Believing widely doubted conspiracy theories satisfies some people’s need to feel special

Simon Oxenham

Unrelenting faith in the face of insurmountable contradictory evidence is a trait of believers in conspiracy theories that has long confounded researchers. For instance, past research has demonstrated how attempting to use evidence to sway believers of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories can backfire, increasing their certainty in the conspiracy. Could it also be the case that knowing that most people doubt a conspiracy actually makes believing in it more appealing, by fostering in the believer a sense of being somehow special? This question was explored recently in the European Journal of Social Psychology by Roland Imhoff and Pia Karoline Lamberty at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany.

The researchers first asked a sample of 238 US participants recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk survey website to complete a self-reported “Need For Uniqueness” scale (they rated their agreement with items like “being distinctive is extremely important to me”) and a Conspiracy Mentality scale (e.g. “Most people do not see how much our lives are determined by plots hatched in secret.”) before indicating whether or not they believed in a list of 99 conspiracy theories circulating online. Endorsement of the different conspiracy theories was highly correlated: belief in one conspiracy theory meant beliefs in others would be more likely. Participants’ self-reported Need For Uniqueness also correlated with their stronger endorsement of the conspiracy beliefs.

The second study replicated this finding with a further 465 Mechanical Turk participants based in the US, but this time half the sample read a list of the five most well known conspiracy theories and the five least known ones, whereas the other half of the group read the five most popular conspiracy theories and the five least popular. Again, self-reported Need For Uniqueness correlated with stronger agreement with the various conspiracy theories. It’s not clear from these findings whether need for uniqueness was really driving greater conspiracy endorsement so the researchers devised a third experiment to test this.

Note, the conspiracy theory that featured in this final experiment was entirely made-up by the researchers. This content warning may seem excessive but as the results show, it really is necessary. The conspiracy theory was about smoke detectors and the claim was that they produce dangerous hypersound. The researchers led half of 290 participants on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to believe that this was a popular conspiracy theory in Germany where it was alleged to be believed by 81 per cent of Germans. The rest of the participants were led to believe that the theory was doubted by 81 per cent of Germans.

While information about the popularity of the theory didn’t affect participants overall, it did impact those who said that they tended to endorse a lot of conspiracy theories. Among these conspiracy-prone participants, their belief in the made-up smoke detector conspiracy was enhanced on average when the conspiracy was framed as a minority opinion. Just as people are known to stop liking a band as soon as it becomes popular or “mainstream”, it appears conspiracy theorists can behave in a very similar fashion upon learning about the next big new conspiracy theory.

A final, unforeseen and particularly astounding finding emerged only after the participants had been debriefed. A full 25 per cent of the sample continued to retain beliefs in the made-up smoke detector conspiracy even after they had been told that the theory was false and had been made up by the researchers for the sole purpose of the study. Supporting the researchers’ conclusion further, this continued belief in the made-up conspiracy theory was correlated with the participants’ self-reported Need For Uniqueness. Taken together, the findings provide convincing evidence that some people are motivated to agree with conspiracy theories with an aura of exclusiveness. To them it may not matter in the slightest that their views are in the minority, to the contrary this knowledge could actually amplify their beliefs.

So how can dangerous conspiracy theories be tackled? By coincidence, another recent paper, this one authored by Daniel Jolley at Staffordshire University and Karen Douglas at the University of Kent, attempted to solve this problem. Focusing on anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, the researchers found that exactly like the role of vaccines themselves, prevention is better than cure. They showed 267 participants recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk conspiracy theories and anti-conspiracy arguments in different orders. Participants’ intentions to vaccinate were greater when the they were “inoculated” with anti-conspiracy arguments prior to reading the conspiracy theories, as compared with reading the same anti-conspiracy arguments after reading conspiracy theories. The research supports the observation by Stephan Lewandowsky, and his colleagues that misinformation is “sticky” – it can be incredibly difficult to counter. The new findings suggest that popular conspiracy theories may be best dealt with through early education that debunks dangerous conspiracy beliefs before they have the opportunity to take hold in the wild.

Too special to be duped: Need for uniqueness motivates conspiracy beliefs
Prevention is better than cure: Addressing anti-vaccine conspiracy theories

Post written by Simon Oxenham for the BPS Research Digest. Simon covers psychology and neuroscience critically in his Brain Scanner column at New Scientist. Follow @simoxenham on TwitterFacebook and Google+RSS or on his mailing list.