Mental Mishaps

Errors in perceiving, remembering, and thinking.

Conspiracy Theorists: Is the Truth Out There?

How personality predicts patterns of thought: Conspiracy Theorists

There is a conspiracy to hide the truth from us. What is the real story? Many people doubt, for example, the official story about the terrorist attacks of 9-11. Some people suspect there was another cause, a cover-up, a conspiracy. In a just published study, researchers have investigated not the 9-11 story, but instead the people who believe 9-11 conspiracy theories. The truth is out there.

Why do some people believe 9-11 conspiracy theories? Do they believe other conspiracy theories? Is there something about their belief systems or personalities that make them susceptible to unusual ideas and desirous of a different truth?

Swami, Chamorro-Premuzic, and Furnham have just published an investigation of 9-11 conspiracy theorists (in Applied Cognitive Psychology). They looked at several factors they suspected might be related, such as cynicism, support for democratic principles, attitudes toward authority, and the Big 5 personality traits (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism; it may not be the one you suspect, so read on!). They also looked at whether people accept other conspiracy theories (such as those concerning the JFK assassination, moon landings, etc.) and their ratings of how much exposure to conspiracy theories they had experienced (and I don't know if that meant they watched the Fox news channel).

The strongest predictor of belief in 9-11 conspiracies was belief in other conspiracies. To quote Swami and colleagues: "believing that John F. Kennedy was not killed by a lone gunman or that the Apollo moon landings were staged increases the chances that an individual will also believe 9-11 conspiracy theories." People build a consistent world view. For these conspiracy theorists, their consistent world view is that the truth is always being covered up. Although this may seem like an obvious finding in retrospect, this didn't have to be true. People could have picked their conspiracy theories based on their political views - then these notions would not have all hung together. But no, people who believe some conspiracy theories are more likely to accept new conspiracy theories.

Exposure to conspiracy information was also related to belief in 9-11 conspiracy theories. Thus people who are susceptible because of their belief systems and who were then exposed to 9-11 conspiracy information (perhaps they seek the information out), were more likely to believe new conspiracy theories concerning the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

But Swami and colleagues were after a deeper understanding of conspiracy theorists - they wanted the truth behind their world views that everything is being covered up. The general conspiracy theory belief scale was predicted by other factors - in particular, cynicism and a rejection of the political system. Doubters of the system didn't believe the system's stories. Maybe that isn't much of a surprise either.

Here's the potentially surprising kicker: 2 of the Big 5 personality traits mattered. First, Agreeableness was negatively related to belief in 9-11 conspiracy theories. People who are less agreeable were more accepting of 9-11 conspiracy theories.

The second Big 5 trait is the one that surprised me: Openness to Experience predicted belief in conspiracy theories. Higher levels of Openness were related to higher levels of belief in various conspiracy theories. Often we think of Openness in positive terms. People who display Openness to Experience are considered intellectually curious, open-minded, and creative. But sometimes being open to creative, unusual ideas may lead people to accept ideas without empirical support. Openness may lead people to accept conspiracy theories.

Swami and colleagues wrote that they considered this to be a starting point for studies of conspiracy theorists. I also think the work is important for showing how personality predicts patterns of thought. Cognition depends not only on information, but also on personal characteristics. I hope other people further explore conspiracy theories because I am open to finding that hidden truth.

Ira E. Hyman, Jr., Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at Western Washington University.

more...

Subscribe to Mental Mishaps

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.