Metropolitan Digital

The Conversation

  • Written by Joshua Hart, Associate Professor of Psychology, Union College

Here’s a theory: President Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Here’s another: Climate change is a hoax. Here’s one more: The “deep state” spied on Donald Trump’s campaign, and is now trying to destroy his presidency.

Who believes this stuff? Conspiracy theories have been cooked up for ages, but for the first time in history, we have a president who has regularly endorsed them[1]. Assuming that President Donald Trump’s preoccupation is genuine, he shares it with many fellow Americans. What explains it?

I’m a psychologist who studies[2], among other things, people’s worldviews and belief systems. I wanted to figure out why some people gobble up conspiratorial explanations, while others dismiss them as the raving of lunatics.

Something's going on here: Building a comprehensive profile of conspiracy thinkers In 2012, Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office investigator Mike Zullo announced in Phoenix that President Obama’s birth certificate was a forgery. AP/Matt York

Consistency in views

By and large, people gravitate toward conspiracy theories that seem to affirm or validate their political views. Republicans are vastly more likely than Democrats to believe[3] the Obama “birther” theory or that climate change is a hoax[4]. Democrats are more likely to believe that Trump’s campaign “colluded”[5] with the Russians.

But some people are habitual conspiracists[6] who entertain a variety of generic conspiracy theories.

For example, they believe that world politics are controlled by a cabal instead of governments, or that scientists systematically deceive the public. This indicates that personality or other individual differences might be at play.

In fact, some people seem to be downright devoted to conspiracy theories. When conspiracy maven Alex Jones’ content[7] was recently banned from several social media websites, the popularity of his Infowars news app skyrocketed[8].

Scientific research examining the nature of the “conspiratorial disposition” is abundant, but scattershot. So in a pair of new studies[9], and with help from my student Molly Graether, I tried to build on previous research to piece together a more comprehensive profile of the typical conspiracy theory believer, and for that matter, the typical non-believer.

Common traits

We asked more than 1,200 American adults to provide extensive information about themselves and whether they agreed with generic conspiratorial statements. We tried to measure as many personal factors as possible that had been previously linked to conspiracy belief. Looking at many traits simultaneously would allow us to determine, all else being equal, which ones were most important.

Consistent with previous research[10], we found that one major predictor of conspiracy belief was “schizotypy[11].” That’s a constellation of traits that include a tendency to be relatively untrusting, ideologically eccentric and prone to having unusual perceptual experiences (e.g., sensing stimuli that are not actually present). The trait borrows its name from schizophrenia, but it does not imply a clinical diagnosis.

Schizotypy is the strongest predictor of conspiracy belief. In addition to experiencing the world in unusual ways, we found that people higher in schizotypy have an elevated need to feel unique[12], which has previously been linked with conspiracism. Why? Probably because believing in non-mainstream ideas allows people to stand out from their peers, but at the same time take refuge in a community of like-minded believers.

In our studies, conspiracy believers were also disproportionately concerned that the world is a dangerous place. For example, they were more likely to agree that “all the signs” are pointing to imminent chaos.

Finally, conspiracists had distinct cognitive tendencies: They were more likely than nonbelievers to judge nonsensical statements as profound – for example, “wholeness quiets infinite phenomena”[13] – a tendency cheekily known as “bullshit receptivity[14].”

They were also more likely to say that nonhuman objects – triangle shapes moving around on a computer screen – were acting intentionally, as though they were capable of having thoughts and goals they were trying to accomplish.

In other words, they inferred meaning and motive where others did not.

Something's going on here: Building a comprehensive profile of conspiracy thinkers Donald Trump spoke in his inaugural speech about ‘American carnage.’ Reuters/Rick Wilking

Is Trump a conspiracy thinker?

Although we can’t know how he would score on our questionnaires, President Trump’s public statements and behavior suggest that he fits the profile fairly well.

First, he does display some schizotypal characteristics. He is famously untrusting of others. Donald Trump Jr. has described how his father used to admonish him in kindergarten[15] not to trust anyone under any circumstances. The elder Trump is also relatively eccentric. He is a unique politician who doesn’t hew consistently to party lines or political norms[16]. He has espoused unusual ideas, including the theory that people have a limited lifetime reservoir of energy that physical exercise depletes[17].

President Trump also seems to see the world as a dangerous place. His campaign speeches warned about murderous rapist immigrants[18] flooding across the border and black communities being in “the worst shape”[19] they’ve ever been. His inauguration address described a hellish landscape of “American carnage[20].”

Chaos needs comfort

The dismal nature of most conspiracy theories presents a puzzle to psychologists who study beliefs, because most belief systems – think religion – are fundamentally optimistic and uplifting. Psychologists have found that people tend to adopt such beliefs in part because they fulfill emotional goals[21], such as the need to feel good about oneself and the world. Conspiracy theories don’t seem to fit this mold.

Then again, if you are a person who looks at the world and sees chaos and malevolence, perhaps there is comfort in the notion that there is someone to blame. If “there’s something going on,” then there is something that could be done about it.

