New research published in the Journal of Personality helps to establish a profile of those who are most likely to believe in conspiracy theories. The study indicates that conspiracy-prone individuals tend to exhibit heightened narcissism and antagonism along with reduced intellectual humility, impulse control, and inquisitiveness.
“Understanding the psychology of conspiratorial ideation is arguably more important now than ever,” said study author Shauna Bowes (@ShaunaBowes1), a graduate student at Emory University.
“With the emergence of social media platforms, conspiracy theories spread like wildfire. Conspiracy theories are pervasive, universal, and highly influential. I want to understand what makes people turn to them in times of uncertainty.”
In the study, 1,927 participants completed various assessments related to personality, intellectual humility, and psychopathology. The researchers also included multiple measures of conspiratorial ideation.
About three-fourths of the participants completed a measure of specific conspiratorial beliefs, in which they indicated their level of agreement with statements such as “U.S. agencies intentionally created the AIDS epidemic and administered it to Black and gay men in the 1970s” and “The assassination of John F. Kennedy was not committed by the lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald, but was rather a detailed, organized conspiracy to kill the President.”
The remaining participants completed a measure of general conspiratorial thinking, in which they indicated their level of agreement with broader statements such as “New and advanced technology which would harm current industry is being suppressed.” These participants also reported their level of belief in the vaccine-autism conspiracy theory.
The researchers found that increased conspiratorial ideation was associated with lower levels of agreeableness, conscientiousness, inquisitiveness, and intellectual humility; and higher levels of self-centered impulsivity, entitlement, grandiosity, negative affect, detachment, psychoticism, depression, and anxiety
The findings indicate that “the psychology of conspiratorial ideation is complex and spans both abnormal-range and normal-range traits,” Bowes told PsyPost.
“The personological recipe for the nonclinical individual prone to conspiratorial ideation includes a complex mixture of undue belief certainty, anxiety-proneness, susceptibility to unusual experiences, antagonism, poor impulse control, low humility, and low inquisitiveness. Individuals susceptible to conspiracy belief may find comfort in alternative explanations that blame an outside group of people, and they may not see a need to double-check their faulty intuitions.”
Of course, not everyone who believes in conspiracy theories displays these traits. The strength of the relationships between personality traits and conspiratorial ideation were modest to weak.
“A major caveat of our study is that the results are correlational, precluding causal inference. It is still unclear what temporally precedes conspiratorial ideation and what follows from it. For instance, anxious individuals may turn to conspiracy theories to find comfort but conspiracy belief may also increase anxiety. We still need to understand how the pieces come together in a causal framework,” Bowes said.
“Understanding conspiracy belief may help us understand fake news and misinformation broadly. By understanding the psychology of conspiratorial ideation, we might also better understand how to stop the spread of various conspiracy theories.”
The study, “Looking under the tinfoil hat: Clarifying the personological and psychopathological correlates of conspiracy beliefs“, was authored by Shauna M. Bowes, Thomas H. Costello, Winkie Ma, and Scott O. Lilienfeld.