Conspiracy Theories: More Than Meets the Eye?


| LAST UPDATE 07/24/2023

By Stanley Wickens
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Believing in conspiracy theories isn't just a symptom of ignorance or mental instability, as popular culture often portrays. Instead, it's a complicated phenomenon with multiple underlying reasons that a recent review has shed light on.

The image of conspiracy theorists as simple-minded or mentally unstable is an oversimplification. According to Shauna Bowes, a clinical psychologist at Emory University, many individuals are drawn to conspiracy theories as a way to meet unfulfilled needs and make sense of their distress and confusion. While everyone might entertain such thoughts occasionally, certain beliefs can pose serious risks. Bowes and her team analyzed 170 studies, mainly from the US, UK, and Poland, to understand the motivations behind these beliefs. The findings suggest that people are often driven by a need for safety, comprehension of their environment, and social security. As our world becomes more unpredictable and dangerous, these needs are accentuated, making conspiracy theories more appealing.

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The research underscores the vital role of motivation in conspiratorial thinking. "Motivations at large are essential pieces of the conspiratorial ideation puzzle," the team states in their paper. Interestingly, social threats were more strongly associated with conspiracy thinking than other types of threats. Trust, long recognized as a significant factor in cultural cognition, was also found to be closely linked to this phenomenon. This means that regardless of our educational background, we tend to trust information coming from those within our cultural group. Additionally, personality traits like lower analytical thinking ability and higher anxiety levels had a modest correlation with conspiracy thinking. The researchers suggest that this could be due to not taking into account a lengthy enough time frame or the interplay between different traits. Narcissism, both at the individual and collective level, and the need to feel unique were also linked to a heightened likelihood of conspiratorial thinking. People who perceived social threats were more inclined to believe in event-based conspiracies, with abstract theories being favored by more narcissistic and paranoid individuals.

Bowes explains, "People who are motivated by a desire to feel unique are more likely to believe in general conspiracy theories about how the world works." The need for safety and security may also explain why conspiracy thinking escalates during crises, such as the recent pandemic, when people faced financial and health uncertainties. Understanding these factors is key to helping individuals sidestep these cognitive pitfalls and mitigate the potential harm they can cause. The results of this enlightening research were published in the Psychological Bulletin.

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