Perhaps, then, even the darkest and most bizarre conspiracy theories offer a glint of hope for some people.

Take the “QAnon[22]” theory that has recently received a flurry of media attention. This theory features a nightmare of pedophile rings and satanic cults. But some adherents have adopted a version of the theory that President Trump has it all under control[23].

If our research advances the understanding of why some people are more attracted to conspiracy theories than others, it is important to note that it says nothing about whether or not conspiracy theories are true.

After the Watergate scandal[24] brought down a president for participating in a criminal conspiracy, the American public learned that seemingly outlandish speculation about the machinations of powerful actors is sometimes right on the money.

And when a conspiracy is real, people with a conspiracist mindset may be among the first to pick up on it – while others get duped. The rub is that the rest of the time, they might be duping themselves.

References

  1. ^ regularly endorsed them (www.nytimes.com)
  2. ^ a psychologist who studies (muse.union.edu)
  3. ^ believe (www.nbcnews.com)
  4. ^ climate change is a hoax (calthomas.com)
  5. ^ “colluded” (nymag.com)
  6. ^ habitual conspiracists (journals.sagepub.com)
  7. ^ Alex Jones’ content (www.washingtonpost.com)
  8. ^ skyrocketed (www.nytimes.com)
  9. ^ pair of new studies (econtent.hogrefe.com)
  10. ^ previous research (www.sciencedirect.com)
  11. ^ schizotypy (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  12. ^ need to feel unique (onlinelibrary.wiley.com)
  13. ^ “wholeness quiets infinite phenomena” (www.washingtonpost.com)
  14. ^ bullshit receptivity (papers.ssrn.com)
  15. ^ in kindergarten (www.newyorker.com)
  16. ^ party lines or political norms (www.dallasnews.com)
  17. ^ physical exercise depletes (www.theatlantic.com)
  18. ^ murderous rapist immigrants (www.nytimes.com)
  19. ^ “the worst shape” (www.washingtonpost.com)
  20. ^ American carnage (www.whitehouse.gov)
  21. ^ fulfill emotional goals (journals.sagepub.com)
  22. ^ QAnon (www.nbcnews.com)
  23. ^ under control (www.vox.com)
  24. ^ Watergate scandal (www.history.com)

Authors: Joshua Hart, Associate Professor of Psychology, Union College

Read more http://theconversation.com/somethings-going-on-here-building-a-comprehensive-profile-of-conspiracy-thinkers-101287

Metropolitan republishes selected articles from The Conversation USA with permission

Visit The Conversation to see more

Entertainment News

Phish’s 2018 Fall Tour to Conclude with Four Performances at MGM Grand Garden Arena

LAS VEGAS (May 15, 2018) – Phish, the American rock band known worldwide for its dedicated fan base, recently announced a 14-date Fall tour which will conclude in Las Vegas with four performances at...

Dave Damiani and The No Vacancy Orchestra are “Bending The Standard”

Tina Sinatra, Dave Damiani & Landau Murphy Jr. celebrate 100 years of Frank Sinatra in Los Angeles There have been stories about independent filmmakers, but how about the independent big band...

Billboard Chart-Topping Saxophonist VANDELL ANDREW Returns With New Single

From the vantage point of 30, his age and the name of his infectious, sensually grooving new full length album, Vandell continues to be fueled by the impressive roar of accolades and achievements th...

Metropolitan Business News

Marketing Impact of Having Online Product Reviews

Whether they are searching online for a service or a specific product, in many cases customers tend to look for online product reviews. They often want to make a comparison to other products or simply...

NYC-BASED PUBLIC TELECOM GIANT TCC TELEPLEX LAUNCHES

“TOMORROW’S HIGH TECH DIGITAL NETWORK TODAY” WITH ITS REVOLUTIONARY, MULT-MEDIA AND SERVICES DRIVEN IAP “EVERYTHING” KIOSK The TCC Teleplex IAP Kiosks Include a High-Res 360-Degree Webcam, a 22-...

HOW TO PREPARE FOR RETIREMENT: Finding and Living Your “It”

The name of my Woburn, MA financial services firm is Summit Financial Partners for a very good reason – because the clients I work with have either reached their retirement summit (i.e. they’re ready ...

How to build a distinctive Brand Voice

Nearly four decades ago, I made a presentation that captured considerable attention in the marketing community. The subject was ‘Brand Voice.’ The concept is widely used today by branding profess...

ADROLL RELAUNCHES BRAND WITH NEW COMPANY VISION

AdRoll, the growth platform for ambitious commerce businesses, has today announced an exciting new phase in the evolution of the AdRoll brand for its 37,000 customers worldwide. Recognising its uniq...

Global Shop Solutions Customer Load King Goes Live with Manufacturing Factory of the Future

THE WOODLANDS, TX, February 22, 2018 – After nearly 9 months of preparation, Load King, a world leader in store fixture manufacturing, has successfully finished their manufacturing factory of the fu...