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People who believe in conspiracy theories are more likely to endorse violence

- February 5, 2016
(X-Files/20th Century Fox)

On Jan. 26, FBI agents made public a foiled plot against the Freemasons. Samy Mohamed Hamzeh was arrested with a machine gun and silencer. The FBI alleges that he intended to storm the Scottish Rite Masonic Temple in Milwaukee and kill upwards of 30 people. The complaint quotes him as saying:

They are all Masonic; they are playing with the world like a game, man, and we are like asses, we don’t know what is going on, these are the ones who are fighting, these are the ones that needs to be killed, not the Shi’iat, because these are the ones who are against us, these are the ones who are making living for us like hell.

So are people who are prone to believing conspiracy theories prone to violence as well?

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Recent events suggest they are. Robert Dear, who allegedly killed three and injured nine at the Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs on Nov. 28, 2015, had a history of spouting anti-government conspiracy theories. He encouraged his neighbors to install metal roofing on their homes to prevent the government from spying on them.

Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, who allegedly killed 14 and injured 21 in San Bernardino, Calif., on Dec. 2, 2015, may also have been conspiracy theorists. Although their motives are only now becoming clear, early evidence suggests that they may have believed that the United States was in a war against Muslims. And a lawyer for their family invoked conspiracy theories about the Sandy Hook shooting to imply that U.S. government officials were behind events in San Bernardino.

Other examples are plentiful. The Boston Marathon bombers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who killed three and injured 264, accused the U.S. government of complicity in the Sept. 11, 2001, bombings not long before their deadly rampage in 2013. Jared Lee Loughner, who killed six and injured more than a dozen people, including then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Colorado in 2011, held similar beliefs — as did John Patrick Bedell, who wounded two police officers in a shootout at a Washington, D.C., Metro station in 2010.

Which came first, the conspiracy theory or the inclination to violence?

But are conspiracy beliefs driving the violence, or an excuse for violence that would be committed anyway?  Most Americans buy into one conspiracy theory or another without committing violence. Many Americans are plenty violent without justifying their behavior by conspiracy theories.

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Our research explored these questions, collecting the first long-term systematic data on conspiracy theorists. In one nationally representative survey, we asked respondents a broad array of questions, and separated those more inclined to conspiracy theories from those less inclined. Of course, respondents are reluctant to broadcast unpopular views and surveys are imperfect indicators of people’s positions, but that’s no more true for conspiracy theories than for other complex issues.

Still, the results were stunning. When asked if violence was an acceptable way to express disagreement with the government, people with a strong (denoted as high in the figure) predisposition toward conspiratorial thinking were almost fifty percent  more likely than those least (low) inclined toward conspiratorial thinking to agree (16 versus 11 percent).

Eighty percent of those least drawn to conspiratorial thinking disagree with the statement than violence is sometimes an acceptable way to express disagreement with the government while only 59 percent of those with a strong predisposition towards conspiratorial thinking do.

Acceptance of violence against the government and predispositions toward conspiratorial thinking

Agree or disagree: “Violence is sometimes an acceptable way to express disagreement with the government.” “Low, medium, high” indicate how much the respondent sees the world as full of conspiracies.

Naturally, the relationship between conspiracy theories and violent impulses is complicated. But the two may form a toxic combination. When asked about gun control, a majority of those who favored less strict gun laws were people with higher conspiratorial predispositions. More recent polls have found this as well.

And previous research by psychologists Karen Douglas and Robbie Sutton, for example, showed that conspiracy theorists are much more likely to agree that it’s acceptable to engage in conspiratorial arrangements in order to achieve an important goal.

So conspiracy theorists are more likely to approve of violence, lax gun laws, and secret plotting. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh is a textbook example. McVeigh was concerned with gun rights, believed the government was conspiring to destroy liberty, and conspired to blow up a federal building in retaliation. Osama bin Laden was another conspiracy theorist. His library included books on conspiracy theories about the Illuminati, the Federal Reserve and, ironically, 9/11.

Which individual conspiracy theorist will resort to violence is impossible to predict. But which types of people will tend towards violent acts is not entirely unpredictable.

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Most people, including most conspiracy theorists, oppose violence. 

Now the good news. Whether or not they believe in conspiracies, our research shows the vast majority of people object to violence. Politically motivated violence remains a minuscule fraction of all violence. From what we can tell, conspiracy-motivated violence appears to be a fraction of that. Since our nation includes hundreds of millions of  conspiracy theorists, according to our research, if only one percent of those turned to terror, the country would have long ago collapsed into conspiracy-soaked chaos.

But while conspiracy theory-inspired violence is rare, that is sometimes lost sight of. Mass killings have fallen in the United States over the last few decades, but conspiracy-fueled mass killings retain a strong hold on the popular imagination and an outsized influence on policy debates.

The San Bernardino shooting, for instance, has been used in debates about gun control and immigration; the Boston bombing in discussions of how to stop terrorism; and if the alleged plot in Milwaukee had occurred it would have killed dozens.

But the dangers ought to be put in perspective. There is a link between conspiracy theorizing and violence, but relative compared to other forms of violent death, the risks are extremely small.

Why do some people fear conspiracy theorists more than the evidence warrants? That may or may not call for a conspiracy theory.

Joseph M. Parent and Joseph E. Uscinski are associate professors of political science at the University of Miami and authors of “American Conspiracy Theories” (Oxford University Press, 2014).