mobile icon

Conspirational Thinking and Social Influence

WorkgroupSocial Processes
Duration04/2019 - open
FundingIWM budget resources
Project description

Numerous Conspiracy Theories are circulating online about topics such as climate change, the impact of vaccinations, and other topics of societal relevance. Such conspiracy theories are often extremely popular – but at the same time, they can be dangerous for society, as they can lead to less political and personal engagement, and to less trust in general as well as towards authorities. Despite their popularity, little is yet known about the relationship between conspirational thinking and social influence, that is, about the social factors that play a role in the development and persistence of conspiracy theories. This research project aimed to better understand this relationship and to examine ways to limit the belief in and impact of conspiracy theories.

Part of what makes conspiracy theories so appealing to people is that their adherents believe something very different from the rest of society, stressing their uniqueness. Thus, the mere information that a majority believes something else or that one differs from a norm, might not reduce the belief in conspiracy theories. In addition, the lack of trust in authorities and experts might prevent adherents to listen to people in such roles. Accordingly, people believing in conspiracy theories seem to be less affected by several forms of social influence.
In this project, we tested this prediction as well as possible moderators and mechanisms underlying this relationship. The goal of this project was to ultimately identify conditions under which social influence reducing the belief in (unjustified) conspiracy theories seems possible. The main focus was, among others, on the potential needs and motives associated with the endorsement of conspiracy theories, such as the need for uniqueness, existential needs, and epistemic needs. Results demonstrated, among other things, that believing in and being confronted with a COVID-19 conspiracy theory lowered people’s institutional trust, support of governmental regulations, adoption of physical distancing, and to some exten also social engagement. As such, the findings highlighted the severe societal effects of conspiracy theories in the context of COVID-19.


Pummerer, L., Böhm, R., Lilleholt, L., Winter, K., Zettler, I., & Sassenberg, K. (2022). Conspiracy theories and their societal effects during the COVID-19 pandemic. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 13(1), 49-59. [Data] Open Access