A Theory About Conspiracy Theories

The belief that drug companies invent illnesses to sell their products, for instance, can provide a way of processing a grave diagnosis that arrives out of nowhere. The advent of the pandemic, and its injection into partisan politics in the United States and abroad, lend an urgency to a deeper understanding of conspiracy theories, given that false beliefs — that the C.D.C. is politically compromised, one way or another — can lead millions to ignore public health advice.

“You really have a perfect storm, in that the theories are directed at those who have fears of getting sick and dying or infecting someone else,” said Gordon Pennycook, a behavioral scientist at the University of Regina’s school of business, in Saskatchewan. “And those fears distract people from judging the accuracy of content they may read online.”

In the new study, titled “Looking Under the Tinfoil Hat” and posted online in the Journal of Personality, Ms. Bowes and Scott Lilienfeld led a team that administered a battery of standardized personality surveys to nearly 2,000 adults.

The study had two elements. First, the team rated each person on their level proclivity for conspiracy theories. Participants were asked to rate the probable veracity of general statements such as “Some U.F.O. sightings and rumors are planned or staged in order to distract the public from real alien contact” or “The government uses people as patsies to hide its involvement in criminal activity.” The volunteers were then asked do the same for statements about specific events, such as “U.S. agencies intentionally created the AIDS epidemic and administered it to Black and gay men in the 1970s.”

The study included participants recruited both online and in person, at Emory. About 60 percent scored low on the scales, meaning they were resistant to such theories; the other 40 percent ranged above average or higher.

In the second phase, the research team gave the participants several standard personality questionnaires. One parsed general, fairly stable traits, like conscientiousness and sociability; another asked about moods like anxiety and anger; and a third addressed extremes, like narcissistic tendencies. (“I often have to deal with people who are less important than me.”)

To rough out a personality profile, or profiles, the research team measured which facets of personality were most strongly correlated to higher levels of susceptibility to conspiracy beliefs. The findings were at least as notable for the associations revealed as for those not found. For example, qualities like conscientiousness, modesty and altruism were very weakly related to a person’s susceptibility. Levels of anger or sincerity bore no apparent relation; nor did self-esteem.

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