Do you think the referee always has it in for your team? What about a sneaking suspicion that aliens have already visited Earth?
“Everyone believes at least one conspiracy theory,” says sociologist Asbjørn Dyrendal from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU).
“These examples activate the same mechanisms that come into play when our thoughts build on themselves and turn into more entrenched conspiracy beliefs.”
In fact, the researchers of the new study – which looked at predictors of conspiracy theory belief – conclude that in small doses, such thinking is normal for all of us.
“It has become increasingly clear that belief in conspiracy theories is part of normal human psychology and built on necessary human capacities,” they explain in their paper.
“Conspiracy beliefs may be evoked by situational factors such as response to fear and uncertainty, and seem broadly tied to apprehension, aversion behaviour, and magical thinking.”
We are particularly vulnerable to believing what we think is right when our emotions are high and our identity is at stake. But there are many levels of conspiratorial thinking, and some can be incredibly dangerous.
Hence, it’s so important to understand why some people are much more invested in conspiracies than others.
To that end, the research team conducted a questionnaire during Northern Hemisphere autumn in 2016, asking 883 Norwegian students to answer questions to determine their thoughts on everything from paranormal beliefs to right-wing authoritarianism.
“In the current study, we test the relationships between a set of central validated predictors of belief in conspiracy theories, including schizotypal traits, paranormal beliefs, right wing authoritarianism, social dominance orientation, and conspiracy mentality,” they explain in their paper.
The researchers found that no one trait can reliably mark someone as a conspiracy theorist; instead, lots of small changes to these variables taken together will be what tips the scales.
Schizotypal traits can include things like paranoia, social anxiety, unconventional beliefs and strange thinking or behaviour, and the team found that this was the primary predictor of belief in conspiracy theories. However, it was mediated by four other predictors.
“The findings suggest that the effect of schizotypal traits on beliefs in conspiracy theories was fully mediated by several intermediate factors,” the team explains.
You can see what this looks like in the figure below:
For example, one of those predictors, social dominance orientation (SDO), measures a person’s support for group-based hierarchies. Those with high SDO believe that society needs to be structured with some having more resources and power over others, while low-SDO people believe societies should be structured with equality in mind.
In their model, the researchers found that high SDO was strongly associated with the conspiracy mentality, and more so in men than women.
“People who dislike equality and prefer hierarchy see themselves and their group as superior to others and believe more in conspiracy theories that are specifically about social out-groups,” Dyrendal says.
But the researchers also explain in an accompanying press release that quite a few of our preconceived notions about conspiracy theorists simply aren’t true.
“When we look at a large number of different conspiracy theories, we find no reliable gender differences in the average scores,” says Dyrendal.
Conspiracy theorists also aren’t poorer, and are only slightly less educated than those who don’t succumb to these types of thinking. However, the team “noticed that conspiracy theorists are somewhat more likely to find their news sources on social media.”
The strongest predictor of belief in conspiracy theories was conspiracy mentality – basically a belief that the world is full of all sorts of conspiracies. This is maybe a little unsurprising, but the result neatly aligns with earlier research in other countries.
“This is the first systematic study in Norway, a high-trust society with high egalitarian ideals and among the most gender-equal nations in the world,” the team notes.
“These cultural factors have the potential to modulate both the levels of belief in specific conspiracy theories and the intermediate-level mechanisms by which they are formed. Norway is therefore an interesting case on which to test earlier results.”
The research has been published in Personality and Individual Differences.