Conspiracy believers exhibit reduced emotional granularity and heightened rumination

PsyPost/May 20, 2024

By Eric W. Dolan

A recent study published in Applied Cognitive Psychology reveals that people who struggle to distinguish between different negative emotions are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. Additionally, these individuals often engage in rumination, a maladaptive strategy for emotion regulation. The findings suggest that improving emotional granularity— the ability to identify and describe emotions accurately—may help individuals manage their emotions better and reduce their susceptibility to conspiracy beliefs.

“Particularly on the internet and in social networks, you often come across explanations that convey a supposedly elitist secret knowledge about the ‘true’ cause of significant events,” said study author Albert Wabnegger, a senior scientist in the Clinical Department of the Institute of Psychology at the University of Graz.

“Such conspiracy theories are compelling because they offer simple explanations for complex events and play on people’s feelings. They usually involve a powerful group working in secret to achieve sinister goals. It is not only fascinating but also important to understand who is most likely to believe in such theories and which psychological factors favor such beliefs.”

The study involved 165 participants, predominantly psychology students, with a mean age of 26 years. Participants completed an online survey and installed a custom app on their smartphones to track their emotional states. Over one week, the app prompted participants twice daily to describe their current emotional state using their own words. They also rated the intensity and pleasantness of these emotions.

To assess emotional granularity, researchers categorized the adjectives participants used as either specific (e.g., “isolated”) or unspecific (e.g., “bad”). Two independent raters evaluated these descriptions, and inter-rater reliability was established. Participants’ ability to differentiate emotions was measured based on the specificity of the words they used.

Participants also completed several questionnaires, including the Generic Conspiracist Beliefs Scale, another scale assessing current event conspiracy beliefs, and measures for emotion regulation strategies such as rumination and reappraisal. Additionally, participants’ levels of anxiety, depression, emotional self-awareness, and clarity about their own feelings were assessed.

The researchers found a significant negative association between performance-based emotional granularity and belief in conspiracy theories. In other words, individuals who had difficulty distinguishing between negative emotions were more likely to endorse conspiracy beliefs. This relationship was not observed with self-reported measures of emotional granularity, indicating that individuals might overestimate their ability to differentiate emotions.

“Interestingly, the correlation between belief in conspiracy theories and emotional differentiation emerged only in performance-based measurements, where the specificity of answers was assessed by external raters,” Wabnegger told PsyPost. “No such correlation was found when participants self-reported their ability to differentiate emotions. This highlights a gap between self-assessed and actual emotional differentiation, suggesting that individuals with conspiracist ideation might overestimate their emotional competence.”

The researchers also identified rumination — a maladaptive emotion regulation strategy where individuals repeatedly focus on the causes and consequences of their distress without finding a resolution — as a key factor linked to conspiracist ideation. Participants who engaged more in rumination were also more likely to believe in conspiracy theories.

This finding underscores the role of ineffective emotion regulation in fostering beliefs in conspiracy theories. When people cannot effectively manage their negative emotions, they might turn to conspiracy theories as a way to make sense of their feelings and the world around them, even though these beliefs do not provide genuine emotional relief.

“Our findings revealed that individuals who endorse conspiracy theories often use the maladaptive emotion regulation strategy of repeatedly thinking about the causes and consequences of events (rumination),” Wabnegger explained. “They also showed a reduced ability to distinguish between different negative emotions, a key component of effective emotion regulation. A combination of cognitive control training which has been shown to reduce excessive overthinking, and a training to diversify emotional experiences, may reduce the endorsement of conspiracy theories in the long run.”

The study sheds light on the psychological mechanisms that might underlie belief in conspiracy theories. But, like all research, it had limitations. The sample size was relatively small and predominantly consisted of university students, who generally have higher levels of education and lower levels of conspiracist ideation. This limits the generalizability of the results to the broader population.

“The sample predominantly consisted of female university students, a highly educated group generally less inclined towards conspiracy theories,” Wabnegger noted. “Consequently, the results may not be easily generalizable to the wider population. It is conceivable that the observed effects could be more pronounced in a sample more susceptible to conspiracy theories.”

Regarding the long-term aim of his research, Wabnegger hopes “to better understand the characteristics of individuals endorsing conspiracy theories. Maybe there is such a thing as a ‘conspiracy personality.’ While some conspiracy theories are relatively harmless, others can be dangerous, fostering prejudice and leading to poor health decisions. Therefore, it is crucial to develop effective strategies to mitigate the impact of such harmful beliefs.”

The study, “Believing in conspiracy theories: The role of emotional granularity and maladaptive emotion regulation strategies,” was authored by Albert Wabnegger, Jonas Potthoff, and Anne Schienle.

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