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How Mumbo-Jumbo conquered the world: empirical analysis of conspiracy theories

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All is not well. I doubt some foul play.

—Shakespeare

Abstract

Conspiracy theories are everywhere, spreading like infectious diseases within and across countries. The rise of conspiracy-mongers is not just a nuisance, but a serious threat to political and economic stability. This paper provides an empirical analysis of cross-country differences in economic, institutional, and political factors attracting people to conspiracy theories, using nationally representative surveys conducted in 27 advanced and developing countries over the period 2018–2021. I find that conspiratorial thinking is more common in countries with lower level of income and higher levels of unemployment and income inequality. However, the most important socioeconomic factor in determining the popularity of conspiracy theories is educational attainments. Conspiratorial mentality is far more prevalent in countries with lower levels of tertiary education. I also find that institutions—as measured by bureaucratic quality and corruption—are important in drawing people away and to conspiracy theories. Finally, while internal conflict and tensions are not concomitant to conspiracy ideation, external conflict and the risk of terrorism are positively associated with the popularity of conspiratorial attitudes across countries.

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Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available at the YouGov-Cambridge Center for Public Opinion Research, from the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the International Country Risk Guide.

Notes

  1. Country coverage shows some variation from year to year. The list of countries in the sample includes Australia, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Thailand, Türkiye, the UK, and the USA.

  2. Detailed information on the YouGov-Cambridge Center for Public Opinion Research and its surveys may be found at https://yougov.co.uk/topics/yougov-cambridge/home.

  3. Appendix Table A1 provides the latest questionnaire.

  4. Although I include a wide range of explanatory variables in the regression model, there is still a concern about omitted variable bias in estimations. The fixed effects model used in the analysis, however, should control for “omitted” factors and thereby help reduce omitted variable bias.

  5. I obtain similar results when I replace the unemployment rate with a measure of income inequality.

  6. Radnitz (2022) takes this point of view further and argues that the politics of democracies play an important role in fueling conspiracy theories.

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Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank the editor, George Hondroyiannis, an anonymous referee, and Bernardin Akitoby for helpful comments and suggestions. The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), its Executive Board, or IMF management.

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Correspondence to Serhan Cevik.

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Appendix

Appendix

See Table 4.

Table 4 List of conspiracy theories

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Cevik, S. How Mumbo-Jumbo conquered the world: empirical analysis of conspiracy theories. Econ Change Restruct 57, 138 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10644-024-09717-7

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