In a landmark study, researchers have mapped the psychological landscape that shapes our susceptibility to conspiracy theories. Analyzing data from 170 studies, they’ve found that beliefs in conspiracy theories are not only influenced by personality traits but also by deeper motivational needs, such as the desire for certainty or feeling misunderstood by society. The findings have been published in the scientific journal Psychological Bulletin.
Conspiracy theories are a fascinating and complex facet of human culture, often defined as beliefs or explanations that attribute the cause of significant events or situations to secret, malevolent plots orchestrated by powerful and covert groups. Conspiracy theories usually thrive on the lack of definitive evidence, relying instead on suggestive, ambiguous, or circumstantial details.
They often emerge in response to significant, sometimes traumatic societal events, offering alternative explanations that challenge official accounts or mainstream understanding. While some conspiracy theories might occasionally turn out to have a basis in reality, most are widely considered implausible and unsupported by empirical evidence, yet they continue to capture the imagination and belief of certain segments of the population.
In the digital age, where information – and misinformation – spreads rapidly, understanding the psychology behind these beliefs has become more crucial than ever. Previous studies have explored various aspects of this phenomenon, looking at how personality traits, motivational factors, and social influences contribute to the belief in conspiracy theories.
Yet, despite a wealth of research, there was still a lack of comprehensive understanding of how these different factors interplay. This gap in knowledge led researchers to conduct one of the most extensive studies to date, aiming to integrate these diverse strands of research into a cohesive picture.
“Conspiracy belief is particularly interesting because it is a self-reinforcing belief system that is difficult to change. Conspiracy belief can be highly consequential, so it is important to identify ways to intervene on conspiracy belief,” explained Shauna Bowes, a postdoctoral researcher at Vanderbilt University and the lead author of the new research.
How Was The Study Conducted?
The researchers conducted a meta-analysis, a powerful statistical technique that combines data from multiple individual studies to extract broader insights and trends. This method is particularly useful in fields like psychology, where research findings can be diverse and sometimes contradictory.
Bowes and her colleagues began their study with an extensive literature search, which included sifting through a vast array of sources such as peer-reviewed journal articles, dissertations, theses, and unpublished data. This search was conducted using electronic databases like Google Scholar and APA PsycInfo. They employed specific Boolean search phrases to ensure a comprehensive collection of relevant studies. Their analysis included 170 studies, 257 samples, and 1,429 effect sizes, involving a total of 158,473 participants.
The team then coded a total of 52 motivational and personological variables from the eligible studies. These variables were carefully categorized into broader domains such as motivational (epistemic, existential, social) and personological (psychopathology, general/normal-range personality) domains, based on existing frameworks in the field.
Remarkably, almost all of these variables demonstrated some degree of association with the tendency to believe in conspiracy theories. “I was surprised by the fact that about 90% of the variables assessed significantly predicted conspiracy belief (of 52 variables). These results point to conspiracy belief being even more psychologically complex than I initially presumed,” Bowes told PsyPost.
Motivational Correlates of Conspiracy Beliefs
The results strongly supported a tripartite motivational model of conspiratorial ideation. This model posits that conspiratorial thinking is driven by three key needs: understanding one’s environment (epistemic), feeling secure and safe (existential), and maintaining a superior image of oneself and one’s ingroup (social).
A lack of analytical thinking emerged as a significant predictor. Individuals who exhibited lower levels of analytical thinking and cognitive reflection were more inclined to endorse conspiracy theories. This relationship suggests that a less critical approach to information processing might predispose individuals to accept unverified or speculative ideas.
Additionally, existential motives played a substantial role. The belief in conspiracy theories was strongly related to feelings of powerlessness, existential threats, and a general sense of cynicism towards the world. These findings highlight that individuals who perceive the world as a more threatening and uncontrollable place are more susceptible to conspiratorial thinking. This connection could be understood as a psychological response to uncertainty and a chaotic environment, where conspiracy theories provide a sense of understanding and control.
The study also shed light on the role of social factors in conspiratorial ideation. Feelings of alienation and low self-esteem were linked to a higher likelihood of endorsing conspiracy theories. Additionally, a perception of outgroups as threatening and negative was strongly related to conspiratorial beliefs. These findings suggest that how individuals perceive their relationship with society and their social environment can influence their susceptibility to conspiracy theories.
Personological Correlates of Conspiracy Beliefs
The researchers also explored how conspiratorial ideation relates to personality traits, distinguishing between abnormal-range and normal-range traits. It found that conspiratorial ideation is strongly related to abnormal-range traits, such as schizotypy, paranoia, tendencies to have unusual experiences, trait psychoticism, and hostility. These traits are associated with impaired functioning and a negative perception of others and events.
On the other hand, normal-range personality traits (captured by the Big Five model) showed very small correlations with conspiratorial ideation. This indicates that while these general traits have some influence, they are not as pivotal in predicting belief in conspiracy theories as abnormal-range traits.
One interesting finding was the role of humility. Both general humility and intellectual humility were significant, negative correlates of conspiratorial ideation, particularly when measuring honesty–humility and comprehensive features of intellectual humility. This suggests that a lack of humility is a notable marker of conspiratorial thinking.
These findings highlight that conspiratorial ideation is more closely linked with psychopathology and certain personality disorders than with general personality functioning.
Strongest Predictors of Conspiracy Belief
But what emerged as the most important variables overall? “There are many psychological factors that predict conspiracy belief, but not all are equally strong predictors,” Bowes told PsyPost. “Three domains were the strongest predictors of conspiracy belief: tendencies to have odd beliefs and experiences, perceive threat and danger, and be antagonistic or feel that you are superior to others. These three domains included the strongest correlates of conspiracy belief, spanning existential, epistemic, and social motivations and needs.”
Despite its comprehensive nature, the study has limitations. Most of the research included was conducted in English-speaking, Western countries, raising questions about the applicability of the findings across different cultural contexts. Another significant limitation is the cross-sectional nature of the data, which hinders the ability to determine causality or the temporal order of the relationships observed.
“These findings are correlational – it’s still unclear whether the strongest correlates actually cause conspiracy belief,” Bowes explained. “Longitudinal, experimental, and developmental work is needed to address causes of conspiracy belief. The two strongest correlates of conspiracy belief fell under the domain of threat and danger, with social threat perception being the strongest positive predictor and trust being the strongest negative predictor. I think these variables will be particularly important to consider in future research.”
The study, “The Conspiratorial Mind: A Meta-Analytic Review of Motivational and Personological Correlates“, was authored by Shauna M. Bowes, Thomas H. Costello, and Arber Tasimi.