In surveys conducted in September 2016, 948 American adults across the political spectrum were asked by Fessler's team to rate how strongly they believed or disbelieved 16 assertions, almost all of which were false. Some of the assertions suggested neutral or happy outcomes, while others hinted at hazards that could be serious.
Plenty of test subjects were taken in by false claims about hazards and benefits. And participants across the political spectrum showed some "negativity bias" in deciding what to believe.
But when a bogus claim raised a prospective danger, respondents who embraced conservative political views were slightly more likely to believe it than were those who adhered to more liberal political positions, Fessler's team found.
Adding pedophilia to a list of political charges thus has the power to tilt an ordinary conspiracy story into danger territory, said University of Chicago political scientist Eric Oliver, author of the book "Enchanted America: How Intuition and Reason Divide Our Politics."
Conspiracy beliefs that are more run-of-the-mill - that a cabal of greedy bankers runs the world's economy, or that the moon landing was faked - just don't carry the same emotional freight as a charge of child exploitation, he said.
QAnon initially mobilized around the claim that the "deep state" was working to thwart President Trump. But the narrative became a more compelling tale of moral struggle when those enemies were accused of harming children in a particularly horrific way, Oliver said.
Oliver's research focuses not on ideology but on the "thinking styles" that differentiate people who are inclined to believe conspiracies and those who aren't. What divides Americans, he argues, is not so much liberal vs. conservative as it is cognitive habits: Those who rely heavily on their intuitions and tend to believe that unseen forces guide our lives appear to be more prone to believe conspiracies than are people who embrace analysis and look for scientific explanations.
For people whose intuition tells them that there's something rotten at the top, Oliver said, the addition of a pedophile conspiracy may make an otherwise unsatisfying narrative simply too much to resist.
"That bureaucracies have their own agenda - that's just kind of politics," he said. Add pedophiles to the mix, and "they're not just self-interested bureaucrats. They're evil people."
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