Dr. Thomas Swan studied cognition and culture at Queen's University Belfast. He's researched a range of psychological traits and disorders.
The Psychology of Conspiracy Theorists
A conspiracy theory is loosely defined as a belief that two or more people are covering up information that is in the public's interest to know.
Conspiracy theories often focus on major events like the JFK assassination, September 11th attacks, or the moon landings. Some theories describe a more protracted effect, such as the idea that the Illuminati, Freemasons, Zionists, or some other political entity is acquiring power by misleading the masses about sequences of events.
A common trait among conspiracy theorists is the need to believe a conspiracy more than they're willing to evaluate if it's true. For psychologists, this bias or `motivated reasoning' can be explained in various ways. The following article presents 10 personality traits that help to explain why people believe in conspiracies.
Though conspiracy theorists often display the following traits, it would be wrong to say that every theorist displays every trait to its maximum extent. Generally, the extent to which someone fails to consider evidence against their theory correlates with how much their personality is punctuated by these traits. Those at the extreme end of the spectrum might best be described as conspiracy nuts. Those more in touch with reality will be more inclined to consider conflicting evidence.
1. We Evolved to be Suspicious
The evolution of language enhanced our ability to communicate, seek advice, deceive others, and police cheaters; all of which made survival a more complicated endeavor. Research suggests that human brain size drastically increased to accommodate new cognitive mechanisms that could deal with verbally-encoded information.
The purpose of many of these mechanisms is to detect when someone is intentionally or accidentally deceiving us. For example, we might evaluate a speaker's voice pitch, accent, word choice, grammatical errors, and speed of delivery to determine if they're trustworthy. We'll also examine facial features, physical behavior, and assess the social status, authority, and prestige of the speaker. These judgements are based on past experiences, the testimony of others, cultural norms, and genetic biases, such as the tendency to trust people who look and sound similar to ourselves or family.
Unlike other mammals, we have an episodic memory which is used to establish someone's past record for honesty. We also have a `coherence checker' to assess how new information is compatible with existing beliefs. Finally, humans have what is called a `theory of mind' (ToM), which is used to evaluate someone's desires and intentions, and how this influences their beliefs, the veracity of those beliefs, and their willingness to deceive. Together, these mechanisms help us to employ what cognitive psychologists call epistemic vigilance. This is an assessment of the relevance and believability of information, as well as the competence and benevolence of the source.
Suspicion (or vigilance) exists because it is advantageous and adaptive, but too much suspicion can be detrimental to one's reputation, confidence, and breadth of knowledge. However, as environments change, different levels of traits become adaptive. If the world became a threatening place, highly suspicious individuals might receive an advantage. Evolution has ensured that the human population is prepared for such eventualities by producing diversity. Thus, some people believe in wacky conspiracy theories because their elevated suspicion is a natural and necessary extreme of the human condition.
2. Special Knowledge Makes Special People
Nearly every major event has a conspiracy theory attached to it. Recently, I spoke with someone who thought the Titanic sank in a different way to accepted theories. They claimed a big cover-up was in effect. While there's always a possibility that current theories are wrong, why would the Titanic be the focus of a cover up?
Big events attract conspiracies because the knowledge the theorist possesses wouldn't be special otherwise. If the knowledge isn't special, then they aren't special for possessing it. The suggestion is therefore that a conspiracy theorist wants to feel special, and this desire emerges from self-worth based insecurities.
The often unusual result is that communicating `the truth' becomes less important than communicating that one knows the truth, or that the truth is special beyond all measure.
3. Anxiety and the Need For Order
There is a direct link between anxiety and conspiratorial thinking. A psychology study found that anxious people were more likely to believe conspiracy theories about ethnic minorities such as Arabs and Jews. Conspiracy theories often contain information about threats. As anxiety causes people to be more attentive to threats, this may explain the connection.
Anxiety is typically prevalent in situations of uncertainty or doubt. A separate study found that when people who disliked oil companies were made to feel uncertain, they became more likely to generate conspiracies about the actions of those companies in Iraq.
