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Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy Beliefs: Entertainment Value and Evil Perceptions

Evil perceptions (not entertainment value) contribute to belief in conspiracies.

Key points

  • Conspiracy theories concern powerful groups of individuals who collude secretly to behave in evil ways.
  • In a new study, perception of an actor's evil intentions mediated belief that a conspiracy occurred.
  • Unlike in previous research, entertainment value was not found to mediate belief in conspiracy.

Why do people believe conspiracy theories? This is a question that is of tremendous interest in psychological research now. The research has focused largely on differences between people that may cause them to believe conspiracy theories. Less research has focused on the ingredients of conspiracy theories that might make them believable.

Considering Entertainment Value

Paul Becker / cc-by-2.0
Pizzagate protester
Source: Paul Becker / cc-by-2.0

One paper suggested “that one reason why people believe conspiracy theories is because they find them entertaining” (van Prooijen et al., 2022). In one study, participants read an essay about Jeffrey Epstein, a wealthy convicted sex offender. The essay either said that he was murdered in jail or committed suicide. The murder version was rated as more entertaining (e.g., engaging, entertaining) than the suicide version. More importantly, the murder version led participants to have more conspiracy beliefs about this incident compared to the suicide version. Moreover, the more the conspiratorial essay increased perceptions of entertainment value, the more it increased conspiracy beliefs. This is known as statistical mediation. In another study, participants read an essay about a political election in a fictional country, described in an antagonistic or civil way. The more antagonistic election essay was rated as more entertaining and led to more conspiracy beliefs compared to the civil election essay. Entertainment did not statistically mediate conspiracy beliefs in this study. The authors interpreted these results to mean that people believe conspiracies because they are entertaining. This research article has attracted much attention.

Kinga Szymaniak, Dominic Edgeworth, Gabriel Sebban, Cindy Harmon-Jones, and I (Harmon-Jones et al., 2024) thought this research stood out from lots of conspiracy belief research in that it examined aspects of the message that may contribute to conspiracy beliefs. We replicated the design of this research and examined another possible contributor to conspiracy beliefs.

Considering Evil Perceptions

“Conspiracy theories refer to causal explanations of events that ascribe blame to a group of powerful individuals (the conspirators) who operate in secret to form hidden plans that benefit themselves and harm the common good” (Bowes, Costello, & Tasimi, 2023). Beliefs in conspiracy theories differ from other types of beliefs because they concern (1) powerful groups of individuals (2) who collude secretly to behave in (3) evil ways that harm others. We focused on the last component, the perception that others are acting in evil ways. We predicted that when individuals are confronted with information that suggests that powerful people may be acting together in secret, they may be more likely to assume that something evil is occurring, and then they may be more likely to believe the conspiracy.

In our research, participants read the essays about Epstein in one study and about the political election in a fictional country in two studies. The first study revealed that the Epstein murder increased conspiracy beliefs, entertainment value, and perceptions of evil compared to the Epstein suicide. The second and third studies revealed that the antagonistic election increased conspiracy beliefs, entertainment value, and perceptions of evil compared to the civil election.

We also examined statistical mediation, which is a way of testing whether entertainment value and/or perceptions of evil “explain” the effect of essay type on conspiracy beliefs. Evil perceptions mediated the effect of essay type on conspiracy beliefs. That is, the more participants perceived the essay as containing evil intentions on the part of the actors, the more likely they were to believe a conspiracy occurred. However, entertainment value was not a mediator.

On Failing to Replicate Entertainment Value as a Mediator

The failure to replicate the mediational effects found by van Prooijen et al. (2022) was surprising. The samples and methods used were similar to those used previously. However, we modified the texts by removing one sentence from each essay in the Epstein study (the one with mediational evidence). From the low conspiratorial condition, we eliminated, “There is little reason to question the official reading of this event.” From the high conspiratorial condition, we eliminated, “There is, however, ample reason to question the official reading of this event.” We eliminated these sentences because they might influence participants to believe/disbelieve the information ( experimenter demand; Orne, 1962). It's like the researchers were telling participants want to do. Individuals in the high conspiratorial condition who were more influenced by experimenter demand to believe the conspiracy more may have also been more likely to rate the information as higher in entertainment value.

Was the logic underlying the previous research’s hypothesis flawed? The logic was that potentially conspiratorial information causes one to perceive the information as entertaining, and then these perceptions cause conspiracy beliefs.

Do you recall Pizzagate? It was a conspiracy theory that spread wildly and widely during 2016. It claimed that a pedophilia ring involving members of the Democratic Party operated in a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C. It contained many other fascinating details involving blood and red shoes, but it had no basis in fact. When I first learned of this conspiracy, I found it entertaining, but these feelings did not lead me to believe this information. I simply laughed about the theory and how ridiculous it was.

In the fictional election study by van Prooijen et al. (2022), entertainment value was manipulated with two election essay conditions (antagonistic and civil). But, as our research revealed, this manipulation also influenced perceptions of evil intentions. Thus, the manipulation induced additional psychological processes that may have been key to increasing conspiracy beliefs.


Like some conspiracy theories, some psychological research findings spread widely and wildly and are believed to be true. Closer inspection of the methods used to obtain the results and of the logic underlying the hypotheses may reveal these results and their interpretation to be invalid. It is up to scientists and readers to critically evaluate all of the information.


Bowes, S. M., Costello, T. H., & Tasimi, A. (2023). The conspiratorial mind: A meta-analytic review of motivational and personological correlates. Psychological Bulletin, 149(5–6), 259–293.

Frey, D. (1986). Recent Research on Selective Exposure to Information. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 19, pp. 41–80). Academic Press.

Harmon-Jones, E., Szymaniak, K., Edgeworth, D., Sebban, G., & Harmon-Jones, C. (2024). Evil perceptions but not entertainment value appraisals relate to conspiracy beliefs. Frontiers in Social Psychology, 2.

Orne, M. T. (1962). On the social psychology of the psychological experiment: With particular reference to demand characteristics and their implications. American Psychologist, 17, 776–783.

van Prooijen, J. W., Ligthart, J., Rosema, S., & Xu, Y. (2022). The entertainment value of conspiracy theories. British Journal of Psychology, 113(1), 25–48.

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