Pre-pandemic, the question I would most often get was, “How do I know whom to trust when it comes to health and science information?”
Over three years after a new virus began sweeping the globe, the question I hear again and again is, “Why is it that my husband/sister/aunt/father believes in all this conspiratorial nonsense?”
As it turns out, the two questions are related (more on that later), but until now, I could only offer empathy and hypotheses. Although conspiracy theories have been stowed away on humanity’s whispers for millennia, research into the people who hold these beliefs only got started in earnest about thirty years ago.
Studies have attempted to see if people who believe in a particular conspiracy theory or who have a general propensity for believing in these theories have something else in common. This link might predispose them to be convinced by stories of sinister machinations or it might be something that is fed by conspiracy theories and grows as a consequence. Either way, scientists were looking for associations and they found plenty. But early on, these studies were not very good or generalizable, which meant there were plenty of contradictions in the literature.
Of course, the very idea of scientists at educational institutions studying people’s propensity to buy into allegations of dark cabals will make these same people sneer. “Institutions can’t be trusted,” they will argue. “Conspiracies are real.” Obviously, some are. Watergate was a conspiracy. The tobacco industry knowing their product caused cancer and conducting a massive campaign of disinformation was a conspiracy. Even your own friends planning your surprise birthday party could, technically, qualify as a conspiracy, depending on how you define the term.
For our purposes, though, a conspiracy is an explanation of events which blames a group of powerful people who make secret plans to benefit themselves and harm the common good. Popular conspiracy theories include alien contact, the assassination of John F. Kennedy by multiple shooters, the cover-up of the dangers of genetically modified foods, and the manufacturing of a fake crisis in the form of global warming. During the COVID-19 pandemic, new conspiracy theories emerged, such as Bill Gates as the master orchestrator of this world-changing event and the pharmaceutical industry’s denial of the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin.
So, who believes these large conspiracy theories, often built on surprising allegations with little evidence behind them? A team of researchers from Emory University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Regina undertook a colossal effort recently. They grabbed every English-language study ever conducted to look at belief in conspiracy theories and its potential link to personality and motivation in order to conduct a meta-analysis of this data. In total, there were 170 studies involving over 158,000 research participants.
They crunched the numbers to see what was strongly associated with believing conspiracy theories and what wasn’t. Many of their results were to be expected, but some were quite surprising.
Three tendencies were strongly correlated with conspiracy ideation, which is the inclination to endorse conspiracy theories. They were: perceiving threat and danger; relying on intuition and having odd beliefs and experiences; and being antagonistic and feeling superior. You can think of each as a pillar that supports conspiracy ideation and/or is nurtured by it, and each pillar can be looked at in more detail.
Perceiving threat and danger
Conspiracy theorists tend to believe the world is dangerous and that life is a violent struggle in which others pose a threat. This is not only supported by the data but is clear from watching top influencers in their community. Dark forces are coming for our children and our collective freedoms, they often say. Every institution is a threat, from pharmaceutical companies to universities, from media outlets to government. Paranoia is strongly correlated with conspiracy ideation, although it differs from it in other ways. With paranoia, the delusion is that everyone is out to get you personally; with conspiracy ideation, the delusion is that powerful people are out to get you and everyone else.
This acute sense that the world is full of danger leads to one of the clearest associations with belief in conspiracy theories: distrust. This lack of trust was studied from multiple angles and it kept being linked to conspiracy ideation. After all, how could you trust institutions when you perceive them all as being threats to you and the people around you?
Conspiracy theorists look at our planet with a combination of cynicism and a feeling of powerlessness. They see society’s moral rules as breaking down and they feel alienated from others. It’s no surprise, then, that when a strong and loud leader comes along and reveals they too see the world in a similar light and they have a plan, conspiracy theorists will flock to them like moths to a flame.
Relying on intuition and having odd beliefs and experiences
The world is a complex and often counterintuitive place, which is why we need science and analytical thinking to make sense of it. But conspiracy theorists are more likely to rely on their intuition—their gut—to figure out what’s really happening. Intuitive thinking is easier and faster, and it has helped our species evade predators in our distant past, so conspiracy theorists use it to make sense of the modern threats they perceive all around them. Analytical thinking, with its deductions and inferences and reliance on scientific data, is harder on the brain and more time-consuming. To believe in a grand conspiracy theory, simply follow your instincts.
As for having odd beliefs and experiences, the data we have so far on conspiracy ideation move us away from healthy personality traits and into the domain of psychopathology. Indeed, scientists have tested conspiracy theorists for all sorts of traits that range from normal (like how extraverted or conscientious they might be) to abnormal (like hostility and paranoia, which give rise to distress and impairment). There was little association with normal personality traits. The strong associations were with abnormal traits, and one of them was the tendency to have unusual experiences. This can mean delusions, magical beliefs, or hallucinations, for example. These unusual experiences can fuel creativity, but they can also give people a skewed and disturbing perception of the world.