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Generally, uncertainty and anxiety describe a more fundamental feeling of lacking control. To demonstrate this, an experiment showed that people lacking control were more likely to see illusory pattens in sequences of dots or stock market figures. This also included an illusory perception of conspiracies and superstitions. In other words, lacking control prompts a need to restore order. To do this, people invent hidden patterns, puppet masters, or other presumptuous explanations for why bad things happen.
The experimenters also found that conspiratorial thinking reduced when people were allowed to engage in self-affirmation. This supports the earlier suggestion that conspiracy theorists often have self-worth based insecurities.
4. Most Conspiracies are Fear-Worthy
The earlier video showed how most conspiracies are associated with deaths, assassinations, threats to public health, global warming, alien invasions, major disasters, wars, or quests for control by evil organizations. The pattern of threat-based conspiracies ties in well with the evidence that elevated anxiety is a precursor to conspiratorial thinking. In other words, people who believe in conspiracy theories are very sensitive and attentive to fear-provoking events.
5. Disillusionment and Distrust of Authority
Nearly all conspiracy theorists demonstrate hostility to authority figures, presumably because these figures have the power to exert control over them. As lacking control feels unpleasant, authority figures are indirectly blamed for causing that discomfort.
Given that we're biologically disposed to trust authority, having the opposite trait is unusual. It's likely that many conspiracy theorists have suffered at the hands of an authority figure in the past, such as a parent, teacher, or employer. For some, this suffering may have less to do with power being wielded, and more to do with kindness being withheld. A lack of love or intimacy from parents could be a key precursor to disliking authority figures, and it has already been linked with anxiety, mistrust, and independence.
6. Paranoia, Persecution, and Jealousy
A key trait among conspiracy theorists is paranoia. They believe the threats they face are more elaborate and personally invasive than is reasonable. Whether the government has a special desire to probe their thoughts, or an alien has a special desire to probe their cavities, the paranoia serves to make the theorist feel special and important. It also contributes to the depth and believability of the theory.
Often conspiracy theorists believe they are the biggest victim of the conspiracy, and that they are being physically or mentally persecuted. They believe that when good things happen to other people, it's because those people are immorally benefiting from the conspiracy. This may be a way to legitimize jealousy. For example, a male conspiracy theorist recently told me that Russell Brand only got to marry Katy Perry because they're both in the Illuminati (apparently).
7. Blame Everything Apart From Oneself
By accepting the role of victim, engaging in paranoid elaborations of threats, and believing other people's success is undeserved, the conspiracy theorist is effectively blaming the world for causing his or her own failures. They are inflating the cost of the conspiracy because the cost of personal responsibility it too unpleasant.
When their failures are brought to their attention, the conspiracy theorist becomes more paranoid. This is because paranoia is a way to highlight or elaborate on the liability of their chosen target for blame. It is a defense mechanism that prevents them from overcoming their failures because the root cause (themselves) is not addressed.
8. Groups and Gossip
Conspiracy theorists often band together into communities of like-minded individuals. This is because they seek validation for their views rather than criticism (confirmation bias). It requires that their views be comforting in some way, otherwise they'd be more inclined to find evidence against them. As we have seen, conspiracies are comforting because they provide a sense of order, a way to blame failure on others, and a feeling that one is special. Indeed, another reason for forming a group is the need to establish an identity that is separate and superior to the masses who ignore or reject them.
Much like other traits related to mistrust, conspiracy theorists will be disposed to gossiping. Here, gossip is defined as a way to police free-riders, cheaters, or deceivers by spreading incriminating information about them. Gossip is important for a functional society because it helps to deter and punish cheaters.
9. A Hero With Little Empathy
Whether to gossip, have their views confirmed, or cement their distinctiveness from society, the motivation to become part of a group is usually a selfish one. Their desire to free the world from slavery or invasion should not be confused with empathy. Ultimately, they see themselves as the victim. Other victims are little more than evidence to support a theory that brings the theorist order, superiority, and comfort.
