By John Salak –
Conspiracy theories are unrelenting magnets for millions of people. Sure, maybe a few conspiracies are real—but a lot, perhaps the vast majority, are, well, irrational and illogical. Yet it doesn’t matter how outlandish the theories are, some can’t help themselves from gravitating to these curious, absurd and sometimes even dangerous ideas.
Consider that in the 1970s, one survey reported that only 30 percent of those questioned believed that the Holocaust was factually portrayed. Around the same time, 30 percent also thought the 1969 Moon landings were fake. Later, an astounding 20 percent maintained the tragic 2012 Sandy Hook shootings either didn’t happen or the reporting was massaged for some political reason.
Other surveys show that even more Americans, 41 percent, believe in a shadow government secretly ruling the world, while 31 percent believe that top Democrats are involved in elite child sex trafficking rings. The list of support for conspiracy theories goes on and on. But why?
Social scientists and psychologists have been trying to get their hands around the reasons for years and recently concluded that a number of complex and nuanced factors come into play. The American Psychological Association (APA) recently reported that personality traits and motivations, including individuals relying strongly on their intuition, feeling a sense of antagonism and superiority toward others, as well as perceived threats to a person’s environment all contribute to embracing conspiracy theories.
Another Swedish study reported that conspiracy theorists rely on “gut feelings” when buying into a particular scenario. Stupidity or a lack of education, however, aren’t necessarily involved.
“Conspiracy theorists are not all likely to be simple-minded, mentally unwell folks — a portrait which is routinely painted in popular culture,” said Shauna Bowes, lead author of the association’s report and a doctoral student at Emory University. “Instead, many turn to conspiracy theories to fulfill deprived motivational needs and make sense of distress and impairment.”
The APA’s study looked to go beyond previous research that focused separately on personality and motivation as driving factors to arrive at a more unified account of why people believe in conspiracy theories. These researchers analyzed data from 170 studies involving over 158,000 participants, mainly from the United States, the United Kingdom and Poland. They zeroed in on studies that measured participants’ motivations or personality traits associated with conspiratorial thinking.
Ultimately, the APA team found that people were motivated to believe in conspiracy theories because they needed to understand and feel safe in their environment. They also needed to feel like the community they identified with was superior to others.
Surprisingly, the need for closure or answers and a sense of control were not the strongest motivators to endorse conspiracy theories. Instead, individuals often embraced these concepts because of social relationships. People, for example, who perceived social threats might be more likely to believe in events-based conspiracy theories, such as the theory that the U.S. government planned the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, than an abstract theory that governments plan to harm their citizens to retain power.
“These results largely map onto a recent theoretical framework advancing that social identity motives may give rise to being drawn to the content of a conspiracy theory, whereas people who are motivated by a desire to feel unique are more likely to believe in general conspiracy theories about how the world works,” Bowes said.
People with certain personality traits, such as a sense of antagonism toward others and high levels of paranoia, were also more prone to believe conspiracy theories, the APA researchers found. Conspiracy theorists also tend to be insecure, paranoid, emotionally volatile, impulsive, suspicious, withdrawn, manipulative, egocentric and eccentric.
A similar study by researchers at Linköping University, Sweden, found that people who primarily use their own gut feeling to determine what is true and false are more likely to believe conspiracy theories.
“I think many people who emphasize a more relativistic view of what truth is mean well. They believe that it’s important that everyone should be able to make their voice heard. But these results show that such a view can actually be quite dangerous,” explained Linköping Ph.D. student Julia Aspernäs.
The Swedish researchers investigated the relationship between so-called truth relativism and the risk of falling victim to incorrect or fraudulent information in two different studies.
The first study involves approximately one thousand Swedes participating in an online survey about their views on what truth is. They then had to take a position on various conspiracy theories and assess the content of a number of nonsense sentences.
A second study focused on more than 400 British participants who dealt with questions on their degree of dogmatism and willingness to adapt their perceptions when faced with new facts. The Linköping researchers unearthed two types of truth relativism. The first comprises those who are convinced that what they personally feel to be true is true. Ultimately, truth is subjective. The second grouping included those who believe that truth depends on a person’s culture or group, so-called cultural relativism.
Those who believe that the truth is subjective are more likely to believe conspiracy theories and to hold on to their beliefs even when faced with facts that contradict them, the researchers noted. They also have a greater tendency to find profound messages in nonsense sentences. The connections were not as clear for those who believe that truth is culture-bound and the results there point partly in different directions.
Surprisingly, the British data also showed a link between subjectivism and dogmatism, which means a person who claims that the truth is personal can simultaneously reject other people’s right to their own truth. Understanding these confusing and seemingly contradictory interpretations of truth may become extremely useful when listening to political debates, Aspernäs added.
“I got the idea when listening to debates about whether students should learn factual knowledge or be encouraged to seek out what they think is true. It sounded like the debaters had completely opposite assumptions about what truth is and argued that their own approach was the best way to help students become critical thinkers. Although our study did not investigate causality, we see that truth relativism seems to be linked to a greater belief in misleading information. It may be important to keep that in mind,” she added.
These insights, while important, only help to explain the growing rash of conspiracy theorists. It doesn’t, unfortunately, curtail unfounded beliefs.