- Conspiracy theories are explanations that attribute the true cause of a major event to secret and malevolent plots by powerful agents or groups.
- Research shows that compared to the average person, narcissists are more likely to find conspiracy theories appealing.
- Paranoia, gullibility, need for dominance and uniqueness, and collective narcissism may explain why narcissists are drawn to conspiracy theories.
A recent paper by Cichocka and colleagues—from the Polish Academy of Sciences, Poland, and universities of Kent and Cambridge, UK—reviews why narcissists are drawn to conspiracy theories.
To be published in the October issue of Current Opinion in Psychology, the paper is summarized below. But first, I define conspiracy theories and narcissism.
What are conspiracy theories?
A conspiracy is a secret plan to do something bad or harmful. The objective of conspiracies is usually to “usurp political or economic power, violate rights, infringe upon established agreements, withhold vital secrets, or alter bedrock institutions.”
What are conspiracy theories? Conspiracy theories are alternative explanations that attribute the true cause of a major sociopolitical event to secret and malevolent plots orchestrated by supposedly powerful agents or groups (e.g., the Jews, government, corporations, wealthy elites).
There are conspiracy theories about many things: vaccinations, moon landings, climate change, the 9/11 attacks, JFK’s assassination, etc.
Note that conspiracy theories are not always wrong (e.g., the Watergate scandal). In fact, belief in conspiracy theories can even be adaptive.
But frequently enough, conspiracy theories are wrong. Indeed, major conspiracies often fail or are exposed sooner or later.
What does narcissism mean?
Narcissism refers to grandiose self-regard. Narcissism is associated with feelings of superiority and hubris, jealous tendencies, a sense of entitlement, manipulativeness, self-promotional behavior, and aggression toward rivals.
Though many people believe in conspiracies, research suggests narcissists are particularly prone to believing in them, just as they are prone to believing in other odd or irrational phenomena. Cichocka et al. note, “Overall, meta-analytic effects ranging from r = 0.22 to r = 0.26 suggest that narcissism is one of the best psychological predictors of conspiracy beliefs.”
The authors argue that three facets underlying narcissism are, via different processes, associated with conspiracy beliefs.
These three facets of narcissism are (see Figure 1):
- Agentic extraversion: Related to being assertive, self-confident, charming, and reward-seeking. This is how narcissists try to gain the admiration of others.
- Antagonism: Associated with being arrogant, callous, dishonest, distrustful, exploitative, and entitled. This is how narcissists defend themselves against threats and compete with rivals.
- Neuroticism: Linked with the experience of shame, low self-esteem, negative emotions, and relationship difficulties.
The link between narcissism and conspiracy beliefs
Paranoia, the need for dominance, the desire for uniqueness, and gullibility
Narcissists often assume others are “out to get them.” Perhaps it is these paranoid perceptions of threats to the self that give rise to beliefs about conspiracies and threats to society.
The need for control and dominance, combined with the anticipation of defeat, is also associated with the belief in conspiracies.
After all, for people who have a strong need for control and domination, blaming and scapegoating others is easier than accepting defeat.
The need for uniqueness, typically associated with the agentic extraversion aspect of grandiose narcissism, may also increase the likelihood of belief in conspiracies. Why? Because being able to see through the “smoke screens that hide the incredible truth” could give narcissists a “sense of being special, of being one of the few people who see the truth.”
Another factor is gullibility: Despite their overconfidence, narcissists can be quite naïve and gullible. This may be partly due to their tendency to go with their gut feelings than to deliberate.
Over-reliance on gut feelings and intuition might also explain why narcissists tend to hold odd and unusual beliefs, such as belief in astrology or conspiracy theories.
Some research suggests conspiracy theories appeal to those scoring higher in collective narcissism—the tendency to have unrealistically positive assumptions about one’s group.
The link between collective narcissism and conspiracy theories can be explained, according to the authors, “by the exaggerated intergroup threat sensitivity of collective narcissists, analogous to the paranoia and threat sensitivity of individual narcissists.”
In addition, people who assume their group (e.g., country) is entitled to special treatment, may feel it necessary to deny national shortcomings and blame any failings on external agents (e.g., other countries) conspiring against them.
Furthermore, the “motivation to restore personal control strengthens the association between collective narcissism and outgroup conspiracy beliefs, echoing the role of control and dominance motives in individual narcissism.”
Let me discuss why narcissists’ interest in conspiracy theories is so concerning:
Compared to the average person, narcissists are more successful at rising to positions of influence, including being elected leaders (a phenomenon observed even in narcissistic children). Indeed, political leaders, particularly populists and autocrats, tend to have high levels of narcissism.
Moreover, political leaders who are narcissistic are more willing to promote conspiracy theories, especially when they feel power slipping from their grasp.
Naturally, it is of greater consequence when powerful leaders blame a cabal of plotters for their own failures or misfortunes. Why? Because by promoting conspiracy theories, narcissistic leaders can cause significant societal harm—be it discouraging political engagement, encouraging unhealthy beliefs and behaviors (e.g., the anti-vaccination movement), discrimination, or acts of violence.
As we have seen, narcissists are drawn to conspiracy theories for reasons potentially related to:
- Need to dominate and be in control
- The desire to draw attention to themselves
- The tendency to blame others for their own failures or misfortunes
- The desire to manipulate others (e.g., social media followers on Twitter or Facebook)
And we have seen that these beliefs may encourage negative behaviors, including violence.
So, what is the alternative? Believing everything one is told? No, there is a middle ground. We need to aim for healthy skepticism—looking at conspiracy theories and the official accounts of major events with the same critical eye. This is not what conspiracy believers do because, as research shows, they “have less developed critical thinking ability.”