Often the theorist believes the rest of the world is too dumb or apathetic to understand the conspiracy. Either that, or they're actively helping the conspirators. Thus, the theorist seeks to make other people inferior or worthy of hatred.
Despite joining small groups of like-minded individuals, conspiracy theorists prefer to interact from a distance via internet message boards or radio shows. They typically retreat into an independent, survivalist, frame of mind with limited social contact. They will also turn on members of the group who achieve a degree of notoriety. As a result, prestigious theorists with popular radio shows or Youtube channels will often get branded as `fakes' in collusion with the conspirators.
10. Critics Are Part of the Conspiracy
A common trait among conspiracy theorists is their need to derogate critics. Criticism must be devalued because it threatens the comfort provided by the conspiracy. This is done in one of two ways. Either the critic is too dumb to see the intricacies of the conspiracy, and is thus contributing to it by ignoring it; or they're actively helping the conspirators to cover up the truth. The unconsidered third option: that the critic is just not convinced by the evidence, is undesirable because it would create a reason to doubt the comforting belief.
The two ways of derogating critics have distinct, self-serving functions. In believing that some critics are too dumb to see their special knowledge, theorists establish their superiority. In believing that other critics are part of the conspiracy, theorists are manufacturing evidence to support their special knowledge.
A number of studies and analyses have revealed that a selection of psychological traits are responsible for explaining why people believe conspiracy theories. These traits include dispositions for suspicion, anxiety, feeling out of control, paranoia, self-worth based insecurities, self-aggrandizement, jealousy, self-victimization, sensitivity to fearful events, disillusionment with authority or care-givers, living a relatively independent lifestyle, gossiping, derogating critics, forming highly agreeable groups, not accepting blame, and not feeling genuine empathy towards other victims.
Though conspiracies are threatening in their own way, they allow the theorist to establish order, self-worth, superiority, and a way to blame personal failure on others. Many of the causes and effects of conspiratorial thinking are related to narcissism. Though this comparison is murky and speculative, it is one that should be explored in more detail.
© 2014 Thomas Swan
Jonni on May 19, 2020:
It's difficult to ascertain who are the theorists and who gets most of their information from what source since there always seems to be a side to take. We get our news from the media or online mostly. If those outlets are biased you will most likely get the slanted version and not the complete resourced truth. That's how some conspiracies are started but no one knows 100% of the facts especially since we are in a race to break the news.
You cannot describe all people in all conspiracies because of the wide variety of news sources. The libs are extremely convinced in the Russian collusion is real mostly because they want it to be true. The same happened when Obama was president in regards to the IRS blocking the Tea party from starting nonprofits.
Who draws the line regarding who has enough information to believe what they've been presented with vs. a name your enemy and mistrust them? No one likes being called a conspiracy theorist when they have seen proof in the way of direct quotes and Congressional hearings. Some cold hard facts are very hard to ignore but there's plenty of hyperbole to go around for everyone.
The takeaway is do your own research and branch out to other sources of information but don't expect a lot of people to agree with you and keep the tin foil hat handy.
Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on November 12, 2019:
Superb article on understanding those who take up conspiracy theories. Great read.
legion on June 24, 2019:
you cant imagine my relief, to finally find out my telly is telling me the truth...phew.
MikeJH82 on June 19, 2018:
Another aspect of conspiracist belief (linked to the idea of feeling special) is illusory superiority. Look at Melanie's comment below.
"Many intelligent people who have the ability to discern and think for themselves are mentally healthy contrary to your article."
This term "think for themselves" is a red flag in particular, because it indicates that the individual believes themselves (and those who share their beliefs) to be cognitively superior to the majority of the human race. The problem is that what conspiracy theorists take for a sign of their special ability to question the government and mainstream media, is in fact the manifestation of an extreme level of credulity toward unsubstantiated minority and contrarian claims. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the most extreme conspiracy theorists could be convinced of the Tooth Fairy's existence if YouTube conspiracy channels told them the government was covering it up.
