The world is full of conspiracy theories: man didn’t really walk on the moon, JFK was killed by the CIA, the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre was staged with actors, former President Barack Obama was not really born in the US and that 9/11 was a government plot.
In an era of “fake news”, it has become increasingly harder for some to distinguish conspiracy with reality, and fact from fiction.
But according to new research, being drawn to a conspiracy theory may all be a matter of personality.
Published in the Journal of Individual Differences, the study was led by Josh Hart, an associate professor of psychology at Union College.
Together with student Molly Graether, Hart conducted a survey of over 1200 adults in America. Questions in the survey were related to demographic background and personality traits.
Participants were also asked to indicate whether they agreed or disagreed with general conspiracy statement like whether a small, unknown group is actually controlling world politics or whether scientists manipulate or suppress information to mislead the public.
Prior studies had shown that people were more inclined to believe conspiracy theories if they reinforced their existing views. Hart says Republicans are more likely than Democrats to believe the “birther” theory of Barack Obama, or think that climate change is a lie. Similarly, Democrats are more likely to believe the Trump campaign conspired with Russia.
“It seems like conspiracy theories are used to generate uncertainty and to undermine political adversaries by implying nefarious intent and illegal behavior. And yes, perhaps sometimes it is done not just for strategic reasons but also for personal comfort,” Hart told Theravive.
“Political scientists have observed that political "losers", people whose favored political parties or politicians have lost or are out of power, are more likely to believe in conspiracies. Perhaps that's preferable to believing that most people just don't like those parties or politicians, which is an implicit rebuke of a person's own beliefs and inclinations,” he said.
Hart’s research suggests that people with particular personality traits or cognitive style are more inclined to believe in conspiracy theories.
Hart found that those who believed in conspiracy theories tended to be more eccentric, suspicious and untrusting. They also had a need to feel special and typically saw the world as inherently dangerous. Those who are less likely to believe in conspiracy theories have opposite characteristics.
“People who are more likely to agree with a variety of generic conspiratorial statements, for example ‘The power held by heads of state is second to that of small unknown groups who really control world politics’ also tend to score higher on measures of personality and cognitive tendencies including schizotypy and belief in a dangerous world. Conspiracy believers are more likely to want to feel unique and to find meaning where others don't. By contrast, people who tend to reject conspiracy theories score in the opposite direction… lower schizotypy and less likely to believe the world is a dangerous place,” he said.
Schizotypy refers to a spectrum of personality characteristics and experiences ranging from “normal” to schizophrenic. Those would had higher levels of schizotypy were more likely to believe in conspiracy theories.
Such people were more inclined to interpret nonsensical statements as having profound meaning, and were more likely to think that nonhuman objects could act intentionally. Some were found to believe in a range of conspiracy theories, rather than just one.
Hart says conspiracy theories are different from other ways of viewing the world, for example religious or spiritual beliefs, as they tend to be more dismal. This tendency towards the gloomy differentiates them from other uplifting messages that may be receive through religion or similar.
He says for people who view the world as an inherently dangerous place, there may be some comfort to be found in conspiracy theories. Suffering or injustice in global politics may be less difficult to cope with if a person holds a belief that a small group of people may be responsible, or that “something is going on”. He says if people hold this view, they may also hold the view that something can be done about it.
“People's beliefs, whether conspiratorial or not, are not totally guided by objective processing of available facts, but are also shaped by people's motivations, emotional needs, and cognitive biases. That much is not news! But it is interesting to see how it specifically applies to the difference between people who are drawn to, or repelled by, conspiracy theories,” he said.
Elizabeth Pratt is a medical journalist and producer. Her work has appeared on Healthline, The Huffington Post, Fox News, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The Sydney Morning Herald, News.com.au, Escape, The Cusp and Skyscanner. You can read more of her articles here. Or learn more about Elizabeth and contact her via her LinkedIn and Twitter profiles.