New research published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology suggests that a tendency to readily believe conspiracy theories coincides with a general mistrust of others. Two experimental studies found that people with a higher conspiracy mentality were less trusting of unfamiliar faces, regardless of whether or not the faces displayed cues of trustworthiness.
Many psychology researchers have aspired to understand the psychological underpinnings of a conspiratorial worldview, asking the question — what drives people to believe in conspiracy theories? A mistrust of others has been identified as a key component of conspiracy belief but the exact nature of this mistrust is unknown.
Study authors Marius Frenken and Roland Imhoff wondered whether this mistrust of others is adaptive or maladaptive. In an attempt to answer this question, they explored whether people with a conspiracy mentality are overly sensitive to cues of untrustworthiness, under sensitive to cues of trustworthiness, or whether they express a non-specific mistrust regardless of trustworthiness cues.
“The extent to which people believe in conspiracy theories points to a conflict between two elementary human abilities: being suspicious to detect cheating versus trusting others, for example as informational sources,” explained Frenken, a doctoral research assistant at the Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz.
“As conspiracy theories are often an expression of mistrust against institutions, experts, and science, we were interested if this conspiracy-related mistrust in the public domain also plays a role in the immediate interpersonal contact. Another intention was to examine if this increased mistrust either grounds on a better cheater detection or on a worse trust detection or just on generally higher levels of mistrust among conspiracy believers.”
If people with a conspiracy mentality are especially good at detecting when someone is untrustworthy, a conspiratorial worldview might be adaptive in that it helps people detect others with malicious intentions. But if people with a conspiracy mentality are instead less able to detect when someone is trustworthy, this worldview should be maladaptive since it carries the social costs of eschewing trustworthy people.
However, if people with a conspiracy mentality are generally mistrusting of others regardless of trustworthiness cues, this worldview might have been adaptive in ancestral times but less adaptive now. In earlier times, the benefits of avoiding distrustful people likely outweighed the costs of missing out on trustworthy people, while in current times, being overly distrustful may lead to stigmatization.
Frenken and Imhoff conducted two experiments examining how a conspiracy mentality would relate to judgments about trustworthy and untrustworthy faces. For the first study, 280 people were shown a set of 65 computer-generated faces that each had three versions: a neutral, a trustworthy, and an untrustworthy version. The participants were shown these faces one at a time and asked whether they felt each face was trustworthy or not. They then completed a 12-item conspiracy mentality scale that assessed a general mindset toward conspiracy belief.
The results revealed that, overall, participants judged the untrustworthy faces as less trustworthy, pointing to a cognitive mechanism that enables people to detect untrustworthiness from faces. Next, people with a higher conspiracy mentality were less likely to judge the faces as trustworthy, regardless of whether the face was depicted as neutral, trustworthy, or untrustworthy.
The researchers then replicated these findings in a similar experiment using real faces. The 92 faces came from the Chicago Face Database and each one was manipulated using an app to create a high trustworthiness and a low trustworthiness version. Again, participants who scored higher in conspiracy mentality judged fewer faces as trustworthy, regardless of the way the faces had been manipulated.
The two studies support an association between conspiracy mentality and a general mistrust of others, rather than a higher sensitivity to untrustworthiness cues or a lower sensitivity to trustworthiness cues. This was further supported by a meta-analysis that combined the data from both studies.
“People who tend to endorse conspiracy theories are also more inclined to mistrust strangers in brief initial contacts,” Frenken told PsyPost. “This effect results from a generally increased mistrust and not from a specifically better or worse sensitivity to cues of trust and mistrust. The study demonstrates that conspiracy beliefs can be part of a suspicious worldview to see malevolent intentions in the world.
The findings also indicate the existence of a cognitive system that helps people detect cues of untrustworthiness, but suggest that this system is not more sensitive among people with a conspiracy mentality.
“Conspiracy mentality is presumably accompanied by manifold manifestations of global mistrust as a general worldview that can have various discernible consequences,” Frenken and Imhoff wrote in their study, “for instance, for the intention to get vaccinated in case of mistrust in authorities (Jolley & Douglas, 2014) or generally for the well-being of individuals and the cohesion within a society.” The authors say that this general mistrust of others might come at a social cost, since interpersonal trust is important for social cohesion. A tendency to mistrust others could pave the way for social isolation and alienation.
As far as limitations, the analysis could not control for all confounding factors that might be underlying the association between conspiracy mentality and mistrust. For example, lower levels of the personality trait of agreeableness have been associated with the tendency to judge faces as less trustworthy and might also be associated with conspiracy belief.
“The causality of effects is open to further research,” Frenken explained. “It could be that the correlations between the tendency to endorse conspiracy theories and our experimental measures of interpersonal mistrust are based on other factors than direct or even causal connections. Further, effect sizes are reliable, but comparatively small suggesting not to overinterpret the results. Future studies could examine the origins of interindividual differences in the levels of mistrust.”
The study, “Don’t trust anybody: Conspiracy mentality and the detection of facial trustworthiness cues”, was authored by Marius Frenken and Roland Imhoff.