Conspiracy Theories Make Cranks Feel Special

Conspiracy Theories Make Cranks Feel Special September 4, 2018

I’ve long wondered what it is that makes people believe in conspiracy theories. Not just individual ones, but to the general mindset of those who fall for them, because they tend to cluster together. Those who accept the more bizarre conspiracy theories tend to fall for virtually all of them. A couple studies suggest that it is largely ego-driven — those who accept them tend to do so because it makes them feel special to be one of the people “in the know.”

Could it also be the case that knowing that most people doubt a conspiracy actually makes believing in it more appealing, by fostering in the believer a sense of being somehow special? This question was explored recently in the European Journal of Social Psychology by Roland Imhoff and Pia Karoline Lamberty at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany.

The researchers first asked a sample of 238 US participants recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk survey website to complete a self-reported “Need For Uniqueness” scale (they rated their agreement with items like “being distinctive is extremely important to me”) and a Conspiracy Mentality scale (e.g. “Most people do not see how much our lives are determined by plots hatched in secret.”) before indicating whether or not they believed in a list of 99 conspiracy theories circulating online. Endorsement of the different conspiracy theories was highly correlated: belief in one conspiracy theory meant beliefs in others would be more likely. Participants’ self-reported Need For Uniqueness also correlated with their stronger endorsement of the conspiracy beliefs.

This certainly fits with my observation of conspiracy nuts throughout my life. Almost universally, they take pride in believing that they know what few others do and they love to lord it over the “sheeple” they criticize. They tend to be very haughty about it — “Oh, you actually believe that? I bet you believe anything they tell you.” I’m sure that isn’t the full answer. People believe lots of things for lots of different reasons. But I have little doubt this is a major input into this problem. And it’s always why facts and logic simply don’t matter to them. They don’t believe in conspiracy theories because they’ve critically examined the evidence but because of the way it boosts their ego.

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