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Sunday, August 14, 2022

Political conspiracy theories as tools for mobilization and signaling

Marie, A., & Petersen, M. B. (2022).
Current Opinion in Psychology, 101440


Political conspiracist communities emerge and bind around hard-to-falsify narratives about political opponents or elites convening to secretly exploit the public in contexts of perceived political conflict. While the narratives appear descriptive, we propose that their content as well as the cognitive systems regulating their endorsement and dissemination may have co-evolved, at least in part, to reach coalitional goals: To drive allies’ attention to the social threat to increase their commitment and coordination for collective action, and to signal devotion to gain within-group status. Those evolutionary social functions may be best fulfilled if individuals endorse the conspiratorial narrative sincerely.


•  Political conspiracist groups unite around clear-cut and hard-to-falsify narratives about political opponents or elites secretly organizing to deceive and exploit the public.

•  Such social threat-based narratives and the cognitive systems that regulate them may have co-evolved, at least in part, to serve social rather than epistemic functions: facilitating ingroup recruitment, coordination, and signaling for cooperative benefits.

•  While social in nature, those adaptive functions may be best fulfilled if group leaders and members endorse conspiratorial narratives sincerely.


Political conspiracy theories are cognitively attractive, hard-to-falsify narratives about the secret misdeeds of political opponents and elites. While descriptive in appearance, endorsement and expression of those narratives may be regulated, at least partly, by cognitive systems pursuing social goals: to attract attention of allies towards a social threat to enhance commitment and coordination for joint action (in particular, in conflict), and signal devotion to gain within-group status.

Rather than constituting a special category of cultural beliefs, we see political conspiracy theories as part of a wider family of abstract ideological narratives denouncing how an evil, villains, or oppressive system—more or less real and clearly delineated—exploit a virtuous victim group. This family also comprises anti-capitalistic vs. anti-communist or religious propaganda, white supremacist vs. anti-racist discourses, etc. Future research should explore the content properties that make those threat-based narratives compelling; the balance between their hypothetical social functions of signaling, commitment, and coordination enhancers; and the factors moderating their spread (such as intellectual humility and beliefs that the outgroup does not hate the ingroup).