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Why do conspiracy theories about pedophilia hold such sway with some conservatives?

By Melissa Healy, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

But some researchers have gathered evidence that conspiracy theories involving pedophilia tend to exert a stronger and more enduring hold on people who identify as conservative, or who embrace policy positions strongly identified with American conservatism.

In an influential 1964 article, Columbia University political scientist Richard Hofstadter described a particular strain of American partisans who employed "heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy" in their discourse. These people - a group typified by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who initiated a range of investigations to root out suspected Communists in the federal government - "believe themselves to be conservatives and usually employ the rhetoric of conservatism," he wrote.

Although Hofstadter's thesis came in for criticism, it also spurred research. Over the next 44 years, at 88 studies conducted in 12 countries and involving more than 22,000 participants drew links between people who embrace conservative ideologies and attributes such as death anxiety, intolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty, and personal needs for order, structure and closure.

And findings published in 2020 offer further evidence that it fits contemporary politics in the United States, the study's authors say.

In four separate experimental studies using various measures of political ideology and openness to conspiracy belief, a team of social psychologists and political scientists led by Sander van der Linden of Cambridge University in England found that conservatives in the United States were "significantly and substantially more likely than liberals to embrace conspiratorial ways of thinking."

Drawing from nationally representative survey samples involving 2,500 Americans, the researchers found a relationship between conservatism and conspiratorial thinking that was "positive, linear, and statistically robust," they reported in the journal Political Psychology.

 

Although some research suggests that extreme liberals are just as prone to conspiracy belief as extreme conservatives, Van der Linden and his colleagues did not observe this. Both in their large samples and in smaller groups designed to retest their findings, they found that conspiracies were more readily embraced by people on the far right than on the far left.

Against this backdrop, conspiracy theories that feature pedophilia offer "kind of a perfect storm" of circumstances to foster these misguided beliefs, according to University of California, Los Angeles evolutionary anthropologist Daniel M.T. Fessler, who wasn't involved in the Political Psychology study.

For starters, we are all primed by our mammalian brains to give credence to such charges, said Fessler, whose research focuses on the conditions in which conspiracies thrive. As a species that gives birth to helpless offspring and socializes our young over many years, humans respond to threats to a child's well-being with fierce arousal.

In two experiments that recruited close to 600 parents of young children Fessler has shown that parenthood and the actual presence of a young child enhance our distress when we perceive a threat to a child.

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