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A Theory About Conspiracy Theories

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In a new study, psychologists tried to get a handle on the personality types that might be prone to outlandish beliefs.

More than 1 in 3 Americans believe that the Chinese government engineered the coronavirus as a weapon. Another third is convinced that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has exaggerated the threat of Covid-19 to undermine President Trump. The numbers come from a survey released on Sept. 21 by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. They may or may not taper off as communities begin to contain the virus. But they underscore a moment when a particular brand of conspiracy theory is emerging in the mainstream: A belief that the “official story” is in fact a Big Lie, being told by powerful, shadowy interests.

At its extremes, these theories include cannibals and satanic pedophiles, (courtesy of the so-called QAnon theory, circulating online); lizard-people, disguised as corporate leaders and celebrities (rooted in alien abduction stories and science fiction); and, in this year of the plague, evil scientists and governments, all conspiring to use Covid-19 for their own dark purposes.

Estimates of how many Americans firmly believe at least one discredited conspiracy theory hover around 50 percent, but that may be low. (To paraphrase a popular bumper sticker: If you don’t think someone is plotting against you, you’re not paying attention.) Still, psychologists do not have a good handle on the types of people who are prone to buy into Big Lie theories, especially the horror-film versions.

In the most comprehensive analysis to date of people who are prone to conspiracy beliefs, a research team in Atlanta sketched out several personality profiles that appear to be distinct. One is familiar: the injustice collector, impulsive and overconfident, who is eager to expose naïveté in everyone but him- or herself. Another is less familiar: a more solitary, anxious figure, moody and detached, perhaps including many who are older and living alone. The analysis also found, at the extremes, an element of real pathology — of a “personality disorder,” in the jargon of psychiatry.

“With all changes happening in politics, the polarization and lack of respect, conspiracy theories are playing a bigger role in people’s thinking and behavior possibly than ever,” said Shauna Bowes, a research psychologist at Emory University who led the study team. “And there was no consensus on the psychological bases of conspiracy beliefs. In this work, we tried to address that.”

Conspiracy theories are as old as human society

In the days when communities were small and vulnerable, being on guard for hidden plots was likely a matter of personal survival. In the modern era, scholars like Theodor Adorno and Richard Hofstadter have identified conspiracy beliefs and paranoia as central elements in political movements.

Psychologists have picked up the topic in earnest only in the past decade or so. Their findings have been piecemeal and roughly in line with common wisdom. People often adopt conspiracy beliefs as a balm for deep grievance. The theories afford some psychological ballast, a sense of control, an internal narrative to make sense of a world that seems senseless.

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 United States politics, 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.”

The Study

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. “Keep in mind, personality tests are not very good measures of things we don’t understand very well,” Ms. Bowes said. “You’re going to get a fuzzy picture, especially the first time through.” The personality features that were solidly linked to conspiracy beliefs included some usual suspects: entitlement, self-centered impulsivity, cold-heartedness, elevated levels of depressive moods and anxiousness (the moody figure, confined by age or circumstance). Another one emerged from the questionnaire that aimed to assess personality disorders — a pattern of thinking called “psychoticism.”

Psychoticism is a core feature of so-called schizo-typal personality disorder, characterized in part by “odd beliefs and magical thinking” and “paranoid ideation.” In the language of psychiatry, it is a milder form of full-blown psychosis, the recurrent delusional state that characterizes schizophrenia. It’s a pattern of magical thinking that goes well beyond garden variety superstition and usually comes across socially as disjointed, uncanny, or “off.”

What do we do?

In time, perhaps some scientist or therapist will try to slap a diagnosis on believers in Big Lie conspiracies that seem wildly out of line with reality. For now, Dr. Pennycook said, it is enough to know that, when distracted, people are far more likely to forward headlines and stories without vetting their sources much, if at all.

“As a rule, people don’t want to spread false content,” he said. “But at a time like this, when people are worried about the virus, headlines like ‘Vitamin C Cures Covid’ or ‘It’s All a Hoax’ tend to travel widely. Eventually, these things reach the Crazy Uncle, who then shares it” with his like-minded network.

Conspiracy theories about secret government plots will probably never go out of style, and at some level, they function as safeguards against real conspiracies, official and otherwise. As for the bloodsucking, cartoon versions, those are likely to be keepers too, the new research suggests. They have a core constituency, and in the digital era, its members are going to quickly find one another.