Who believes in conspiracies? Research offers a theory

generic conspiracy beliefs. By examining multiple traits simultaneously, the pair could determine which ones were most important.

“Our results clearly showed that the strongest predictor of conspiracy belief was a constellation of personality characteristics collectively referred to as ‘schizotypy,’ Hart said.

The trait borrows its name from schizophrenia, but it does not imply a clinical diagnosis.

Hart’s study also showed that conspiracists had distinct cognitive tendencies: they were more likely than nonbelievers to judge nonsensical statements as profound (a tendency known as “BS receptivity”).

In turn, they were more likely to say that nonhuman objects — triangle shapes moving around on a computer screen — were acting intentionally.

“In other words, they inferred meaning and motive where others did not,” he said.

So what does this all mean?

“First, it helps to realize that conspiracy theories differ from other worldviews in that they are fundamentally gloomy,” Hart said. “This sets them apart from the typically uplifting messages conveyed by, say, religious and spiritual beliefs. At first blush this is a conundrum. However, if you are the type of person who looks out at the world and sees a chaotic, malevolent landscape full of senseless injustice and suffering, then perhaps there is a modicum of comfort to be found in the notion that there is someone, or some small group of people, responsible for it all. If ‘there’s something going on,’ then at least there is something that could be done about it.”

Hart hopes the research advances the understanding of why some people are more attracted to conspiracy theories than others. But he said it is important to note that the study doesn’t address whether or not conspiracy theories are true.

“After Watergate, the American public learned that seemingly outlandish speculation about the machinations of powerful actors is sometimes right on the money,” he said. “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.

“Either way, it is important to realize that when reality is ambiguous, our personalities and cognitive biases cause us to adopt the beliefs that we do. This knowledge can help us understand our own intuitions.”

— Read more in Joshua Hart and Molly Graether, “Something’s Going on Here: Psychological Predictors of Belief in Conspiracy Theories,” Journal of Individual Differences (2 August 218) (doi: 10.1027/1614-0001/a000268); and Joshua Hart, “Something’s going on here: Building a comprehensive profile of conspiracy thinkers,” The Conversation (24 September 2018)