Who believes in conspiracies? Research offers a theory

Who believes in conspiracies? New research offers a theory
Josh Hart, associate professor of psychology at Union College. Credit: Union College Communications

The Apollo moon landing was staged. The CIA killed JFK. 9/11 was a plot by the U.S. government to justify a war in the Middle East. President Barack Obama was not a natural born citizen. The massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school was staged as a pretense for increased gun control. The "deep state" is trying to destroy Donald Trump's presidency.

Conspiracy theories have been cooked up throughout history, but they are increasingly visible lately, likely due in part to the president of the United States routinely embracing or creating them.

Given that any particular is unlikely to be the subject of mainstream consensus, what draws people to them?

New research by Josh Hart, associate professor of psychology, suggests that people with certain and cognitive styles are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. The research was recently published in the Journal of Individual Differences.

"These people tend to be more suspicious, untrusting, eccentric, needing to feel special, with a tendency to regard the world as an inherently dangerous place," Hart said. "They are also more likely to detect meaningful patterns where they might not exist. People who are reluctant to believe in conspiracy theories tend to have the opposite qualities."

Hart and his student, Molly Graether '17, surveyed more than 1,200 American adults. Participants were asked a series of questions related to their personality traits, partisan bent and demographic background. They were also asked whether they agreed with generic conspiratorial statements, such as: "The power held by heads of state is second to that of small unknown groups who really control world politics," and "Groups of scientists manipulate, fabricate or suppress evidence in order to deceive the public."

Previous research has shown that people gravitate toward conspiracy theories that affirm or validate their political view: Republicans are vastly more likely than Democrats to believe the Obama "birther" theory or that climate change is a hoax. Democrats are more likely to believe that Trump's campaign "colluded" with the Russians, Hart said.

Some people are also habitual conspiracists who entertain a variety of generic theories. For example, they believe that world politics are controlled by a cabal instead of governments or that scientists systematically deceive the public. This indicates that personality or other individual differences might be at play.

Hart and Graether wanted to build on this research by testing how much each of several previously identified traits could explain generic conspiracy beliefs. By examining multiple traits simultaneously, the pair could determine which ones were most important.

"Our results clearly showed that the strongest predictor of conspiracy belief was a constellation of personality characteristics collectively referred to as 'schizotypy,' Hart said.

The trait borrows its name from schizophrenia, but it does not imply a clinical diagnosis.Hart's study also showed that conspiracists had distinct cognitive tendencies: they were more likely than nonbelievers to judge nonsensical statements as profound (a tendency known as "BS receptivity").

In turn, they were more likely to say that nonhuman objects—triangle shapes moving around on a computer screen—were acting intentionally.

"In other words, they inferred meaning and motive where others did not," he said.

So what does this all mean?

"First, it helps to realize that conspiracy theories differ from other worldviews in that they are fundamentally gloomy," Hart said. "This sets them apart from the typically uplifting messages conveyed by, say, religious and spiritual beliefs. At first blush this is a conundrum. However, if you are the type of person who looks out at the world and sees a chaotic, malevolent landscape full of senseless injustice and suffering, then perhaps there is a modicum of comfort to be found in the notion that there is someone, or some small group of people, responsible for it all. If 'there's something going on,' then at least there is something that could be done about it."

Hart hopes the research advances the understanding of why some people are more attracted to conspiracy theories than others. But he said it is important to note that the study doesn't address whether or not are true.

"After Watergate, the American public learned that seemingly outlandish speculation about the machinations of powerful actors is sometimes right on the money," he said. "And when a conspiracy is real, people with a conspiracist mindset may be among the first to pick up on it while others get duped.

"Either way, it is important to realize that when reality is ambiguous, our personalities and cognitive biases cause us to adopt the beliefs that we do. This knowledge can help us understand our own intuitions."


