What Makes Conspiracy Theorists Tick?

New research identifies pro-conspiracy ways to see and understand the world.

Posted Oct 08, 2018

In a culture fueled by burnout, a culture that has run itself down, our national resilience becomes compromised. And when our collective immune system is weakened, we become more susceptible to viruses that are part of every culture because they're part of human nature—fear-mongering, scapegoating, conspiracy theories, and demagoguery. —Arianna Huffington

We live in a rich time for conspiracy theories. Our species has had a tendency to engage in conspiracy theorizing, which is, hypothetically, a pronounced expression of an evolutionarily adaptive trait that helps us to detect threats. We have an innate tendency to give greater salience to negatively skewed emotions, thoughts, and situations because it increases survival to scan for danger and threats. It’s inevitable that in a population, purely as a result of statistical distribution, there will be a fraction of outliers who are full-on into conspiracy. The globalization of conspiracy has brought things to a whole 'nother level. Private chat rooms, the darknet, the exposure of government plots to a broad population... if you are into conspiracy, now is better than ever. 

It doesn't mean they aren't out to get you

If you aren’t prone to understanding the world through the lens of conspiracy, it may be hard to understand the logic. After 9/11, an array of conspiracies circulated asserting that it didn’t really happen the way the government says it happened. The hole in the side of the Pentagon was too small to be a fuselage. I read it was from the landing gear. Same thing with the lunar landing, that it was done in a studio. The flag on the moon was waving, and there is no wind on the moon. I read that vibrations can be transmitted from ground, to flag, to flagpole. If you have a way to question the science, logic holds no power. There is always a way to fool people, always. The feelings we get when someone believes in a nonsensical conspiracy is complex. Confusion, helplessness, annoyance, amusement perhaps, and others.

But horrible things aren't always conspiracies. They can be real. In medical school, there was a sense that the inner city patients we often served were suspicious that the hospital and government were experimenting on them. It seemed exaggerated, though given America's history with racism and how that affected medical care, it was easy to see seeds of truth. On occasion, this belief was pronounced. A few people I remember left the hospital out of such concerns, often rejecting essential medical treatments. Later on, when I was receiving training on human research ethics, the handbook detailed the atrocious Tuskegee syphilis study. Begun in 1932 and entitled, “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male," doctors studied black men for 40 years, allowing syphilis to progress unchecked in order to study the natural course of the disease, in the absence of treatment, compared with those who received treatment in the same population.

In that ethics training, I was taught that one of the arguments made was that proceeding with such an unethical study would never be allowed in the future, justifying taking that one last chance to do it.

Looking back, I see that the fear of doctors and the system were based on actual events. It would have helped if it had been part of the curriculum early on in medical school. And if we don't know the real story behind mistrust and fear, we are more dismissive, even if sympathetic. We can't seriously investigate every potentially plausible conspiracy we come across, and, more to the point, we are collectively motivated to ignore that which would too radically upset the status quo.

Evolution and ambiguity

Regardless of the scenario, one of the cornerstones of conspiracy is mistrust of authority, and a strong feeling that on a mass scale, one is being deceived, tricked. What is presented as real, is not real. What others believe is real is Kool-aid, and me—I know the truth, we know the truth. Paranoia and grandiosity are the hallmarks of TV and movie depictions of conspiracy theorists, usually out to save themselves, the world, a specific stakeholder, or all of the above. There is a kind of security in knowing the truth, even if we're wrong. It's easy now to find thousands of people who believe the same thing, and as with corrosive hate-based belief systems, truth becomes irrelevant as the agenda takes precedence over historical reality.

Human beings are adept at socially constructing the truth. So much of our day-to-day reality is by consensus. Even simple things, like we all agree to stop at stop lights. By and large, we all keep going along, doing what we've been doing, what we are supposed to be doing. We survive by adaptive mass delusion, one could argue, along with a solid helping of knowing why we are doing what we do and choosing to continue to do it. Somewhere in there is a blurry line where funny things can happen.

Perhaps from an evolutionary point of view, it makes sense to have a blend of more conventional, credulous people to hold communities together, interspersed with those who question things aggressively. Too much of one end of the spectrum or another would lead to instability, but when they exist in dynamic tension, this may create greater survival fitness for the group as a whole. While we typically don't pay serious attention to outspoken conspiracy theorists, we do listen to people who present credibly with information about malfeasance—though we do still seem to want to disbelieve whistle-blowers and hold onto convenient truths.

Investigating the psychological traits of conspiracy theorists

What are the psychological characteristics of people prone to see conspiracies where others accept more or less at face value the reality presented? With this question in mind, researchers Hart and Graether (2018) conducted 2 studies—with similar designs but a larger pool of people in the second one and relatively minor changes in methodology, to increase the power of the study—to sort out which of the several proposed factors identified in prior research are most highly correlated with conspiracy theorizing.

They included the following risk factors in their study design, along with demographics, looking at a sample of over 400 in the first study and 800 in the second, roughly fifty-fifty women and men with average age of almost 36 years old:

Bullshit Receptivity: The Bullshit Receptivity Scale, or BSR, was introduced by Pennycock and colleagues (2015) as a way to measure susceptibility to, essentially, mumbo-jumbo. In other words, when presented with deep-sounding nonsense, what is your tendency to think it means something? The scale offers various phrases (e.g. “Imagination is inside exponential space-time events”) and has participants rate them on a scale of 1 to 5, from not at all profound to very profound. (Incidentally, according to a 2016 study, high BSR was correlated with favoring Republican, but not Democratic, candidates in the last election.)

