Susceptibility for conspiracy theories

In a previous article I gave some definitions of conspiracy theories and reported about their pervasiveness, in this article I review some social-psychological papers on conspiracy ideation.

Lacking control in day to day life causes fear

The desire to combat uncertainty and maintain control has long been considered a primary and fundamental motivating force in human life and one of the most important variables governing psychological well-being and physical health. For example learning details and training about a painful medical procedure can reduce anxiety and even lead to shorter recovery time.

In contrast, lacking control is an unsettling and aversive state, activating the amygdale, which indicates a fear response. It is not surprising, then, that individuals actively try to re-establish control when it disappears or is taken away.

Jennifer A. Whitson and Adam D. Galinsky show in their paper ‘Lacking Control Increases Illusory Pattern Perception’ that participants who lacked control were more likely to perceive a variety of illusory patterns, including seeing images in noise, forming illusory correlations in stock market information, perceiving conspiracies, and developing superstitions.

They defined illusory pattern perception, as the identification of a coherent and meaningful interrelationship among a set of random or unrelated stimuli. Conspiracy thinking makes tenuous connections in random or meaningless data, while science seeks to establish accuracy and consistency in pattern recognition, and thus deduce coherent meaning.

Conspiracy theories provide a mean to project feelings of control and reduce anxiety or stress. ‘Magical thinking’ attributes the source of unexplained or extraordinary events to unseen, intentional forces. It originates in a highly adaptive and unconscious cognitive bias to draw causal connections between phenomena. A common example is when someone presumes that a malevolent force is behind a strange noise in a dark house at night. Such causal attributions arise not only from cognitive biases but can also be motivated by emotional tensions. As with much religious, superstitious, and other types of beliefs, “magical” thinking provides a mean to project feelings of control and reduce anxiety or stress.(Oliver and Wood, 2012, p. 8)

Almost all psychological research on ‘conspiracy theories’ found this constraint often addressed as ‘powerlessness’.  See for an overview of the psychological research Viren Swami and Rebecca Coles.

Some people lacking control in their day to day life, needing to reduce anxiety or stress, might be inclined to conspiracy theories.

Endorsing contradictory accounts

Michael J. Wood, Karen M. Douglas and Robbie M. Sutton, social-psychologists at the University of Kent made up their own questionnaires and reported their results in an article: ‘Dead and Alive: Beliefs in Contradictory Conspiracy Theories’ (2011).

In a study with 137 participants, they found that the more participants believed that Princess Diana faked her own death; the more they believed that she was murdered. Intuitively, this does not make sense. They simultaneously endorse several contradictory accounts.

This seemed to imply that belief in conspiracy theories is not directly driven by belief in other conspiracy theories but by the coherence of each theory with higher-order beliefs that support the idea of conspiracy in general.  This was tested in a second study.

In a study with 102 participants, they found that the more participants believed that Osama Bin Laden was already dead when U.S. Special Forces raided his compound in Pakistan; the more they believed he is still alive but these contradictory beliefs were strongly correlated with a third believe namely that officials are always engaged in cover-up.

Their study supports the idea that conspiracism constitutes a monological belief system, drawing its coherence from central beliefs such as the conviction that authority and officials engage in massive deception of the public to achieve their malevolent goals.

The sociologist Ted Goertzel’s was the first to discover this feature in conspiracy theories, based on a telephone survey conducted in April, 1992, of 348 randomly selected residents of Burlington, Camden and Gloucester counties in southwestern New Jersey. It was published in his paper ‘Belief in Conspiracy Theories’.

Monologue versus dialogue

The terms “dialogical” and “monological” were first used by Mikhail Bakhtin in his analysis of Dostoevsky. The reality of Dostoevsky’s novels is called “dialogical,” meaning that it is the result of significant interaction between different world-views. See for more Ben Goertzel here in ‘Chaotic Logic. Language, Thought and Reality From the Perspective of Complex Systems Science’.

A monological belief system is a self-sustaining worldview comprised of a network of mutually supportive beliefs. It is opposite to a dialogical system which engages in a dialogue with its context as to him.

This is particularly observable in a learning process. Dialogic learning is the result of egalitarian dialogue; in other words, the consequence of a dialogue in which different people provide arguments based on validity claims and not on power claims. Dialogic is not to be confused with dialectical. In a dialogic process, various approaches equivalently coexist. In a dialectic proces point and counterpoint merge into a compromise, while one putative solution establishes primacy over the others.

