Why some people are more likely to believe wild conspiracy theories than others

The Illuminati are watching.

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The Illuminati are watching.
source
Wikimedia Commons

Do you believe the moon landing was faked? Do you suspect the 9/11 attacks were a government cover up?

Turns out, if you’re an avid conspiracy theorist, you could be doing it for attention.

According to new research, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, some people like believing in conspiracy theories because of a need for uniqueness. In other words, they like to be different, and so take on beliefs that are out of the ordinary.

It’s similar to when people take up unusual hobbies that set them apart from others. That person on Reddit with a weird idea of what shape the Earth is could actually feel special or above average because they think they’ve figured something out that the majority of others haven’t.

Being in on the conspiracy theories may make people feel like they are part of a secret society that has all the answers.

To test this theory, a research team from Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany conducted a series of studies to see how the need for uniqueness could prompt people to believe conspiracies more.

Believing one conspiracy theory makes it more likely you’ll believe another.

In the first study, 238 people were assessed for their need for uniqueness, and their endorsement of 99 conspiracy theories. The results showed that believing one conspiracy theory makes it more likely you’ll believe another, and that there was a correlation between this endorsement and the need to not follow the crowd.

The second study was nearly identical, but only used the five best known and five least known theories.

In the third study, the researchers tried to manipulate participants’ need to be different. They did this by testing 223 students for their need for uniqueness, and assigning them to one of two groups: the first had to write an essay about the importance of individuality, and the second wrote one about the importance of conformity.

All the subjects then read a made up newspaper article about a bus accident in Moldova that involved eight opposition politicians, and thus could have been the result of a conspiracy. Those who wrote the individuality essay were slightly more likely to believe the bogus story, but the difference between them and the conformity group wasn’t huge.

The fourth study was similar, except the researchers added a further manipulation of the participants by telling them that a need for uniqueness would lead to greater success.

Among the subjects who were prone to believe conspiracies, their belief in the bogus story was heightened once they knew it was a minority opinion. It’s similar to when you know about an artist or a book before it’s “cool” or “mainstream.” The results show that conspiracy theorists could have tendencies to act this way about real life, not just the latest music or fashion.

Even more strikingly, 25% of the participants still believed the made up bus crash story even when they were told it was false and had been fabricated by the researchers purely for the study.

They might not be correct, but they’ll be remembered.

The authors write that the results of these studies highlight a neglected function of conspiracy theories: to present oneself as distinct from the crowd.

“Previous explanations of conspiracy thinking had pointed to feelings of control deprivation and less analytical thinking as potential predictors of conspiracy beliefs and thereby created a stereotype of the typical conspiracy believer as a rather anxious and non-rational individual,” they wrote.

“The current findings add to this emerging image by pointing to a highly functional aspect of endorsing largely unpopular conspiracy beliefs. All humans share not only the need to belong and affiliate with others but also to be different and stick out from them, to be an identifiably unique individual.”

In other words, if we are seen as the conspiracy theorist, we might not be regarded as always correct, but we will probably be remembered.

Their beliefs can be damaging.

It can be fun to argue with conspiracy theorists about whether the sun is real, but their tales can also be damaging. For example, those who believe climate change isn’t real or that vaccinations cause autism are spreading dangerous falsities about the environment and our health.

Unfortunately – as science journalists often find – tackling untrue stories about these topics with more science, studies, and information can actually make people even more skeptical. Hundreds of studies have shown there is no link between the MMR vaccination and autism, but that doesn’t stop some people from preventing their children getting inoculated because of Andrew Wakefield’s scare-mongering back in the 90s.

The problem is, conspiracy theories stick in our minds because they are often tantalising and more interesting than the real story. This means we can suffer from cognitive dissonance, and reject any correct information that comes out way afterwards.

One paper, by Daniel Jolley at Staffordshire University and Karen Douglas at the University of Kent, claims that the best way of preventing the spread of conspiracy theories is to “inoculate” against them, by showing people anti-conspiracy arguments before the actual conspiracy.

Out of the 267 participants, those who were given arguments for vaccination first and then shown the anti-vaxxer conspiracies were less likely to fall for them. So one way to help stamp out the most dangerous theories is early education, meaning people aren’t given the opportunity to find conspiracies before they are taught about the facts.

Nobody wants to be part of the “sheeple,” after all.