College - Author 1

College of Liberal Arts

Department - Author 1

Social Sciences Department

Degree Name - Author 1

BS in Anthropology and Geography



Primary Advisor

Stacey Rucas, College of Liberal Arts, Social Sciences Department


Why do some people believe in conspiracies more than others? Previous research suggests that variables such as education level, gender, race, or political preference are not useful in a predictive capacity, so what individual traits or characteristics make someone more likely to believe in conspiracy theories?

Locus of control is a psychological personality trait that indicates how an individual attributes the causes and outcomes of life events. Locus of control ranges from a more internally located locus, to more externally located. Internally located individuals believe that their own actions primarily impact the outcomes of events, whereas externally located individuals believe that their actions have less of an impact on outcomes, that outcomes are the result of external forces such as those in positions of power, and chance or fate.

Conspiracy theories are defined as unlikely, implausible, alternative explanations for events or situations that invoke a conspiracy by hostile, powerful and covert groups, often with malicious intent (Zonis & Joseph, 1994; Stojanov, Bering & Haalberstadt, 2020). While these theories are implausible, sometimes they are actually accurate representations of reality. Believing in threat related conspiracy theories could ultimately be evolutionarily adaptive through a function called negative biased credulity. Negativity bias and negatively biased credulity are both evolutionary tactics that can help prevent the costliest errors: essentially erring on the side of caution. We are also more inclined to have negativity bias when we cannot verify the information presented, as we have neither the time nor energy to positively verify every bit of information that comes our way. This is an essential element to most conspiracies, as most contain or are predicated upon facts or assumptions that cannot be corroborated (Fessler, 2018).

Between factors correlated with a greater willingness to believe in conspiracy theories, the psychological framework of locus of control, and a proposed negativity bias of social transmission of information, I hypothesize that individuals with a more externally located locus of control will be more willing to believe in conspiracy theories, as the general outlook in how the world works and attribution of events between the nature of conspiracy theorists and those with a more externally located locus of control are congruent and consistent.

To test these hypotheses, I designed a survey to measure a) individual locus of control using the Levenson scale, b) general willingness to believe in conspiracies, c) specific willingness to believe in a matrix of 13 mostly apolitical conspiracy theories, and two questions to check if subjects are paying attention. The survey was constructed in SurveyMonkey and, following Cal Poly IRB Human Subjects approval, was distributed via all of my available social network contacts. The survey had an 83% completion rate, resulting in a total N of 294 complete responses after cleaning.

With large magnitudes of effect and exceptionally statistically significant p-values, Hypotheses 1 and 2 were supported by multiple measures. Some of the most important findings of this study pertain to the Levenson multifaceted Locus of Control scale. The difference in the predictive capacity between those with higher Chance score vs those with higher POW score demonstrate that these are in fact two separate concepts that measure different cognitive aspects of external locus of control. The implications of this research suggest a strong correlative and possibly predictive relationship between an individual’s locus of control and their willingness to believe in conspiracies.