In chapter 9 he calls monologism conservatism. Conservatism in his view reduces al new events as irrelevant for the belief system, it is based on “excessive self-trust, non-consideration of alternative hypotheses”.

Apparently this “excessive self-trust” is in contradiction with “lacking control” and “reducing fear” proposed by Jennifer Whitson and Adam  Galinsky, but it might be related to “narcissism”. In the American culture Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell  researched the rise of narcissism, a very positive and inflated view of self and published a book about it: ‘The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement’.

When narcissists receive negative feedback that threatens the self, they self-enhance at all costs, but non-narcissists tend to have limits. Nonnarcissists also tend to self-enhance, except when doing so involves giving credit to the self at the expense of another. This is not a detail. It draws a sharp line between egotism and prosocial behaviour such as helping, cooperating and sharing. But one might remark that Hobbes’ adagio “Homo homini lupus est”, is pretty the way our neo-liberal society is organized.

This self-enhancing behaviour at all costs is very similar to the strategy used by conspiracist do defend their cause. You can read about this self-enhancing behaviour of narcissists it in a study of Keith Campbell, Glenn Reeder, Constantine Sedikides, Andrew J. Elliot ‘Narcissism and Comparative Self-Enhancement Strategies’. Conspiracy theorists are not likely to be persuaded by an attempt to dispel their theories; they may even characterize that very attempt as further proof of the conspiracy.

Christopher Carpenter at the university of Illinois has established a direct link between the number of friends one has have on Facebook and self-promoting behaviours. The research revealed that the higher someone scored on aspects of grandiose exhibitionism, the greater the number of friends they had on Facebook, with some amassing more than 800. Narcissists respond more aggressively to derogatory comments made about them.  He stated:

“If Facebook is to be a place where people go to repair their damaged ego and seek social support, it is vitally important to discover the potentially negative communication one might find on Facebook and the kinds of people likely to engage in them.”

This detour adds to the understanding of monological and dialogical worldviews. A narcissist looks at the world from one angle, while a nonnarcissist is able to see things from different angles thanks to empathy.

Self-reinforcing  filter bubbles and plenty of rumours

A filter bubble is a term coined by internet activist Eli Pariser in his book by the same name to describe a phenomenon in which websites use algorithms to selectively guess what information a user would like to see, based on information about the user, such as location, past click behaviour and search history. As a result, websites tend to show only information which agrees with the user’s past viewpoint, effectively isolating the user in a bubble that tends to exclude contrary information. In ‘The Filter Bubble’ he calls it a self-reinforcing world view:

“The increasing personalisation of information by search engines such as Google threatens to limit our access to information and enclose us in a self-reinforcing world view”,

We just get more from what we were looking for based on our previous search profile. When feeling uncertain, looking for answers on Google is not a good idea, because a presumption gets confirmed over and over again encapsulating us in our fear instead of opening our minds. The same happens with Facebook’s personalized news stream.

Paul Hitlin in his study ‘False Reporting on the Internet and the Spread of Rumors:Three Case Studies’ (2003) claims that public opinion can often be influenced as much from rumours on sites with little credibility as it can from more mainstream sources. He attributes false reporting on the Internet to four factors:

  • The Need for Speed
  • The Desire to Attract ‘Hits’
  • Political Gains
  • Attraction to Scandal

Since the avenue of Internet the presentation of conspiracy theories has moved from little newsletters and journals to large audience radio talk shows and magazines and, at the same time, from identifying “secret teams” of CIA operatives to all-powerful networks of Arab financiers and worldwide Jewish bankers’ fraternities.

The Internet is the new play-ground for conspiracist ideation:

“The decentred nature of the Net could also be seen to be significant in this regard in that it enables conspiracy theorists to present their ideas as equivalent to, or better than, those of mainstream thinkers in a notably narcissistic and self aggrandising manner.” (Ballinger, 2011, p. 253)


The Machiavellian twist underlying conspiracy theories

Karen M. Douglas and Robbie M. Sutton at the University of Kent went one step further. In their study entitled ‘Does it take one to know one? Endorsement of conspiracy theories is influenced by personal willingness to conspire’ (2011), they conducted two studies.

