Research Article: The conspiratorial style in lay economic thinking

Date Published: March 3, 2017

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): David Leiser, Nofar Duani, Pascal Wagner-Egger, Jakob Pietschnig.


This study investigates patterns of lay perception of economics, and in particular the place of conspiratorial thinking regarding the economic domain. We devised four types of accounts in the economic domain, over a range of questions regarding different aspects of the economy: the classical neo-liberal economic view (which we labeled Econ101), and the Conspiracy view (the destructive outcomes of economy are due to small and powerful groups who are manipulating the markets), to which we added the Government malfunction view (failures in the economy are due to the authorities), and the Bad Invisible Hand view (the invisible hand may go wrong, and the equilibrium reached by its doings may be undesirable). The last two views are the ones most strongly endorsed by our respondents, in the US, Israel and Switzerland. The pattern of inter-correlations between the four accounts, and that between each and the psycho-social variables we examined, exhibits two clusters, Econ101 vs. the other three views of economy. This corresponds to a general opposition between people who trust the neoliberal economic system, and those opposed to it. What sets economic conspiratorial thinking apart are its links with other conspirational beliefs and with paranormal beliefs.

Partial Text

The study of lay understanding of economics is of major practical significance. Economic beliefs affect economic behavior [1, 2] and constitute an important component of economic modelling [3]. Moreover, democratic functioning assumes that citizens understand the issues [4, 5], enabling them to affect public policy through the political process [6].

In order to explore the dimensionality of our Economic scale, we performed a Multidimensional Scaling on the intercorrelations between items, that reveals that the four views of economy are fairly distinguishable (see Fig 2). The 3-dimensional solution shows an acceptable stress (.16). The rating of each of the four views about the fourteen different topics cluster quite clearly. The clusters manifest an opposition between the Econ101 view on the upper right side and the Conspiracy view on the bottom left side, the two other views lying in-between, yet closer to the Conspiracy view.

This study examined support for four types of accounts in the economic domain over a range of questions: the neo-liberal economic view (which we labeled Econ101), the Government Malfunction view, Conspiracy (destructive outcomes are due to sinister forces who manipulate the system) and the Bad Invisible Hand (the invisible hand may go wrong and the equilibrium reached by its doings is not necessarily desirable). All four scales had respectable alphas, indicating that people are consistent in their views regarding economic affairs. Whether discussing tax increases, privatization of public resources, causes of unemployment and inflation, or the role of commercial banks, people hold a rather consistent view. In the case of the conspiratorial mindset, this finding may be seen as an extension of the monological nature of conspiracism [16, 19–21, 23, 24, 26–28, 42, 58, 59]. Moreover, the economic conspiracy view is strongly correlated (in our Swiss sample, the only sample for which this data was collected) with other non-economic conspiracy theories (JFK’s assassination, Diana’s death, Apollo moon landing).




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