How stable are conspiracy theory beliefs?

Uncertainty and Misinformation

Although it’s not very common, conspiracy beliefs can change over time. This gives us new hope about the promise of interventions to change these ideas.

When we think about a person who believes one or multiple conspiracy theories, we tend to think of someone whose beliefs are relatively stable and fixed. In the public imagination, this is one of the things that makes dealing with conspiracy theories so difficult – that they’re seemingly stubborn and can’t be dislodged.

But is that really true? What does the research have to say about the stability of conspiracy theory beliefs over time?

For one thing, it turns out that there’s actually not a ton of research on this question, but there are some clues in the literature. For example, Romer and Jamieson did a study looking at conspiracy theory beliefs at two time points across four months with specific examination of COVID-related conspiracy beliefs. This study found a large correlation between original and post-survey scores, suggesting that conspiracy theory beliefs remained relatively stable. Jolley and colleagues found something similar looking at conspiracy beliefs across two time points one week apart in relation to Brexit.

Other studies across more than two time points have similar findings about the strong correlation of conspiracy beliefs across time, including one study about COVID-19 origin conspiracy theories across 5 time points and another in Poland looking at COVID conspiracy beliefs across 4 time points. One study that looked at general conspiracy mentality (as opposed to specific conspiracy theory beliefs) across 4 time points found similarly high correlations.

In other words, all of the research on this question up to this point has suggested that conspiracy theory beliefs and even conspiracy mentality are relatively stable over time. This is consistent with what we generally know about people – that they don’t usually change their minds.

But a new study suggests there may be reason to question this assumption. In this study, published in February, the authors looked at conspiracy theory beliefs over a longer time period (6 months). The same set of participants recruited into the study were asked about different conspiracy theory beliefs across 7 time points across 6 months. The study included 498 people in New Zealand and Australia. Conspiracy theories tested included many health-related items, such as belief in a chip in COVID-19 vaccines and the notion that pharmaceutical companies are withholding cancer cures from the public. Ultimately the study found a low level of change in individual participants’ conspiracy beliefs over time. Although they note that the majority of people maintained stable beliefs, the fact that there was change over time suggests that we may need to reassess our assumption that these beliefs are uniformly stable.

This study had a number of limitations. It was not a random sample, so it may be difficult to generalize the findings. In addition, the time span of 6 months is still not that long and suggests we may need to do longer-term studies of conspiracy theory beliefs. This was not a huge sample (498 participants) and may need to be repeated with a larger group of participants. In addition, we don’t yet know if the results are generalizable outside of New Zealand and Australia. This suggests that this kind of study needs to be repeated. In the meantime, we should check our beliefs that conspiracy thinking is a permanent phenomenon and start to entertain the notion that these ideas could be more fluid than we thought. If this is the case, it opens up the possibility of more successful interventions to change conspiracy thinking. If we can understand when and how conspiracy beliefs tend to change, we can target interventions to help people transition away from these beliefs at times when their thought patterns are prone to change. This would be a great boon to our efforts to promote rational, evidence-based thinking across the population.

Note: A different version of this was published here.

Link to Original Substack Post