- Research suggests that emotions do influence beliefs in conspiracy theories.
- Positive attitudes toward anger could make it more likely that people will engage in conspiratorial thinking.
- Angry individuals are more likely to perceive others as having evil intentions.
Recent world events suggest that emotions may influence beliefs in conspiracy theories.
Musical artists have also pointed to the link between anger and believing conspiracies. Mike Cooley, of Drive-By Truckers, makes this point in his song "Grievance Merchants".
This verse of the song eloquently describes this idea:
"Say his trouble with the ladies can't be his fault
After all, he's what it's natural they should want
There's just outside voices turning them against him
A conspiracy to water down his blood
A conspiracy to water down his blood
And it's all the fault of it, or them, or they
Give a boy a target for his grievance
And he might get it in his head they need to pay"
Of course, belief in specific conspiracies are likely influenced by a host of things. But research suggests that emotions do influence beliefs in conspiracy theories. Most previous research into the emotion-conspiracy belief link has examined fear and anxiety. New research, led by psychologist Kinga Szymaniak of the University of New South Wales (and to which I contributed), suggests that anger also relates to conspiracy theory beliefs. This research revealed that anger predicted conspiracy beliefs even when statistically controlling for fear and anxiety, further suggesting that anger independently predicts conspiracy beliefs.
In several studies, with more than 2,000 participants in all, Szymaniak and colleagues found that individuals who scored higher in trait anger were more likely to believe conspiracies (Szymaniak, Harmon-Jones, & Harmon-Jones, 2023; Szymaniak, Zajenkowski, Fronczyk, Leung, & Harmon-Jones, 2023). This correlation occurred with all sorts of conspiracies, from specific conspiracies about COVID-19 to true conspiracies (the Tuskegee syphilis experiment) to general conspiracy mentalities ("A small, secret group of people is responsible for making all major world decisions, such as going to war." Brotherton et al., 2013).
This relationship between anger and conspiracy beliefs held when statistically controlling for several correlates of conspiracy beliefs: neuroticism, anxiety, narcissism, religiosity, attitudes toward anger, hostility/resentment/suspicion, and education level. These results suggest that anger contributes to conspiracy beliefs even when accounting for several common correlates of conspiracy beliefs.
In another study in this line of research, state anger was manipulated via autobiographical recall, and participants were presented a novel conspiracy theory (Szymaniak, Zajenkowski, Fronczyk, Leung, & Harmon-Jones, 2023). Results from this study revealed a significant interaction between manipulated anger and trait anger. This interaction indicated that within the anger condition, higher levels of trait anger were positively correlated with more belief in the novel conspiracy. Within the neutral condition, this positive correlation did not occur. These results suggest that anger itself, rather than other possible correlates of trait anger, makes angry individuals more likely to believe conspiracy beliefs.
Why does anger increase conspiracy theory beliefs? One possible answer is that angry individuals have relatively positive attitudes toward anger, and these positive attitudes toward anger make it more likely that angry individuals will engage with conspiracy theories, which, in turn, often increase anger (Featherstone & Zhang, 2020). Indeed, more positive attitudes toward anger (but not fear, sadness, disgust, or joy) are related to increased conspiracy beliefs, as found in recent research (Szymaniak, Harmon-Jones, & Harmon-Jones, 2023).
Another possible answer is that angry individuals are more likely to perceive others as having evil intentions, and conspiracy theories often have conspirators who possess evil intentions. For example, one conspiracy theory about the death of Princess Diana was that she was murdered by the royal family. In another set of three studies, we found that individual differences in anger correlated with perceiving various conspirators to have evil intentions, and these evil perceptions correlated with believing the conspiracy theories. Moreover, these evil perceptions mediated the link between individual differences in anger and conspiracy theory beliefs (Harmon-Jones & Szymaniak, 2023).
I suspect that there are additional reasons why anger increases conspiracy beliefs, and our ongoing research will address these. In any event, the research conducted so far does suggest that anger and conspiratorial beliefs go hand in hand.
Brotherton, Robert, Christopher French, and Alan Pickering. “Measuring Belief in Conspiracy Theories: The Generic Conspiracist Beliefs Scale.” Frontiers in Psychology 4 (2013). https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00279.
Featherstone, J. D., & Zhang, J. (2020). Feeling angry: the effects of vaccine misinformation and refutational messages on negative emotions and vaccination attitude. Journal of Health Communication, 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1080/ 10810730.2020.1838671
Harmon-Jones, E., & Szymaniak, K. (2023). Evil perceptions mediate the association between trait anger and generic conspiracy beliefs. Personality and Individual Differences, 213, 112303. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2023.112303
Szymaniak, K., Harmon-Jones, S. K., & Harmon-Jones, E. (2023). Further Examinations of Attitudes toward Discrete Emotions, with a Focus on Attitudes toward Anger. Motivation and Emotion 47, no. 3 (June 1, 2023): 476–93. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-022-09998-3.
Szymaniak, K., Zajenkowski, M., Fronczyk, K., Leung, S., & Harmon-Jones, E. (2023). Trait Anger and Approach Motivation Are Related to Higher Endorsement of Specific and Generic Conspiracy Beliefs. Journal of Research in Personality 104 (June 1, 2023): 104374. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2023.104374.