Since the rise of COVID-19 and the 2020 presidential election, it has become apparent that conspiracy theories play a greater role in society than previously thought, but what makes people likely to fall into conspiracy beliefs? A study published in PLOS One provides more evidence that personality disorder symptomology may be related to conspiracy thinking.
Conspiracy theories are beliefs that espouse the idea that many major world events have secretly been facilitated by those in power for political reasons and/or personal gain. Belief in conspiracy theories has been found to be related to various factors, such as educational level, political affiliation, socioeconomic status, age, and sex.
Additionally, conspiracy belief has been explored in relation to personality disorders before, with higher levels of clusters A (odd, eccentric) and B (dramatic, erratic) and lower levels of cluster C (anxious, fearful) being related to increased conspiracy thinking. This study aims to expand on and replicate previous research by exploring factors that relate to belief in conspiracy theories.
For their study, Jan Ketil Arnulf, Charlotte Robinson, and Adrian Furnham utilized a sample of 397 adult participants who were recruited through an online database. The sample was predominantly made up of British nationals who ranged in age from 19 to 71 and were all currently employed. Participants completed measures on conspiracy thinking, belief in conspiracy theories, Big Five personality traits, general knowledge, and personality disorder symptomology.
In psychology research, conspiracy thinking and belief in conspiracy theories are distinct constructs, although they are related.
Conspiracy thinking refers to a general cognitive style or pattern of thinking that involves a tendency to explain events in terms of secret, malevolent, and powerful groups or individuals who are acting in a coordinated and deceptive manner to achieve their goals. On the other hand, belief in conspiracy theories refers to the specific endorsement of a particular conspiracy theory or set of conspiracy theories. This involves accepting the belief that a particular event or phenomenon is the result of a secret plot.
Results showed that the endorsement of conspiracies was associated with various demographic and personality factors. Conspiracy thinking was related to being less intelligent, more politically conservative, not having a degree, being less extraverted, more conscientious, and scoring higher on personality clusters A and C. A similar pattern of results was observed for belief in conspiracy theories.
The findings indicate that “that beliefs in conspiracy theories are related to ideology or general levels of knowledge in terms of superficial correlations, but that these relationships tend to blur when matched against traits measuring personality disorders,” the researchers said.
“These effects should not be taken to indicate that all people who believe in [conspiracy theories] are also showing a personality disorder. Rather, it is likely that personality factors, knowledge levels and ideologically conducive environments contribute to the adoption of [conspiracy theories], where full-fledged embracement of these may take on the character of personality disorders or be exacerbated by underlying tendencies towards such.”
General knowledge was not found to have a relationship with likelihood of believing conspiracy theories. But cognitive traits associated with schizotypal disorder in particular were shown to be related to belief in conspiracy theories, which is consistent with previous research stating that schizotypal and paranoid personality disorder symptoms are most associated with conspiracy thinking.
“It is thus possible that the manifest agreement on conspiracy theories in groups of people is caused partly by social psychological mechanisms that drive people together in social networks where these ideas are being proposed, and partly by individuals with personality disorders who are willing and capable of propagating such theories with great conviction,” the researchers wrote. “Such a propagation of [conspiracy theories] would be a two-thronged approach where vulnerable individuals lend credibility to unlikely ideas that penetrate the capacity for critical thinking in less disturbed but otherwise socially committed network members.”
Though this study took important steps into further understanding what traits may underlie conspiracy beliefs, there are limitations to note. One such limitation is that the sample was predominantly middle class and well-educated, which could affect how much conspiracy thinking and which types of conspiracy theories they may endorse.
The study, “Dispositional and ideological factor correlate of conspiracy thinking and beliefs“, was published October 26, 2022.
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