Are people with certain personality traits more likely to believe conspiracy theories?: What we do and don’t know about who believes conspiracy theories.
August 15, 2023
Note: This post originally appeared on Psychology Today.
For a long time, people were asking whether certain demographic traits are associated with higher risks of believing in conspiracy theories. For example, there is plenty of literature trying to suss out whether males or females, older or younger people, people with more or less education, among other demographic indicators, are more associated with high belief in conspiracy theories.
This research has been mixed at best, often displaying confusing signals going in opposite directions. In other words, one study might say older people are more likely to believe them while the next study says the opposite. In general, no consensus has been reached about the relationship of any of these traits to levels of belief in conspiracy theories. Even political affiliation is an unclear and unreliable signal of likelihood to believe in certain conspiracy theories.
In the past few months and years, new research has emerged that has suggested that perhaps we were misguided in our focus on demographic factors. In fact, a different way of approaching risk factors for belief in conspiracy theories has started to prove more significant: personality and motivational factors. Instead of looking at people like we normally do in epidemiological and psychological studies as members of certain demographic groups (male, female, white, Black, college-educated, not college educated, etc.), these studies have suggested that we need to start looking at people in terms of their personalities and their motivations.
One study just published in June 2023 puts a complex spin on our traditional ways of thinking about populations that subscribe to conspiracy theories. The study was an analysis of 170 studies with a total of 158,000 participants in the United States, United Kingdom, and Poland. The findings of the study were contrary to a common perception that people believe in conspiracy theories primarily as a way to control their uncontrollable environments. In fact, this was not a major motivator in this analysis. Instead, wanting their group to feel superior to other groups was a much more significant motivation to believe in conspiracy theories. In terms of personality traits, the researchers found a strong association between believing in conspiracy theories and the following traits: insecurity, paranoia, emotional volatility, and impulsivity. People with high levels of belief in conspiracy theories were also more likely to be manipulative, egocentric, and eccentric.
The literature on this question is far from settled. For example, the study just referenced found that the “Big Five” personality traits (extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism) did not seem to have a strong correlation with belief in conspiracy theories. A 2021 study of 500 undergraduates found that people who were more disagreeable and expressed a greater sense of a lack of control over their environments were more prone to conspiracy beliefs. Yet another 2022 study suggested that the Big Five personality traits are not really central to whether people believe in conspiracy theories but instead certain personality traits that are more in line with particular personality disorders, such as schizotypal personality disorder, were more influential.
The bottom line? We may not know all there is to know about conspiracy theories and the people who tend to believe them, but research over time has probably borne out the fact that we need to be thinking more broadly about relevant “types” of people than simply looking at demographics. It seems that the makeup of a conspiracy theorist is more complicated than traits we might immediately be able to ascertain by looking at someone or having a brief conversation. Instead, we need to continue to explore the dark depths of personality and motivation to truly understand what drives people to believe these faulty notions.