The fact that abnormal and not ordinary personality traits are so strongly correlated with believing conspiracy theories is hard to reconcile with how many of us believe in conspiracy theories, though. This meta-analysis itself opens with a shocking statement on the universality of conspiracy ideation: “Most surveyed participants all over the world endorse at least one conspiracy theory.” And that impressive statistic does not appear to have changed much over time. Still, it is important to remember that the link between abnormal traits like paranoia and belief in conspiracy theories is not an inevitability. You can think of it as a risk factor. To put it bluntly, not everyone who believes we never landed on the Moon needs to see a psychiatrist to be prescribed anti-psychotic medication.
Being antagonistic and feeling superior
This association with abnormal personality traits also brings forward two traits that tend to be associated with conspiracy ideation: antagonism and a feeling of superiority.
Conspiracy theorists often think very highly of their in-group. People who are not like them are held accountable for the ills of the world, while their own community of like-minded conspiracy theorists is seen as blameless and exceptional.
This feeling of superiority touches upon the only normal personality trait that has been strongly linked to conspiracy ideation: reduced humility. There is an unwarranted assurance that often comes with believing in all-powerful cabals. It leads adherents of the theory to believe in the moral supremacy of their own group of rebels.
As for antagonism, the authors define it as having an exaggerated sense of self, a callous disregard for the feelings and needs of others, being manipulative and aggressive.
Surprises and limitations
There were surprises, though, in this meta-analysis. Over the years, researchers and science communicators alike have wondered if this or that trait might not help explain why people buy into conspiracy theories. For some of these hypotheses, the answer, for now at least, seems to be no.
As mentioned before, none of the Big Five personality traits (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism) showed a strong association with believing in conspiracy theories. Similarly, we often think that the desire for certainty—for knowing what is really going on and what explains what we see in the world—drives people to conspiracy theories, which offer black-and-white explanations. But that does not appear to be a strong motivator. The same goes for the need for personal control in the world: the link with conspiracy ideation was surprisingly small.
Even more unexpected was the finding surrounding agenticity. It is our brain’s tendency to see agents—creatures with a will and an intent—even where there are none. Imagine you are walking in a forest and you hear a sudden rustling sound. Immediately, your brain thinks, “It’s an animal.” It could be an animal, which has a will and an intent, or it could simply be the wind, which doesn’t. We are quick to ascribe to patterns a consciousness, because that ability has kept us away from the jaws of predators for millennia. But it was also hypothesized that this could drive people to seeing agency in random patterns and thus to believe in conspiracy theories. To a conspiracy theorist, events that are unconnected seem to be actually linked by a common agent: a cabal of powerful people. However, in scientific studies, this trigger-happy agency attribution had only a tiny association with believing in conspiracy theories. Sometimes a hypothesis, as logical as it may sound, turns out to be false.
For now, though, we finally see a portrait of the typical conspiracy theorist emerge from the literature: someone who sees danger around them, who uses their intuition to figure things out, who has odd beliefs and experiences, who often shows hostility, and who feels their group of like-minded people is much superior to the rest of the world. This snapshot, however, comes with a number of asterisks, which remind us of the serious limitations of our knowledge so far.
Some traits were only tested in a handful of studies. Alienation, for example, has been examined in three studies, compared to the 40 studies that have looked at the link with mistrust. More studies of these traits might result in stronger or weaker associations. Belief in conspiracy theories also suffers from having been studied mostly in what are known as WEIRD populations. This is not to say that conspiracy theorists are weird, but that their beliefs have been examined mostly in Westernized, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic populations. Most of what we know about conspiracy theorists comes from examining American research subjects, especially college students and online participants. How generalizable these findings are to, for example, France or Japan remains to be seen.
What to do about it
While this meta-analysis helps us understand who is more susceptible to believing in conspiracy theories, it tells us very little about what to do about it. True, believing that the Apollo moon landings were faked may appear innocuous and we might think it best to leave it alone, but we know with great certainty that the more you believe in one conspiracy theory, the more likely you are to believe in others, and we have seen the harmful effects of believing that Democrats stole the 2020 Presidential election in the United States or that the number of Jews killed by the Nazis has been exaggerated on purpose.
We have tools to fight back against misinformation, for example. We know that reminding people to be accurate before sharing a piece of news on social media can help reduce the number of falsehoods they spread. But if you believe in conspiracy theories, you already think you are being accurate in what you are sharing, so this intervention is unlikely to sway your actions. The authors of the meta-analysis write that we need new interventions for dealing with this, perhaps something that will reduce the perception that other people are a threat.
I have already written about what can be done if you personally know someone who takes conspiracy theories as gospel: the bottom line is to use empathy, avoid confrontations, and keep the dialogue going if you can. That’s hardly a silver bullet and it can strain someone’s patience. But it’s a start.
- A new meta-analysis of studies looking at who has a tendency to believe in conspiracy theories reveals the best portrait we have so far: people who see danger in the world around them, who use their intuition a lot, who have odd beliefs and experiences, and who tend to be antagonistic and feel superior to others
- These findings have many limitations: they only come from research done in English and the participants who were studied are often from industrialized and affluent countries
- In trying to reduce belief in conspiracy theories, new interventions will be needed, like perhaps reducing the perception that other people are a threat