Self-uncertainty and belongingness predict belief in conspiracy theories

Self-uncertainty and belongingness predict belief in conspiracy theories, according to a recent study published this April in the European Journal of Social Psychology. The study suggests that, among people that experience self-uncertainty, feelings of inclusion make people more suspicious about impactful and potentially harmful societal events.

A large number of people in Western societies believe in conspiracy theories, as citizens are often suspicious of powerful leaders and organizations. Research attention on conspiracy beliefs has grown over the past few years, especially because such beliefs are associated with counterproductive perceptions and behaviors, including distrust, harmful health choices, political alienation, hostility, antisocial behavior, and radicalization. Recently, it has been suggested that conspiracy beliefs originate from similar underlying psychological processes.

For the study, by Jan-Willem van Prooijen of VU University Amsterdam, it is proposed that these psychological processes are characterized by the joint influence of uncertainty and a social concern for others. Firstly, “the experience of subjective uncertainty stimulates a sense-making process that is aimed at understanding complex societal events, in order to restore a perception of the world as orderly, consistent, and predictable.” Secondly, “the extent to which people connect their own identity to victimized or threatened others is relevant for belief in conspiracy theories”. Therefore, the study investigated the influence of self-uncertainty and belongingness on conspiracy beliefs using 2 studies.

In Study 1, 84 students had their self-uncertainty measured (self-esteem instability), whilst controlling for general self-esteem level. They were then subjected to a belongingness manipulation in which they imagined themselves being included or excluded by others. Finally, the students were given some factual information about a subject and questioned about their belief in conspiracy theories in relation to the topic (e.g. “Do you believe that various institutions lie about global warming?”).

In Study 2, 81 students had both their self-uncertainty experimentally manipulated (they were asked to remember a situation in their own life where they felt really certain/uncertain about themselves) and their belongingness experimentally manipulated (same as Study 1). Finally, belief in conspiracy theories was measured in the context of two topics: oil companies and the financial crisis.

The results revealed that messages communicating inclusion or exclusion (belongingness) influenced conspiracy beliefs only among people experiencing high levels of self-uncertainty. This was found both when self-uncertainty was measured as a variable (Study 1) and when it was experimentally manipulated (Study 2).

The authors noted, “The studies presented here illuminate the combined role of self-uncertainty and belongingness to predict belief in conspiracy theories.” They concluded, “Inclusion breeds suspicion about impactful, and potentially harmful societal events, among people that experience uncertainty about the self.”