An Existential Threat Model of Conspiracy Theories

Jan Willem Van Prooijen*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review

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People endorse conspiracy theories particularly when they experience existential threat, that is, feelings of anxiety or uncertainty often because of distressing societal events. At the same time, such feelings also often lead people to support groups frequently implicated in conspiracy theories (e.g., the government). The present contribution aims to resolve this paradox by proposing an Existential Threat Model of Conspiracy Theories, which stipulates under what conditions existential threat does versus does not stimulate conspiracy theories. The model specifically illuminates that feelings of existential threat increase epistemic sense-making processes, which in turn stimulate conspiracy theories only when antagonistic outgroups are salient. Moreover, once formed conspiracy theories are not functional to reduce feelings of existential threat; instead, conspiracy theories can be a source of existential threat in itself, stimulating further conspiracy theorizing and contributing to a generalized conspiracist mindset. In the discussion, I discuss implications of the model, and illuminate how one may base interventions on the model to break this cyclical process and reduce conspiracy beliefs.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)16-25
Number of pages10
JournalEuropean Psychologist
Issue number1
Early online date6 Dec 2019
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2020


  • antagonistic outgroups
  • conspiracy theories
  • epistemic sense-making processes
  • existential threat


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