"The truth may be out there but lies are in your head."—Terry Pratchett
What makes conspiracy theories so appealing?
Whether we are talking about bout 9/11 being an inside job, the moon landings being faked, JFK's assassination being ordered by the CIA (or the Mafia, or Fidel Castro, or the KGB) or the world being under the control of shape-shifting reptilian aliens, it seems as if there is someone out there who insists that these conspiracies are true.
Almost inevitably, these conspiracy theorists also insist that Someone Out There (such as the Illuminati, the New World Order, or the Masonic Temple) are suppressing the information that could prove they are right. Entire industries have sprung up to support the various communities espousing this or that theory and no amount of tangible evidence seems capable of dissuading the true believers. And it seems as if every new world event spawns another theory to add to the countless others that are already in place.
Still, while these conspiracy theories may seem harmless enough, the consequences of these beliefs can be far more damaging than you might realize. Conspiracy theories relating to vaccines causing autism has led to a sharp reduction in vaccinations and a rise in otherwise preventable diseases. For that matter, similar theories about fluoridation in drinking water, climate change, and alternative cancer treatments have led to dangerous and often tragic consequences in recent years.
Recognizing the powerful attraction of conspiracy theories, psychologists have carried out numerous studies trying to understand why some people are drawn to these beliefs. This research has found evidence that certain personality traits such as Machiavellianism, openness to experience, narcissism, and low agreeability seem especially high in conspiracy believers. They also show lower levels of analytical thinking and a tendency to see "patterns" in often unrelated events. But a new research article published in the journal Social Psychology suggests that conspiracy theories may also provide some interesting psychological benefits for people who choose to believe in them.
According to Anthony Lantian of France's Universite Paris Nanterre and his co-authors, people are drawn to conspiracy theories because of an underlying need for uniqueness. In other words, a need to be different from other people by embracing beliefs that are out of the ordinary. Just as this need for uniqueness can cause people to develop unusual hobbies or seek out experiences that set them apart from the crowd, conspiracy believers adopt unusual beliefs about the world that make them feel special or above average. Whether this involves embracing the "truth" behind political assassinations, alien visitors, the misdeeds of government officials, or "secret" scientific discoveries that ordinary people don't know about, embracing conspiracy theories can provide believers with a false sense of confidence over how the world "really" works.
To test this hypothesis, Lantian and his research team conducted a series of studies looking at the different ways that need for uniqueness could predispose people to embrace conspiracy beliefs. In the first two studies, hundreds of participants were asked questions about their beliefs in popular conspiracy theories, the kind of research they did to support these beliefs, and how their beliefs was linked to their feeling of being unique. What the researchers found was that people with a high level of conspiracy belief are more likely to believe they posses information that other people don't have and, as expected, also showed a higher need to feel unique or special. People high in conspiracy beliefs were also more likely to reject conformity and "not follow the crowd."
In the third study, Lantian and his fellow researchers presented 223 undergraduate students who were tested on their need for uniqueness and later assigned to one of two experimental conditions. The first condition involved being assigned a writing task involving an essay on the importance of individuality while the second condition dealt with the importance of conformity. This was intended as a way of manipulating need for uniqueness. All participants then read a bogus newspaper story about a bus accident in Moldova that may have been the result of a conspiracy (since 8 opposition politicians were killed as well). Though the participants in the individuality condition showed a greater tendency to believe in a conspiracy than the ones in the conformity condition, the difference was fairly minor. Still, there was some evidence that even induced need for uniqueness could make people more prone to believe in conspiracies. Study Four was very similar except using an experimental manipulation to make participants believe that having a need for uniqueness meant greater success later on.
Overall, these four studies showed strong evidence that the need to feel unique can often make people more likely to support conspiracy theories. But, and this is an important distinction, this only seems to apply when the conspiracy theory is only supported by a minority of people. Presumably, if most people believed in a particular conspiracy theory, the need for uniqueness might lead to someone rejecting this theory instead! Also, as Lantian and his co-authors point out, there are limits to what can be inferred based on these study results and more research is definitely needed.
One potential direction for new research comes from what is known as optimal distinctiveness theory which suggests that our sense of social identity comes from the groups to which we see ourselves belonging. For conspiracy theories, one of the factors that makes their belief so strong may well be the sense of personal identity that comes from belonging to a particular group, i.e., the minority that "knows" what is really going on, may cause them to reject any evidence that might shake that belief. This can also cause them to look down on people who may not share their beliefs, i.e., "the sheeple" who are easily fooled.
So where do you happen to stand in terms of the various conspiracy theories that happen to be out there? And why is this belief so important to you?
Lantian, A., Muller, D., Nurra, C., and Douglas, K.M. (2017). “I Know Things They Don’t Know!” The Role of Need for Uniqueness in Belief in Conspiracy Theories. Social Psychology (2017), 48(3), 160–173.