Conspiracy Theorists: Is the Truth Out There?

October 6, 2015 – 08:00 am

There is a conspiracy to hide the truth from us. What is the real story? Many people doubt, for example, the official story about the terrorist attacks of 9-11. Some people suspect there was another cause, a cover-up, a conspiracy. In a just published study, researchers have investigated not the 9-11 story, but instead the people who believe 9-11 conspiracy theories. The truth is out there.

Why do some people believe 9-11 conspiracy theories? Do they believe other conspiracy theories? Is there something about their belief systems or personalities that make them susceptible to unusual ideas and desirous of a different truth?

Swami, Chamorro-Premuzic, and Furnham have just published an investigation of 9-11 conspiracy theorists (in Applied Cognitive Psychology). They looked at several factors they suspected might be related, such as cynicism, support for democratic principles, attitudes toward authority, and the Big 5 personality traits (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism; it may not be the one you suspect, so read on!). They also looked at whether people accept other conspiracy theories (such as those concerning the JFK assassination, moon landings, etc.) and their ratings of how much exposure to conspiracy theories they had experienced (and I don't know if that meant they watched the Fox news channel).

The strongest predictor of belief in 9-11 conspiracies was belief in other conspiracies. To quote Swami and colleagues: "believing that John F. Kennedy was not killed by a lone gunman or that the Apollo moon landings were staged increases the chances that an individual will also believe 9-11 conspiracy theories." People build a consistent world view. For these conspiracy theorists, their consistent world view is that the truth is always being covered up. Although this may seem like an obvious finding in retrospect, this didn't have to be true. People could have picked their conspiracy theories based on their political views - then these notions would not have all hung together. But no, people who believe some conspiracy theories are more likely to accept new conspiracy theories.


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