A study published in the Journal of Research in Personality sheds new light on the psychological features that tie narcissism to conspiracy thinking. The findings suggest that while people who are high in grandiose narcissism are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories because of a desire to be unique, those high in vulnerable narcissism are more likely to believe in conspiracies due to heightened paranoia.
Conspiracy theories are alternative explanations for events that often involve a malicious cover-up by a powerful organization. An example is the theory that COVID-19 vaccines contain microchip tracking devices. In light of the harm that can be caused by conspiracy beliefs, such as vaccine hesitancy during a global pandemic, scholars have invested in studying personality factors that might predict conspiracy thinking.
Researcher Cameron S. Kay wanted to add to this field of research by differentiating between two dimensions of narcissism, which he proposed might be tied to conspiracy belief through distinct personality features. While grandiose narcissism is characterized by an inflated ego and a feeling of superiority over others, vulnerable narcissism is characterized by heightened arrogance, self-consciousness, and shame.
A total of 397 undergraduate students completed questionnaires assessing grandiose narcissism, vulnerable narcissism, and conspiracist ideation. The survey also assessed four personality factors that Kay proposed might play a role in the link between narcissism and conspiracy belief — delusional ideation, paranoia, the desire to be unique, and the desire for control. Additionally, 234 participants had one or more close friends or family members complete a similar survey assessing the participants’ personalities.
The analysis revealed that students with higher self-reported grandiose or vulnerable narcissism scored higher in conspiracist ideation. Similarly, students who were rated by their loved ones as higher in grandiose or vulnerable narcissism were also rated as higher in conspiracist ideation. This finding is important because it suggests that people who are perceived as narcissistic are more likely to be perceived as believing in conspiracy theories — a way of thinking that is highly stigmatized.
Mediation analysis revealed that delusional ideation — the tendency toward unusual beliefs — partly explained the link between conspiracist ideation and both forms of narcissism. This was even after accounting for all other mediators of interest. This finding suggests that people who are high in narcissism are drawn to conspiracies partly due to a predisposition toward odd beliefs.
Next, paranoia partly explained the link between conspiracy belief and vulnerable narcissism, but not grandiose narcissism. “One possibility is that paranoia captures a specific type of delusion that is held predominantly by vulnerable narcissists. For example, people scoring high in vulnerable narcissism may be more likely to believe in conspiracy theories because they suffer from delusions of persecution and, as a result, are more likely to believe that there is a confederacy of malefactors plotting their downfall,” Kay says.
Next, a need for uniqueness partly explained the link between conspiracist ideation and grandiose, but not vulnerable, narcissism. However, after controlling for other mediators, this effect was no longer significant.
The study author says that the findings suggest that the two dimensions of grandiose and vulnerable narcissism are tied to conspiracy belief to some extent due to shared features, such as delusional ideation. However, there are likely distinct aspects of the two dimensions that uniquely tie them to conspiracy belief.
Kay notes that his study cannot inform causality between variables, and he suspects that the links between the personality features and conspiracy belief could be bidirectional. Future studies will be needed to explore causality and to investigate additional personality features that might play a role in the relationship between narcissism and conspiracy thinking.
The study, “The targets of all treachery: Delusional ideation, paranoia, and the need for uniqueness as mediators between two forms of narcissism and conspiracy beliefs”, was authored by Cameron S. Kay.