First 189 Participants were asked to complete a Machiavelli scale where they read 20 statements (e.g., ‘Never tell anyone the real reason you did something unless it is useful to do so’) and rated their agreement with each statement on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 6 (strongly agree). Participants were then asked to read a series of conspiracy theory statements adapted from previous research.

This resulted in the conclusion that endorsement of conspiracy theories is influenced by a personal willingness to conspire. As you can see in the diagram below the association between Machiavellianism and endorsement of conspiracy theories is fully mediated by participants’ personal willingness to conspire.

To double check their conclusion they conducted a second study. Participants in the experimental condition were asked to think of, and write about a time where they helped another person while participants in the control group proceeded directly to the next section. So instead of measuring their moral disposition it was manipulated directly.

Participants were then asked to read the conspiracy theory statements as in first study and again rate (a) their willingness to engage in each conspiracy and (b) how much they endorse each theory.

They found that the effect of moral prime on endorsement of conspiracy theories is fully mediated by participants’ personal willingness to conspire. They conclude:

“Together, these studies suggest that people who have more lax personal morality may endorse conspiracy theories to a greater extent because they are, on average, more willing to participate in the conspiracies themselves.” (Douglas and Sutton, p. 7).

Douglas and Sutton aren’t denying that fear avoidance plays a role in adapting conspiracy theories, but they’re pointing to a different phenomenon. In some cases, they argue, belief in conspiracies is a matter of psychological projection — that is, the tendency to apply one’s own attitude to others. (Douglas and Sutton, p. 8)

Taken together a monological belief system and  the willingness to conspire might indicate that conspiracists look at communication solely as a power struggle.

Karen Douglas summarizes the research of her team in this video


Ballinger, Dean, (2011), ‘Conspiratoria – the Internet and the Logic of Conspiracy Theory’,  University of Waikato, Available at, accessed August 9, 2012

Campbell, Keith, Reeder, Glenn, Sedikides, Constantine, Elliot, Andrew J., (2000), ‘Narcissism and Comparative Self-Enhancement Strategies’, Journal of Research in Personality 34, 329–347, Available at, accessed July 29, 2012

Carpenter, Christopher J., (2012), ‘Narcissism on Facebook: Self-promotional and anti-social behavior’, Personality and Individual Differences 52 (2012) 482–486, Available at, accessed July 29, 2012

Douglas, Karen M. and Sutton, Robbie M., (2001), ‘Does it take one to know one? Endorsement of conspiracy theories is influenced by personal willingness to conspire’, British Journal of Social Psychology (2011), Available at, accessed July 24, 2012

Goertzel, Ben, (1994) ‘Chaotic Logic. Language, Thought and Reality From the Perspective of Complex Systems Science’, Plenum Press, Available at, accessed July 25, 2012

Goertzel, Ted, (1994),  ‘Belief in Conspiracy Theories’, Political Psychology 15: 733-744,  Available at, accessed July 25, 2012

Hitlin, Paul, (2003), ‘False Reporting on the Internet and the Spread of Rumors:Three Case Studies’, Gnovis, Georgetown University’s peer-reviewed Journal of Communication, Culture & Technology (CCT), Volume IV,, accessed July 25, 2012

Swami, Viren and Coles, Rebecca, (2010), ‘The truth is out there’, The Psychologist, Volume 23 – Part 7 (July 2010), Available at, accessed July 26, 2012

Twenge, Jean M., Konrath, Sara, Foster, Joshua D., W.,  Campbell, Keith and Bushman, Brad J., (2008), ‘Egos Inflating Over Time: A Cross-Temporal Meta-Analysis of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory’, Journal of Personality 76:4, August 2008, Available at, accessed July 29, 2012

Whitson, Jennifer A. and Galinsky, Adam D., (2008), ‘Lacking Control Increases Illusory Pattern Perception’, Science 322, 115 (2008), DOI: 10.1126/science.1159845,  Available at , accessed July 25, 2012

Wood, Michael J., Douglas, Karen M. and Sutton, Robbie M. (2012), ‘Dead and Alive: Beliefs in Contradictory Conspiracy Theories’, Social Psychological and Personality Science published online 25 January 2012,DOI: 10.1177/1948550611434786, Available at , accessed July 24, 2012


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