Study: The personal need to eliminate uncertainty predicts belief in conspiracy theories

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Scientists have found that certain psychological predispositions can make people more or less prone to believe conspiracy theories. Now, new research has found another trait that could be linked to conspiracy theories.

The study, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, suggests that conspiracy theories are associated with the desire to eliminate uncertainties. The study from researchers in Poland and the United Kingdom examined the role of cognitive closure, meaning the tendency to desire an answer for any particular question.

“Why do some people believe that the AIDS virus was created by the US government, that the British security services murdered Princess Diana or that Russians were involved in the Smolensk catastrophe of 2010 that killed the Polish president?” said Marta Marchlewska of the University of Warsaw, the study’s corresponding author. “There is no doubt that conspiracy theories give simple and structured answers to difficult questions. The aim of our research was to find out which psychological traits make people especially prone to adopt conspiratorial explanations and under what circumstances does it occur.”

“We found out that people who are especially motivated to reduce uncertainty by finding clear beliefs about reality and forming quick judgments on a given topic (those high in need for cognitive closure) adopt salient conspiratorial explanations for uncertain events that lack clear official explanations.”

Marchlewska and her colleagues conducted two separate experiments on a total of 700 Polish adults.

In the first experiment, the researchers had participants read a story about the European Union’s plans to help Syrian and Eritrean refugees in Poland. In the second experiment, participants read stories about either the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash or the Germanwings Airbus A320 plane crash. The stories were presented as online news articles.

After reading the stories, the participants then read internet comments about the events. The comments either provided conspiratorial or non-conspiratorial explanations for why the events really occurred.

Both experiments found that the need for cognitive closure predicted the endorsement of conspiratorial explanations. But this association disappeared when the participants were already aware of well-known, official causes of a particular event.

“For example, participants high in need for cognitive closure were more likely to endorse a conspiracy theory behind a plane crash when this conspiracy was salient,” Marchlewska explained. “This was only the case when non-conspiratorial official explanations for the crash were lacking. When other causes for the plane crash were easily available to participants instead, those high in cognitive closure were more likely to reject conspiracy theories.”

Specifically, participants with a high need for cognitive closure were more likely to believe conspiracies about Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777, which disappeared for unknown reasons. But they weren’t more likely to believe conspiracies about Germanwings Airbus A320, which crashed because the pilot deliberately flew the plane into the ground.

“Thus, it seems that when the official causes of a particular event are well-known and assure closure, those high in need for cognitive closure might not have a reason for entertaining conspiracy theories,” Marchlewska told PsyPost. “However, when situation is complex and uncertain conspiracy beliefs may serve as a map of meaning for those individuals who are determined to get any answer.”

“Future research would do well to investigate if conspiratorial beliefs fully compensate feelings of uncertainty and discourage those high in need for cognitive closure from searching for alternative explanations.”

The study, “Addicted to answers: Need for cognitive closure and the endorsement of conspiracy beliefs“, was also co-authored by Aleksandra Cichocka and Malgorzata Kossowska.

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