Explore further

Building a comprehensive profile of conspiracy thinkers

More information: Joshua Hart et al. Something's Going on Here, Journal of Individual Differences (2018). DOI: 10.1027/1614-0001/a000268
Provided by Union College
Citation: Who believes in conspiracies? Research offers a theory (2018, September 25) retrieved 18 July 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2018-09-believes-conspiracies-theory.html
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.
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Sep 25, 2018
There are conspiracies and there are 'conspiracies'. The conspiracy of ignorance masquerades as common sense.

Sep 25, 2018
"Groups of scientists manipulate, fabricate or suppress evidence in order to deceive the public."
Tobacco, coal, oil, anti-vaxxists ??
YMMV...

Sep 25, 2018
"These people tend to ....NEEDING TO FEEL SPECIAL...

This.

It's basically people who have given up on ever getting anything valuable done with their own lives and have also basically given up applying any kind of effort to understand the world around them.

So now they go with the "faking-knowledge-by-shotgun"-mode (i.e. subscribing to any and every conspiracy and then hoping that one of them will pan out so that they can come over as one of the "select few" that were right.
(Whatever good that is going to do them is anyone's guess. Being right by accident doesn't make them any more smart or any more likely to gain any respect from others)

It's the Dunning-Kruger crowd.

Healthy scepticism is good. But if you're not willing to put your scepticism to the test then you're in conspiracy territory.

mqr
Sep 25, 2018
"world politics are controlled by a cabal"

Most countries are republics, they play "democracy" to convince the feeble minded that they own their country, to infuse patriotism so that they will not migrate or attack the country and let the powerful use them. A republic is controlled by a small group of rich people, not by the masses. Chomsky is a conspirator then, because that is the political theory that he advocates. He goes further and shows how the amount of money that is behind a candidate predicts if he will win the "democratic race".

Those who want power and privilege will never question anything, they will smile and obey because that is the route to power, like Mr Hart, the man smiling in the picture, he is up to become the president of the university, at least.

In contrast, those who look for the truth and justice will see almost immediately early in life that the dumb and evil are usually in power (i.e., very stable genius).

mqr
Sep 25, 2018
I forgot this part "scientists systematically deceive the public": Scientists do that, science is a human enterprise, with the good AND the bad. History, recent history, has showed one time after another that there are scientists out there thirsty for money and power and therefore willing to say, write or do anything that it takes. Even more, many of them claim that life makes no sense, that there is no afterlife, that they fear nothing and have no commitments with society. Several nobel laurates had expressed those claims many times, like Watson, the one who discovered DNA. In recent history there are examples like scientists claiming that refined sugar is not harmful, paid by the sugar industry, or that alcohol is good for you, paid by the alcohol industry, or that antidepressants are good for people, paid by the pharmaceutical mafias, and so on. If you want something to acquire the status of "scientific", you will find many scientists willing so confirm it: $$$.

mqr
Sep 25, 2018
and of course, there are the scientists that claim things like:
men talk more than women
the menstrual period has no consequences on emotional stability
marijuana damages the teen brain (well, the pharmaceutical need to sell them their drugs)
divorce has no consequence of children lives
obesity and personality are not related
flossing your teeth makes no difference, and so on....

which makes you really doubt that there is basic common sense in science.

Sep 25, 2018
''These people tend to be more suspicious, untrusting, eccentric, needing to feel special, with a tendency to regard the world as an inherently dangerous place, ''

so they have a historical perspective and are good observers

Note , personally i don't believe fake moon landing or 9/11 bombs in buildings BS , but @ market ticker KD had a pixel analysis of Obamas ' certificate' and you you could see the fakery

Sep 25, 2018
New US Motto?
"In No One We Trust"

Sep 25, 2018
"Who believes in conspiracies?"

Who believes it when the truth is deemed a conspiracy?

Just because you're paranoid doesnt mean that people arent out to get you.

Everyone. Everywhere.

Sep 25, 2018
You are correct, Obama is NOT a natural born citizen. He is a usurper who should be in prison.

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