The Type of People Who Believe In Conspiracy Theories. Conspiracy theories have been concocted throughout history, but they have recently gained prominence, likely in part due to the president of the United States’ propensity for embracing or inventing them.
Given that no particular conspiracy theory is likely to be accepted by the majority, what attracts individuals to them?
New research by associate professor of psychology Josh Hart suggests that individuals with particular personality traits and cognitive styles are more inclined to believe in conspiracy theories. Recent publication of the study in the Journal of Individual Differences.
“These individuals have a tendency to be more suspicious, untrusting, eccentric, and needing to feel special, as well as to view the world as inherently dangerous,” said Hart. “In addition, they are more likely to detect meaningful patterns where none exist. People who are skeptical of conspiracy theories typically possess the opposite characteristics.”
More than 1,200 American adults were polled by Hart and his student, Molly Graether ’17. Participants were asked a series of questions concerning their personality traits, political leanings, and demographic background. They were also asked if they agreed with general conspiratorial statements, such as “The power held by heads of state is secondary to that of small, unknown groups that control world politics” and “Groups of scientists manipulate, fabricate, or suppress evidence to deceive the public.”
Previous research has demonstrated that individuals gravitate toward conspiracy theories that affirm or validate their political views: Republicans are far more likely than Democrats to believe the Obama “birther” theory or that climate change is a hoax. Hart stated that Democrats are more likely to believe that the Trump campaign “colluded” with the Russians.
Some individuals are also habitual conspiracists who subscribe to an assortment of generalized theories. For instance, they believe that a cabal rather than governments controls international politics and that scientists routinely deceive the public. This suggests that personality or other individual differences may be playing a role.
Hart and Graether wished to extend this research by determining the extent to which each of a number of previously identified traits could explain conspiracy beliefs in general. By analyzing multiple characteristics simultaneously, the pair was able to determine which ones were the most essential.
“Hart stated that the most accurate predictor of conspiracy beliefs was a constellation of personality traits known collectively as’schizotypy’
The trait is named after schizophrenia, but it does not refer to a clinical diagnosis. Hart’s research also revealed that conspiracists exhibited distinct cognitive tendencies: they were more likely than nonbelievers to perceive nonsensical statements as profound (a tendency known as “BS receptivity”).
In turn, they were more likely to believe that nonhuman objects — moving triangles on a computer screen — were acting deliberately.
In other words, they inferred meaning and purpose where others did not.
Therefore, what does this mean?
“It is important to understand that conspiracy theory are fundamentally pessimistic,” Hart said. “This distinguishes them from the typically upbeat messages conveyed, for example, by religious and spiritual beliefs. This appears to be a conundrum. If you are the type of person who views the world as a chaotic, malevolent landscape rife with senseless injustice and suffering, you may find some solace in the idea that someone or a small group of people are responsible for it all. If “something is happening,” then there is at least something that could be done about it.”
Hart hopes that the research will contribute to a better understanding of why some individuals are more drawn to conspiracy theories than others. However, he emphasized that the study does not examine whether or not conspiracy theories are true.
“After Watergate, the American public learned that implausible rumors about the machinations of powerful actors are sometimes accurate,” he said. “And when a conspiracy is genuine, conspiracy theorists may be among the first to recognize it, while others are duped.
“Regardless, it is essential to recognize that when reality is ambiguous, our personalities and cognitive biases lead us to adopt the beliefs we do. This information can assist us in comprehending our own intuitions.”