Hyperactive Agency Detection: This test is designed to see to what extent a given individual ascribes intention to observed events. Participants are presented with animated shapes moving on a screen. Some of the shapes are moving randomly, and others are moving as if they were engaged in complex social interactions. They are rated on three dimensions: the kind of interaction the shapes are having (none, physical, mental); the best description of what was happening among the shapes (random movement, some pattern or rule, interacting with each other, trying to influence each other; and level of agency, meaning how completely participants interpreted the shapes’ movements to be willful. This test was developed originally to assess problems in what psychologists call “theory of mind,” a person’s ability to pick up on others’ intentions and inner states and to anticipate behaviors.

Dangerous-World Beliefs: Participants are presented with 10 statements about how doomed the world is or is not, and asked to rate them on a scale of 1 to 7 from “definitely not true” to “definitely true”. Examples from the study include, “Any day now chaos and anarchy could erupt around us. All the signs are pointing to it,” and “The ‘end’ is not near. People who think earthquakes, wars, and famines mean G-d might be about to destroy the world are being foolish.”

Scientific and Religious Belief: Just what it sounds like—to what extent participants held religious and scientific worldviews, rated independently on a scale of 1 to 7 for each of the two dimensions.

Schizotypy: This is a kind of personality style, and in psychiatry, it qualifies as a personality disorder if it is severe (Schizotypal Personality Disorder). As a set of traits, schizotypy varies non-pathologically, including a tendency to mistrust others, eccentricity, odd or deviant ideas, and strange ways of viewing things. For this study, schizotypy was assessed with a 10 item scale, with items such as, “I have never been told that my ideas are weird,” and “I like doing things that other people would find bizarre,” among others.

Threat Manipulation: In order to see whether feeling threatened influenced conspiratorial theorizing, participants were randomly assigned to write about different scenarios designed to evoke the experience of being in control, being out of control, or being faced with death and dying (called “mortality salience” in terror management theory).

Emotions: Participants completed the Positive and Negative Affect Scale (PANAS) mainly as a distraction to allow time for the effects of the threat manipulation condition to set in.

Conspiracy Belief: Participants completed the Generic Conspiracist Belief scale, 15 items covering several contemporary conspiracies, assessing various elements of conspiracy. For example, items could measure belief in suppression of information (e.g., “A lot of important information is deliberately concealed from the public out of self-interest,) abuse of people, extraterrestrial activity, power illusions (e.g., “The power held by heads of state is second to that of small, unknown groups who really control politics”), and government atrocities.

After conducting multiple layers of analysis to sort out which factors were correlated and what the underlying independent factors were, researchers found that the three statistically significant factors were schizotypy, dangerous-world beliefs, and bullshit receptivity (a more distant third). Gender and age were not particularly significant, nor was political conservatism. Religious belief was non-significant in the larger second study but significant in the first, and scientific belief was associated with reduced conspiracy tendency.

In neither study did mortality salience or threat-priming significantly affect the tendency toward conspiracy theorizing, in spite of adjusting the method in the second study to be more sensitive to possible effects of these manipulations.

The results showed one significant interaction: more schizotypal participants had, on average, a stronger connection between bullshit receptivity and conspiracy belief. Schizotypy, in this sample, strengthened the relationship between seeing meaning in nonsense and believing in conspiracy.

Furthermore, in an analysis to see how much one's “need for uniqueness” (a feature of schizotypy, interestingly) predicted conspiracy belief, researchers found that while the need for uniqueness was indeed a predictive factor, it was a part of schizotypy and bullshit receptivity, and not really an independent factor from a statistical point of view. Believing in conspiracies seems less unique, nowadays, anyway, reducing the cool factor.

We aren't rational, but we could be

The results of these studies suggest that, all other factors being equal, conspiracy theorists are likely to have more schizotypal traits and hold beliefs that the world is dangerous and likely to end—and are more likely to read profundity into nonsense, a phenomenon magnified by our generally poor understanding of logic and statistics. Conspiracy theorists are, on average, less likely to hold a scientific worldview, but there may be exceptions to that—someone whose conspiracy includes a strong science component to justify it—and the role of religious belief needs more investigation.

The role of attribution of agency, whether we tend to see patterns in random noise, wasn't significant in this study, but it can still be informative for self-reflective folks to ask ourselves how much we do this, and why. Clearly, this is an adaptive value to figuring out intentionality, and, given that we can't have one hundred percent accuracy, it makes sense to err to an extent on the side of presuming things are on purpose. If we grossly under-read or over-read intentions into things, we're likely to get into trouble.

How come being faced with a threat didn't have any effect, at least in this study? One argument is that heightened threat, assuming the writing exercise achieved the desired effect, might make people more likely to look for explanations with fear and mistrust. On the other hand, it may be that actual heightened threat could reduce the sense of conspiracy, by providing reality to partially imagined fears. Finding out that what we have been fearing for years has actually happened often comes with a sense of relief, an end to the uncertainty and apprehension.

Finally, the need for uniqueness predicted, in after-the-fact-analysis, the tendency to hold conspiracy beliefs, though this factor was fully accounted for by schizotypy and bullshit receptivity. Again, for individuals considering our own tendency toward conspiracy theorizing, it is useful to ask: How great is my own need for uniqueness?” as an organizing question—along with the other research-driven considerations, such as "How schizotypal am I?", "How receptive am I to BS?" and "How dangerous do I think the world is?"

In the final analysis, we all need to make sense of the world, to have a sense of control and safety, and to reduce the amount of fear we feel day-to-day. To varying degrees, we are able to live with ambiguity, leveraging what the poet John Keats called "negative capability". For people who live in a world of conspiracy theories, there is a great deal of fear and disempowerment, offset by the conviction of knowing the real truth, seeing through the cover-up... and, perhaps, taking action to get justice for one and all.