Studies find the need to feel unique is linked to belief in conspiracy theories

The belief in conspiracy theories could be motivated in part by the desire to stand out. Two separate teams of researchers in Europe have independently found evidence that the desire to feel unique is linked to the belief in conspiracies.

“An intriguing feature in the rhetoric of people who believe in conspiracy theories is that to justify their beliefs, they frequently refer to secret or difficult-to-get information they would have found,” explained Anthony Lantian of Grenoble Alps University, a researcher involved in one of the studies.

“This fascination for what is hidden, emerging from conspiracy narratives, led us to the concept of need for uniqueness,” he added. “It is a fundamental motivation that drives people to feel unique and different. People with high need for uniqueness actively search for things (e.g., material possessions, clothing, bodily modifications, ideas, etc.) that could highlight their difference. In this sense, thinking to know things that others are not supposed to know (e.g., information about the situations explained by the conspiracy theories) is a way to demonstrate uniqueness.”

The researchers were able to find evidence supporting three main tenets of their hypothesis.

First, they found that people who endorsed conspiracy theories tended to be more likely to think that they possessed scarce and secret information. Secondly, they found that people who reported a higher need for uniqueness were more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. Finally, they found that people who were encouraged to be unique had a higher likelihood of subsequently believing in a conspiracy.

“The take-home message of our studies is that people with higher need for uniqueness believe more in conspiracy theories and experimentally activating need for uniqueness increases conspiracy beliefs,” Lantian told PsyPost.

The study, titled “‘I know things they don’t know!’: The role of need for uniqueness in belief in conspiracy theories”, included more than 1,000 participants and was published recently in the journal Social Psychology. Along with Lantian, the research was co-authored by Dominique Muller, Cécile Nurra, and Karen M. Douglas.

“Like any studies, there are limitations in our research,” Lantian said. “To mention just one, at this stage, we do not know if the observed association between need for uniqueness and conspiracy beliefs is simply due to the unconventionality of these beliefs (taken as a dissenting positions) or if conspiracy beliefs contain specific additional features.”

“For future research, an interesting question that need to be addressed is to test this relationship in different cultural setting, for instance, by exploring the association between need for uniqueness and conspiracy beliefs on collectivist culture (e.g., in South Korea), were contrary to individualist cultures, conformity is more valued than uniqueness.”

“We would like to add that simultaneously, two German researchers in social psychology have published a paper testing the same hypothesis, but with a different approach (Imhoff & Lamberty, in press in European Journal of Social Psychology). We believe that it is a nice example of cumulative and converging findings,”  Lantian said.

That study, which also included over 1,000 participants, found the need for uniqueness was associated with a general conspiratorial mindset, which in turn predicted agreement with a fictitious conspiracy theory. The research was titled: “Too special to be duped: Need for uniqueness motivates conspiracy beliefs.”