theories have been around for millennia, but serious research into the type of
people who hold such beliefs only began about 30 years ago. Unfortunately, these early studies were not very good and had
plenty of contradictions.
Some conspiracies were real. Watergate was one. The tobacco industry’s continuing campaign of disinformation knowing their product caused cancer was a real conspiracy.
A conspiracy can be seen as an explanation of events which blames a group of powerful people who make secret plans to benefit themselves and harm the common good. Some of the more popular conspiracy theories include alien contact and the assassination of John F. Kennedy by multiple shooters.
Even before the pandemic began, there was a growing distrust in health, science, and government information. During the pandemic, new conspiracy theories were brought to light such as Bill Gates as the master orchestrator of the pandemic and the injecting of chips into as many people as possible, as well as the pharmaceutical industry’s denial of the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin.
A team of researchers from Emory University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Regina recently undertook a massive effort to try to find common personality traits in those who tend to believe in conspiracy theories (April 2023).
The researchers did a meta-analysis of data from every English language study ever conducted to look at a potential link to personality and motivation in those who have a belief in conspiracy theories. There was a total of 170 studies involving over 158,000 research participants.
After crunching the numbers, the researchers came up with three traits that correlated with the inclination to endorse conspiracy theories. They are:
To conspiracy theorists, a lack of trust is a personality trait common denominator. They tend to believe the world is a dangerous place with others posing a threat, especially every institution. Pharmaceutical companies, universities, media outlets, and the government are just some of the targets for their distrust. Life to them is a violent struggle to survive.
This type of distrust is an example of the delusion that powerful people are out to get not only you but everyone else. (This is a bit different from ‘paranoia,’ the delusion that everyone is out to get you personally.)
In general, those who tend to believe in conspiracy theories feel powerless and cynical about the world. They feel alienated from others. It is no surprise that when a strong and loud leader comes along and admits they see the world in a similar light, but they have a plan, conspiracy theorists will flock to them.
Those people who believe in conspiracy theories tend to rely on their intuition or gut to figure out what is really happening. Intuitive thinking is easy and fast, and in the distant past it has helped our species to evade predators. Analytical thinking, with its reliance on scientific data, is harder on the brain and more time-consuming. It is quicker and easier to believe in a grand conspiracy theory when you simply follow your instincts.
Abnormal personality traits, such as having odd beliefs and experiences, along with hostility and paranoia tend to give rise to distress and impairment for those who rely on their intuition to believe in conspiracy theories.
Another of the abnormal traits associated with these people is the tendency to have unusual experiences. For example, this can mean delusions, magical beliefs, or hallucinations. Although these unusual experiences in some instances can fuel creativity, they also can give people a disturbing perception of the world.
There is a caveat here. Abnormal personality traits, although they are strongly correlated with believing in conspiracy theories, do not explain another part of the data that came out of these studies. That data showed that most surveyed participants all over the world endorse at least one conspiracy theory!
It is, therefore, important to realize that it is not inevitable that people exhibiting abnormal traits will have a belief in a conspiracy theory. And not everyone who believes in a conspiracy theory should immediately see a psychiatrist and be prescribed anti-psychotic medicine!
Being antagonistic and feeling superior are two other personality traits which also tend to be associated with those who believe in conspiracy theories.
Antagonism can be defined as having an exaggerated sense of self, a callous disregard for the feelings and needs of others and being manipulative and aggressive.
The feeling of superiority can lead to the only normal personality trait that can be strongly linked to conspiracy theorists and that is reduced humility. These people believe in the moral supremacy of their own group and think very highly of their ingroup.
As would be expected, people who are like-minded conspiracy theorists are seen as blameless and exceptional and those who are not like them should be held accountable for the ills of the world.
Before the researchers began this meta-analysis of the personality traits common to belief in conspiracy theories, there were many hypotheses concerning which personality traits might help explain why people believe in conspiracy theories. After the research, the answers for some of these hypotheses seem to be no.
Therefore, there were some surprises. None of the big five personality traits (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism) showed a strong association with believing in conspiracy theories.
Similarly, the desire to know for certain what is going on in the world was also not a strong motivator. Nor was the surprisingly small link to the need for personal control in the world.
At this point in time, thanks to the mega-data study, we now have a portrait of the typical person who tends to have a belief in conspiracy theories. This is someone who sees danger all around them, uses their intuition to figure things out, who has odd beliefs and experiences, often shows hostility, and feels their group of like-minded people is much superior to the rest of this world.
However, there is a serious limitation of our knowledge because there are problems with the data, most especially how it was obtained:
Although with these findings, we have a better understanding of who is more susceptible to believing in conspiracy theories, we still don’t know what to do about it. We do know that the more one believes in one conspiracy theory, the more likely that person will believe in others.
Here are some ways to help when interacting with conspiracy believers:
Fight Back Against Misinformation
We need more interventions to deal with and fighting back against misinformation. There are some ways we can try to talk with a person who believes in conspiracy theories. If that person strongly believes in a conspiracy, it is imperative to avoid confrontations and use empathy. Telling someone their conspiracy theory is dumb, dangerous, or nonsensical, can backfire. Providing a burst of facts for thirty seconds is also unlikely to change someone’s mind on these issues. Reminding people to be accurate before sharing a piece of news on social media probably won’t work well either because these people tend to believe what their sharing is accurate.
Have Patience and Keep the Dialogue Going
It is very important to have patience. If you know the person expounding a conspiracy is smart, you can wonder how such an intelligent person could be swayed by misinformation. It is hard to understand this but it is entirely possible that person believes the same about you! It is therefore important to try to keep the dialogue going if possible.
If you disagree, no matter how strongly, with someone else’s perception of the world, you must listen carefully to what they say and if you and that person can find some mutual respect for each other’s ideas, and neither one is seen as foolish by the other, it may be possible to come to have an intervention without a confrontation.
Asking questions about the person’s belief may also be helpful. A person may be able to see the fault in their argument from their own answers and may be more inclined to correct his or her belief. If a person finally realizes they were wrong, it could bring them great relief because the world would then actually seem like a better place.
If All Else Fails, Walk Away
If all else fails and you want to continue your relationship, you should find a way to walk away amiably.
Please note: Some information for this article was used with permission from McGill University Office for Science and Society.