Control Threats

“People’s desire to make sense of the social world is closely coupled with the extent to which they experience control over their environment. Various complementary theoretical perspectives, on meaning-making (Heine, Proulx, & Vohs, 2006; Park, 2010; Van den Bos, 2009), paranoia (Kramer, 1998), and compensatory control (Kay, Whitson, Gaucher, & Galinsky, 2009; Rutjens, van Harreveld, & van der Pligt, 2013), assume that threats to control increase people’s mental efforts to make sense of the social world, imbuing the world with meaning, purpose, and order. These insights may explain why conspiracy theories seem to gain momentum particularly following impactful societal events that are likely experienced as control threats by citizens (e.g., a terrorist strike, a war, or a natural disaster; see Pipes, 1997; Robins & Post, 1997; Shermer, 2011). Indeed, research reveals that people are more likely to attribute impactful, harmful societal events (e.g., a politician is assas- sinated) to conspiracies than societal events that are less impactful or harmful (e.g., someone tries to assassinate a politician but fails; see McCauley & Jacques, 1979), a finding that is attributable to people’s sense-making motiva- tion (Van Prooijen & Van Dijk, 2014).


“In a similar vein, various operationalizations of control threats have been found to predict conspiracy beliefs. For in- stance, an external locus of control—that is, a dispositional tendency to believe that one’s outcomes are controlled by external forces—is correlated with interpersonal mistrust and paranoia (Mirowsky & Ross, 1983) and belief in conspiracy theories (Hamsher, Geller, & Rotter, 1968).

“Furthermore, a seminal study by Whitson and Galinsky (2008) reveals that experimentally induced control threats increases the extent to which participants perceive patterns, such as images in random noise, patterns in stock market information, and conspiracies. Complementary findings indicate that control threats elicit responses that are widely associated with conspiracy belief, such as attributing increased power to one’s enemies (Sullivan, Landau, & Rothschild, 2010), and scapegoating (Rothschild, Landau, Sullivan, & Keefer, 2012). Furthermore, constructs that are closely associated with control threats, such as death anxiety (Newheiser, Farias, & Tausch, 2011), uncertainty (Van Prooijen & Jostmann, 2013), and attitudinal ambivalence (van Harreveld, Rutjens, Schneider, Nohlen, & Keskinis, 2014), have been found to similarly influence conspiracy beliefs. In the following, we discuss how the present contribution is designed to expand on these insights.”

Text: The Influence of Control on Belief in Conspiracy Theories: Conceptual and Applied Extensions, Jan-Willem Van Prooijen and Michelle Accker, Applied Cognitive Psychology, Appl. Cognit. Psychol. 29: 753–761 (2015).

Image: Adolph Gottlieb, Green Dream, 1969, Serigraph, 24.13 x 19.13 inches


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