PRINCETON, N.J. — Is being a social outcast more likely to make you look at the world with suspicious eyes? According to a new study conducted by Princeton researchers, isolation may be the common denominator between those who frequently engage in conspiracy theories.
Researchers ultimately conclude “that the feelings of despair brought on by social exclusion can cause people to seek meaning in miraculous stories, which may not necessarily be true,” according to a university release.
The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, examined two different groups: a random sample of Americans and Princeton students. The former group consisted of 119 participants, recruited through Amazon’s MTurk crowdsourcing platform. They were asked to take part in a study split into four distinct tasks.
Their first task was to write about a recent unpleasant incident with a friend. Next, they were instructed to rate the degree to which they felt different emotions, one of which was exclusion. The participants were then asked to rank their thoughts from “absolutely true” to “absolutely untrue” on specific statements, such as “I am seeking a purpose or mission for my life,” and “I have discovered a satisfying life purpose.”
The final task had participants rank their support of three different conspiratorial beliefs, again on a scale of one (not at all) to seven (extremely). Such beliefs included: “Pharmaceutical companies withhold cures for financial reasons”; “Governments use messages below the level of awareness to influence people’s decisions”; and “Events in the Bermuda Triangle constitute evidence of paranormal activity.”
The researchers concluded from this population sample that social exclusion often leads to superstitious or conspiratorial beliefs, largely because these frames of thinking help to create a sense of meaning.
“Those who are excluded may begin to wonder why they’re excluded in the first place, causing them to seek meaning in their lives. This may then lead them to endorse certain conspiracy beliefs,” study co-author, Alin Coman, assistant professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton, said in the release. “When you’re included, it doesn’t necessarily trigger the same response.”
A second portion of the study evaluated 120 Princeton students. The researchers employed a slightly modified experiment, but came away with the same conclusion: feeling left out leads to beliefs out of the mainstream.
Considering the study’s findings, Coman argues that “when developing laws, regulations, policies, and programs, policymakers should worry about whether people feel excluded by their enactment.”
“Otherwise,” he warns, “we may create societies that are prone to spreading inaccurate and superstitious beliefs.”
Following this idea, the Princeton release suggests that many Americans who voted for President Donald Trump felt “pushed out by society,” which was among the reasons they supported him. It adds that a portion of those voters “latched onto misinformation spread online, especially stories that justified their own beliefs,” and that this new study could potentially explain why they were willing to believe what’s now commonly referred to as “fake news.”