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People Prone to Believe in Conspiracies, But Here’s When It Gets Out of Control – According to New Study

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Why do people believe in conspiracy theories and are you the one believing and spreading such thinking?

According to research published by the American Psychological Association, individuals can be inclined to believe in conspiracy theories due to a combination of personality traits and motivations.

These factors include a strong reliance on intuition, a sense of antagonism and superiority towards others, and the perception of threats in their environment.

Lead author Shauna Bowes, a doctoral student in clinical psychology at Emory University, emphasized “Conspiracy theorists are not all likely to be simple-minded, mentally unwell folks – a portrait which is routinely painted in popular culture.

Instead, many turn to conspiracy theories to fulfill deprived motivational needs and make sense of distress and impairment.”

The findings of this study, published in the journal Psychological Bulletin, present a nuanced understanding of the driving forces behind conspiracy theorists. Previous research had mostly examined personality and motivation separately, but this study aimed to explore these factors together for a more comprehensive explanation of why people believe in conspiracy theories.

To achieve this, the team analyzed data from 170 studies involving over 158,000 participants primarily from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Poland. They specifically focused on studies that assessed participants’ motivations or personality traits associated with conspiratorial thinking.

They discovered that individuals are generally motivated to believe in conspiracy theories due to the need for understanding and a sense of safety in their environment, as well as the desire to perceive their identified community as superior to others.

While conspiracy theories often offer a sense of clarity or a supposed hidden truth about perplexing events, the strongest motivators for endorsing these theories were not a need for closure or a sense of control.

Instead, they found some evidence suggesting that individuals are more likely to believe specific conspiracy theories when motivated by social relationships. For example, participants who perceived social threats were more inclined to believe in events-based conspiracy theories, such as the theory that the U.S. government planned the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, rather than more abstract theories suggesting that governments, in general, plan to harm their citizens to retain power.

Bowes added, “These results largely map onto a recent theoretical framework advancing that social identity motives may give rise to being drawn to the content of a conspiracy theory, whereas people who are motivated by a desire to feel unique are more likely to believe in general conspiracy theories about how the world works.”

They also observed that individuals with certain personality traits, such as a sense of antagonism towards others and high levels of paranoia, are more susceptible to believing in conspiracy theories. Moreover, those who strongly believed in conspiracy theories were more likely to exhibit traits such as insecurity, paranoia, emotional volatility, impulsiveness, suspicion, withdrawal, manipulativeness, egocentrism, and eccentricity.

Although the “Big Five” personality traits (extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism) showed a weaker relationship with conspiratorial thinking, the researchers emphasized that this does not render general personality traits irrelevant to the propensity to believe in conspiracy theories.

Bowes suggested that future research should be conducted with an understanding that conspiratorial thinking is multifaceted, and that exploring the complex relationship between conspiratorial thinking, motivation, and personality is crucial for comprehending the underlying psychology behind conspiratorial ideas.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

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