David Roberts in Vox:
A new study by political scientists Joanne Miller, Kyle Saunders, and Christina Farhart helps shed some light on these questions.
Endorsing conspiracy theories, they say, is a form of “motivated reasoning” — an effort to gather facts and construct frameworks that “protect or bolster one’s political worldview.” They set out to determine what sorts of people are most likely to be susceptible to that sort of thing.
They went into the study with two hypotheses:
1. All things being equal, knowledge — close engagement with partisan politics, consumption of political news — will tend to exacerbate the tendency to endorse conspiracy theories (CTs).
2. Trust in the political system will tend to mitigate this effect; those with high levels of trust will be less prone to accept CTs.
Putting those together, they expected to find CTs most common among high-information, low-trust people — those who are highly engaged and informed about politics but do not trust politicians, political elites, or mainstream institutions.
So do the hypotheses hold up?
The researchers found, after examining two large data sets (details in the paper), that the effect of trust is as expected, across the political spectrum. Lower-trust conservatives and liberals are both more likely to endorse ideologically congenial CTs (i.e., CTs that make the other side look bad).
But beyond that, there are interesting asymmetries. For liberals, more knowledge reduces endorsement of CTs, no matter the level of trust, and more trust reduces endorsement of CTs, no matter the level of knowledge — “knowledge and trust are both independently negatively related to liberals’ endorsement of liberal conspiracies.”
For conservatives, on the other hand, more knowledge increases endorsement of CTs among those with low trust; for high-trust conservatives, knowledge seems to have no effect — it neither increases nor decreases tendency to endorse CTs.