Believing in conspiracy theories more common among insecure and paranoid personalities

ATLANTA — While a good conspiracy theory can be both strange and somewhat entertaining — a new study finds that truly believing in these plots says something more about your personality. Researchers suggest that individuals who believe in conspiracy theories tend to exhibit traits of insecurity and paranoia. These individuals are also prone to emotional volatility and impulsivity, according to the study’s findings.

However, psychologists affirm that not all of these individuals are mentally unstable. They discovered that a combination of personality traits and motivations could make individuals susceptible to conspiracy theories. These factors comprise strong reliance on intuition, feelings of antagonism and superiority towards others, and the perception of threats in their environment.

The study, published in the Psychological Bulletin, offers a “nuanced” insight into the factors that drive conspiracy theorists.

“Conspiracy theorists are not all likely to be simple-minded, mentally unwell folks – a portrait which is routinely painted in popular culture,” says Shauna Bowes, a doctoral student in clinical psychology at Emory University, in a media release. “Instead, many turn to conspiracy theories to fulfill deprived motivational needs and make sense of distress and impairment.”

Bowes acknowledges that prior research on conspiracy theorists has primarily focused on personality and motivation as separate entities. The current study, however, aims to integrate these factors to understand why people believe in conspiracy theories more comprehensively.

The research team reviewed data from 170 studies involving over 158,000 participants, primarily from the United Kingdom, United States, and Poland. The focus was on studies that evaluated participants’ motivations or personality traits associated with conspiratorial thinking.

The study revealed that people’s belief in conspiracy theories is often driven by a need to understand their environment and a desire to view their communities as superior to others. Contrary to expectations, Bowes states that a need for closure or a sense of control were not the most potent motivators to endorse conspiracy theories. Instead, they found evidence suggesting that social relationships motivated individuals to believe in specific conspiracy theories.

For example, participants who perceived social threats were more likely to believe in event-based conspiracy theories, such as the theory that the U.S. government orchestrated the September 11th terrorist attacks, rather than abstract theories positing that governments harm their citizens to maintain power.

conspiracy theorist at protest
May 17, 2020: A conspiracy theorist at a protest against COVID policies in the New York State capital of Albany (Credit: Shutterstock)

“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,” according to Bowes.

The researchers also found that certain personality traits, including antagonism toward others and high levels of paranoia, make individuals more prone to conspiratorial thinking. Those strongly inclined towards conspiracy theories also tended to be insecure, paranoid, emotionally volatile, impulsive, suspicious, withdrawn, manipulative, egocentric, and eccentric.

The “Big Five” personality traits – extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism – showed a weaker correlation with conspiratorial thinking. However, the researchers stress this does not imply that general personality traits are irrelevant to a predisposition towards conspiracy theories.

Bowes recommends that future research on conspiratorial thinking should consider its complexity and the diversity of relevant variables. An exploration of the relationships among conspiratorial thinking, motivation, and personality can provide a more comprehensive understanding of the psychology behind conspiratorial ideas.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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