What we have here is an example of the Dunning-Kruger Effect - individuals who believe themselves to have unusually developed critical thinking skills, whilst actually having very weak critical thinking skills. A good example is the supposed fake Mars pictures doing the rounds at the moment. Some charlatans have taken pictures of Earth and manipulated them to look like Mars rover pics. These images have then been presented as "proof" that NASA's Mars pics are fakes. A person thinking rationally would immediately ask the question: if NASA, with all its technology and resources, were fabricating pictures, would we expect them to produce such obvious fakes. This will then lead one to investigate the supposed fake pictures further, and discover that the pics have never actually been presented by NASA as pictures of Mars. The conspiracist, however, believing himself to have special cognitive abilities, reasons that the pictures really are fake, and that most people don't realise because they're too brainwashed to question what they're told.
Rich on September 22, 2017:
Excellent article Thomas.
I was interested as I have a fb friend who is exactly like this, and I really wanted to understand his conspiratorial blinkered thinking and views on it seems, everything.
This explains a lot.
Melanie on August 04, 2017:
The "powers that be" came up with the term conspiracy theorist to discredit, label and try to prevent others from questioning the status-quo.
The internet has a way of revealing some pretty disturbing information regarding the lies that have been covered-up. Many intelligent people who have the ability to discern and think for themselves are mentally healthy contrary to your article.
cuffhead on July 29, 2017:
Thanks for a great article. And the timing couldn't have been better. I have a friend who could be considered a conspiracy theorist on steroids. The personality and mind set you describe fits her perfectly. One in particularly is her look and comments when I disagree with her. Also she becomes highly defensive and thinks I'm clueless and uninformed. I will share this article with her and maybe she will learn something from a professional stand point.
Liza on June 22, 2017:
This is a very interesting and informative article, it makes a lot of sense but I would have liked a little balance, rather than referring to "conspiracy theories" that assumes them to be false by definition.
Maybe number 11 could be: compelling evidence to encompass those of us who tend to examine conspiracy theories on an individual basis... :)
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on June 05, 2017:
Wow, I've had 10 comments on this article in the last 5 months inviting me to join the illuminati. Hubpages filters them out, but I guess it's the "conspiracy theories" title that attracts them. Guys, if you're not bots, I'm really not interested. I know it's fake. I would expect the Illuminati to have better spelling and grammar than a 4 year old.
grochibre on December 17, 2016:
You forgot the number one (for me ) reason : narcissism (not far from "Special Knowledge Makes Special People" but not exactly the same).
"I'm better than most people, I'm not a sheep" is a common thinking among conspiracy wackos.
Rod Martin Jr from Cebu, Philippines on September 06, 2015:
Dr. Swan, you give an interesting, but incomplete list.
The one major item you left off the list is the idea that some conspiracy theories are based upon facts.
Conspiracies are dirt common, because people tend to be selfish or self-concerned. Examples:
* Two boys conspire to steal cookies from the kitchen while mommy is at the store.
* A guy buys drugs on the street from the neighborhood dealer.
* A john asks for sex and gets it.
* Watergate break-in.
* Climate-Gate hiding data from other scientists and discussions of destroying the data. (Not very science-like.)
* Every war ever started did not begin by accident.
* Assassination of Julius Caesar.
* According to the deathbed confession of E. Howard Hunt, the JFK assassination.
* According to the confessions of Dr. William Thompson of the CDC, the hiding of data that MMR vaccines and autism are connected.
* The fact that the CDC conducted illegal and unethical experiments on black men in Tuskegee, Alabama, giving them syphilis and tracking their illnesses until they died.
* A student hires someone to write their term paper.
* During an exam, two students share answers while the professor (me) was not looking. 80% of the answers were wrong, but they matched between the two students' papers. Matching right answers are hard to prove cheating; matching wrong answers almost guarantee it.
In every one of these cases, someone wanted something they did not have and talked to someone else for help in getting it. In each case, the thing needed was unethical or illegal. And in some cases, even some laws are illegal -- like the ones that go counter to a nation's Constitution.
I'm sure your reasons apply to some people, but you missed a huge category -- those who want to know the truth and who follow the facts.