Individuals who experience anger more frequently are more likely to endorse conspiracy theories, according to new research published in the Journal of Research in Personality. The findings indicate that anger plays a role in susceptibility to conspiracy theories, regardless of whether the beliefs are related to specific events or more general in nature.
The researchers conducted this study because they noticed that there has been a growing interest in conspiracy theories, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic began. They wanted to understand why some people are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories than others. Previous research has looked at personality traits as possible factors, but they realized that traits related to emotional experiences were often overlooked.
They specifically focused on the trait of anger because it is an emotion that can influence our beliefs and attitudes. Anger is an intense emotion that narrows attention and memory, potentially leading to a reduced openness to new information and opportunities. Believing in conspiracy theories might be a manifestation of this narrow cognitive processing when individuals’ needs are thwarted.
While there have been some studies on the relationship between anger and conspiracy beliefs, the results were mixed and mostly focused on the temporary experience of anger rather than the trait of anger, which refers to frequent and intense experiences of angry feelings.
“Many of us are exposed to conspiracy theories on a regular basis, and research has shown that believing in these theories can have harmful effects on various aspects of our lives,” said study author Kinga Szymaniak, a research associate at the University of New South Wales. “While conspiracy theories have been around for a long time, still not much is known about how they relate to specific emotions (e.g., anger, fear, sadness).”
“In this investigation, we decided to focus on the connection between conspiracy beliefs and anger, because they seem to arise in response to similar factors and previous research has already suggested a potential relationship between the two. A better understanding of this relationship is likely to help us develop practical approaches to reduce the spread of harmful conspiracy beliefs by improving how we manage and handle anger.”
An initial study of 363 Polish participants, which was conducted immediately after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, provided support for the hypothesis that trait anger is associated with belief in COVID-19 conspiracy theories. It suggested that individuals who are easily angered are more likely to believe in these theories. Those who agreed with statements such as “I flare up quickly but get over it quickly” were more likely to believe that “the COVID-19 pandemic is a global conspiracy.”
The study also found a positive association between belief in conspiracy theories and approach motivation, indicating that individuals with a stronger tendency to pursue positive outcomes are more likely to believe in such theories.
To gather more reliable and generalizable results, the researchers sought to replicate the findings in a second study of 422 Polish residents. For the second study, they ensured a more balanced gender representation in the sample and increased the number of items used to measure conspiracy beliefs about the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, they included measures of narcissism and religious fundamentalism to examine whether trait anger and approach motivation predict conspiracy beliefs while controlling for these personality traits.
The results of Study 2 supported the findings from Study 1. Szymaniak and her colleagues found that trait anger was positively related to COVID-19 conspiracy beliefs. The researchers also observed positive correlations between conspiracy beliefs and narcissism as well as religious fundamentalism.
For their third study, the researchers aimed to investigate generic conspiracy beliefs, which are abstract and non-specific ideas about conspiracy activities that are not tied to a particular historical context. These beliefs reflect a stable readiness to interpret the world as controlled by secretive and malevolent powerful groups.
The researchers wanted to determine if the same pattern of associations observed in Studies 1 and 2, which focused on specific conspiracy beliefs related to COVID-19, would also emerge with generic conspiracy beliefs. A total of 248 Polish residents participated in Study 3.
The findings of Study 3 aligned with the results from Studies 1 and 2. Trait anger was positively related to generic conspiracy beliefs, such as the belief that “The government
uses people as patsies to hide its involvement in criminal activity.”
“The main conclusion that the average person can take away from our investigation is that people who are more prone to experience anger are also more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, regardless of their content,” Szymaniak told PsyPost. “However, it needs to be stressed that many individual and situational factors are likely to impact these associations. What are these factors? We still don`t know and future research is required to answer this question.”
In a fourth study, the researchers also investigated whether feeling angry could affect people’s responses to conspiracy theories, especially among those who already had a higher tendency for anger (trait anger). They conducted an experiment using a group of participants and introduced a new conspiracy theory about a secret military basement hidden underneath Berlin Airport.
The study included 141 U.S. participants who were randomly assigned to either an anger-inducing task or a neutral task. Before the task, participants completed a series of questionnaires to measure their trait anger. Then, they were asked to write about a personal experience that either made them feel angry or had a neutral effect. Afterward, participants were shown an article describing the conspiracy theory about the secret military base. They were asked to pay attention to the information, provide a summary of the article, and rate the extent to which they believed it.
The researchers found that the manipulation of anger was effective, as participants in the anger condition reported higher levels of anger compared to those in the neutral condition. Trait anger and manipulated anger interacted to influence conspiracy beliefs. Specifically, within the anger condition, participants with higher levels of trait anger were more likely to believe the conspiracy theory. In contrast, within the neutral condition, participants with higher levels of trait anger were less likely to believe the conspiracy theory.
This interaction suggests that anger itself, rather than other factors associated with trait anger, makes individuals more prone to believing conspiracy theories. The researchers speculated that the situational increase in anger influenced individuals with higher trait anger to be more susceptible to accepting the novel conspiracy theory.
“The general pattern of results suggests that trait anger predicts higher conspiracy beliefs independently of trait approach motivation (anger`s key characteristic), and other personality traits included in our investigation (e.g., narcissism),” Szymaniak explained. “Additionally, we found that manipulated anger increased conspiracy beliefs for individuals who scored higher on the trait anger scale. This is a surprising (and exciting!) finding as it suggests that there is something unique about anger that makes it a predictor of conspiracy beliefs.”
The research highlights the importance of studying the emotional correlates of conspiracy beliefs in more detail. But Szymaniak noted that there is still much to learn.
“The relationship between conspiracy beliefs and not only anger but emotions per se, remains largely unexplored, leaving numerous unanswered questions,” she explained. “Is anger the cause or the consequence of conspiracy beliefs, or maybe both? Why are those who are prone to anger are more inclined to believe in conspiracy theories? What are the associations between conspiracy beliefs and other specific emotions (e.g., fear, sadness, and excitement)? Answering these questions would undeniably help to more comprehensively understand the complex phenomenon of conspiracy beliefs.”
The study, “Trait anger and approach motivation are related to higher endorsement of specific and generic conspiracy beliefs“, was authored by Kinga Szymaniak, Marcin Zajenkowski, Krzysztof Fronczyk, Sarah Leung, and Eddie Harmon-Jones.