surveys, sampled between 2006 and 2011, we find that half of the American public consistently endorses at least one conspiracy theory and that many popular conspiracy theories are differentiated along ideological and anomic dimensions.

Of those who do believe, the authors did not find a consistent political leaning or mental health issue:

Rather, the likelihood of supporting conspiracy theories is strongly predicted by a willingness to believe in other unseen, intentional forces and an attraction to Manichean narratives.

So, a general belief in the unknown is a stronger force for believing than any sort of specific ideology or concentrated paranoia. And according to the authors, that's not necessarily a bad thing. In an interview with the Washington Post about the study, the author's were asked whether their findings were "disheartening." They believe that it's not the conspiracy theories we should be worried about, but the political environment that fosters them:

If we are disheartened, it is probably because the popularity of conspiracy theories is symptomatic of our alienated political culture. Conspiracy theories flourish when there is a vacuum of accepted political authority. When people don’t trust their political leaders or institutions, they feel naturally uneasy and then look to alternative explanations for unusual events. 

In summary, believing in a conspiracy theory doesn't mean your crazy, but a toxic political environment makes us more likely to accept them.