It turns out that conspiracy theorists aren’t the isolated loners you might expect.
In fact, for some people with a high level of personal uncertainty, believing in conspiracy theories is closely tied to a concern over the survival of their community, according to a study out of VU University Amsterdam and The Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement.
These conclusions come from a pair of related experiments conducted by psychologist Jan-Willem van Prooijen and described in a 2015 issue of the European Journal of Social Psychology. The experiments showed that it’s possible to manipulate a person’s susceptibility to conspiratorial beliefs by changing their sense of belonging in a community.
The experiments both followed a similar set-up. Participants were told that they would be participating in a series of three unrelated experiments. The first phase of the experiment was designed to measure participants’ level of self-esteem instability, or how uncertain people feel about themselves and their place in the world. In Study 1, this involved participants ranking items such as “I notice how I feel about myself changes from day to day” and “On the whole, I am satisfied with myself.” In Study 2, self-esteem was actually manipulated by asking participants to recall a situation in their life where they had felt either very certain or very uncertain about themselves.
The second phase of the experiment was similar in both Study 1 and Study 2 and designed to change how connected participants felt to their community. It had participants imagine their future 20 years from now and rank their mood on a slider. Some participants were told to imagine a future “where their life partner had left them years ago, they were deserted throughout the years by all their friends and had not made any new friends.” Others were told to imagine a future in which “they had a long and lasting relationship, still were regularly in touch with most of their current friends, and through the years had also met many new friends.”
The final phase of the experiment measured beliefs in conspiracy theories. In both Study 1 and Study 2, participants read two short news articles providing factual information about two topics on which people have different opinions. The articles in Study 1 discussed the NATO military intervention in Libya in 2011 and climate change. The articles in Study 2 discussed oil companies and the financial crisis.
Participants were then asked questions designed to measure how much they subscribed to conspiracy theories regarding the topics. For instance, in Study 1, participants were asked “How probable is it that financial motives contribute to the decision to intervene in Libya?” and “Do you believe that national governments deliberately withhold information about global warming?” Participants in Study 2 were asked how much they agreed that “[o]il companies deliberately create fear about oil supplies running down” and “[a]lthough banks and governments knew the financial crisis was coming, they deliberately did nothing to prevent it.”
Previous research has suggested that “people believe more strongly in conspiracy theories when they experience uncertainty about the self,” but these experiments also showed that how connected a person feels to his/her community plays a role in how susceptible he/she is to these beliefs.
Interestingly, for participants with lower levels of self-certainty, imagining a future in which they are happily connected to others increased the likelihood that they would adhere to conspiracy theories.
People who are more uncertain about themselves tend to be more suspicious of others in general and are more susceptible to feelings of exclusion than people who are more certain about themselves. When this happens, uncertain people feel less connected to others and care less about what happens to them.
However, “belongingness cues may instill a sense of shared fate with others,” and this sense of threat to the group combined with a suspicious mind makes conspiracy theories appealing to uncertain people as they try to make sense of things like disasters and war.
“Conspiracy beliefs actually emerge from social motives, namely a genuine concern for other people that are victimized, endangered, deceived, or otherwise threatened by impactful and potentially harmful societal development,” van Prooihen explains.
However, van Prooihen cautions that this concern doesn’t diminish the potentially dangerous implications of conspiracy theories. “’[S]ocial’ motives do not mean universally ‘benevolent’ motives,” he warns. “[A] social concern for one group can result in hostility towards other, competing groups,” such as happens with political extremism and xenophobia.
Jan-Willem van Prooijen, VU University Amsterdam and The Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement