New research provides evidence that belief in conspiracy theories is more likely among people with certain personality traits and cognitive styles. The study appears in the Journal of Individual Differences.
“I was struck by the impression that conspiracy theories have begun to take hold in the mainstream of our culture to a greater degree than in the past,” said study author Joshua Hart, an associate professor of psychology at Union College.
“I started to notice that I have friends and family members who believe in conspiracy theories. And I also have an academic interest in conspiracy beliefs, because one of the things I study is the psychological underpinnings of ideology.”
“From that perspective, conspiracy theories are interesting because they are not obviously optimistic and soothing in the way that many ideologies are (e.g., religious beliefs). If ideology is (at least in part) motivated, in that it functions to help people make sense of and feel good about the world, as a lot of research suggests it is, then what motivates conspiracism?”
The researchers surveyed 422 adults from the United States to investigate how personal factors were associated with the belief in conspiracy theories.
Hart and his colleagues found that schizotypy, dangerous-world beliefs, and bullshit receptivity were all strongly related to the endorsement of general conspiracies, such as the belief that some UFO sightings are staged “in order to distract the public from real alien contact” or that “the government permits or perpetrates acts of terrorism on its own soil.”
Schizotypy is a constellation of schizophrenia-like personality traits that includes suspiciousness and magical thinking, while people who endorse dangerous-world beliefs think the world could suddenly erupt in chaos at any moment. People high in bullshit receptivity, meanwhile, are more likely to view meaningless statements — such as “wholeness quiets infinite phenomena” — as profound statements.
The researchers replicated these findings in a second survey with another 831 participants. Using another survey of 107 individuals, they also replicated the results of another study that found individuals who have a greater need for uniqueness are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories.
“Some people are more likely than others to believe in conspiracy theories. These people tend to be more suspicious, untrusting, eccentric, needing to feel special, with a tendency to regard the world as an inherently dangerous place. They are also more likely to detect meaningful patterns where they might not exist. People who are reluctant to believe in conspiracy theories tend to have the opposite qualities,” Hart told PsyPost.
“The study is purely correlational, so we can’t know the psychological mechanisms that cause conspiracy belief, we can only guess at them based on the correlations. And it’s always important to remember that population-based research findings are probabilistic–they do not necessarily apply to a specific case or person,” he added.
“There are people out there who perfectly fit the conspiracist personality profile but do not believe in conspiracy theories, and people who believe in conspiracy theories but don’t fit the profile.”
The study, “Something’s going on here: Psychological predictors of belief in conspiracy theories“, was authored by Joshua Hart and Molly Graether.