Why Do People Believe Conspiracy Theories? Study Points To Personality

SCHENECTADY, N.Y. — People who believe in conspiracy theories tend to possess similar personality traits, including the belief that they’re never safe and that nonsensical statements are more profound than silly, a recent study finds.

Researchers at Union College in upstate New York sought to find out which personality characteristics were most likely to lead one to believe in conspiracy theories that have been reputed by mainstream culture.

Previous research showed political affiliation affects which conspiracy theories a person is likely to embrace. For example, Republicans were more prone to believing that former president Barack Obama wasn’t born in the U.S, despite the release of his birth certificate. On the other hand, many Democrats say President Donald Trump colluded with the Russians, despite the now-released summary of Robert Mueller’s investigation by Attorney General William Barr that says otherwise.

“After Watergate, the American public learned that seemingly outlandish speculation about the machinations of powerful actors is sometimes right on the money. And when a conspiracy is real, people with a conspiracist mindset may be among the first to pick up on it while others get duped,” says lead researcher Josh Hart, an associate professor of psychology at the school, in a media release. “Either way, it is important to realize that when reality is ambiguous, our personalities and cognitive biases cause us to adopt the beliefs that we do. This knowledge can help us understand our own intuitions.”

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Hart surveyed more than 1,200 American adults for the study. They were asked a series of questions about their personality traits, their partisan leanings, and their demographic background. They were also asked if they agreed with conspiratorial statements such as, “The power held by heads of state is second to that of small unknown groups who really control world politics,” and, “Groups of scientists manipulate, fabricate or suppress evidence in order to deceive the public.”

The results showed that chronic conspiracy theorists tended to have specific traits and were more likely than nonbelievers to demonstrate what’s known as “bullshit receptivity,” or the tendency to judge illogical statements as insightful or intelligent. For example, they were apt to agree that a series of shapes moving on a computer screen shown to them were acting with intention.

“These people tend to be more suspicious, untrusting, eccentric, needing to feel special, with a tendency to regard the world as an inherently dangerous place,” says Hart. “They are also more likely to detect meaningful patterns where they might not exist. People who are reluctant to believe in conspiracy theories tend to have the opposite qualities.”

Hart hopes his findings will shed more light on why some people simply can’t resist to wear a tin-foil hat and take to heart what most others don’t hesitate to view as fiction.

“First, it helps to realize that conspiracy theories differ from other worldviews in that they are fundamentally gloomy,” says Hart. “This sets them apart from the typically uplifting messages conveyed by, say, religious and spiritual beliefs. At first blush this is a conundrum. However, if you are the type of person who looks out at the world and sees a chaotic, malevolent landscape full of senseless injustice and suffering, then perhaps there is a modicum of comfort to be found in the notion that there is someone, or some small group of people, responsible for it all. If ‘there’s something going on,’ then at least there is something that could be done about it.”

The study was published in the Journal of Individual Differences.

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