New research illuminates the motivations and personality traits of conspiracy theorists

By Lisa Marie Basile | Fact-checked by Jessica Wrubel
Published June 28, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Research out of Emory University’s Clinical Psychology Doctoral Program explored the motivational and personological correlates of conspiracy theorists; this research follows a recent boom in interest in the topic.

  • A need to understand one’s environment, find security and safety, and holding a superior self-image and of one’s ingroup are correlates related to a belief in conspiracy theories. 

  • The research found that conspiracy theorists tend to be insecure and experience mood swings, using conspiracies to fulfill motivational needs and filter their own anxieties and vulnerabilities.

New research from Shauna M. Bowes, et al as part of Emory University’s Clinical Psychology Doctoral Program explored the motivations and personality underpinnings related to “conspiratorial ideation.”[]

This multi-level meta-analytical review synthesized material from 170 studies and 158,473 participants, along with additional data, as conspiratorial ideation is everywhere, according to the study authors. The number of studies on conspiracy beliefs increased by more than 150% in 2021 from 2020 alone—likely connected to COVID-19 conspiracy theories.[] 

Early research into polarization and bias

Bowes tells MDLinx that her interest in conspiratorial thinking dates back even further, however. It was her late PhD advisor—Scott Lilienfeld, professor of psychology at Emory University—who encouraged her research, which focused on polarization and bias, beginning in her first year of graduate school.

“Through exploring these topics, I grew fascinated by conspiratorial ideation. I want to understand how people form strong, albeit erroneous beliefs," she says. 

"In so doing, my ultimate goal is to identify ways to help people build humility and orient to accuracy."

Shauna M. Bowes

The research collected data primarily from the US, UK, and Poland, and drew from extensive prior research. “Although motivation and personality are deeply intertwined, research in the domain of conspiratorial ideation has largely pursued these two lines of work in parallel,” Bowes wrote in the study. “As a result, there is considerable heterogeneity across frameworks of conspiratorial ideation and often little overlap between these frameworks.”

Some of those frameworks, Bowes says, focus entirely on the personological constructs, while others don’t emphasize them at all. Yet other research looks at motivation and personological traits together in a “piecemeal fashion.” 

“It is important to consider why people think, feel, and act the way they do,” Bowes says. “After all, personality may be born out of motivation.” 

In the study, she indicated that examining both motivation and personality aimed to design “effective interventions for reducing conspiratorial ideation, as both the ‘what’ (descriptive/structural) and the ‘how’ (explanatory/process-oriented) will be considered by targeting broad areas of liability.” Thus, this research, Bowes wrote, provides the most comprehensive overview of belief in conspiracy theory. 

What is a conspiracy theory—and how can we separate it from the truth?

Bowes wrote that scholars still haven’t found a succinct answer to this question, but that there is a general consensus surrounding the core features of conspiracy theories. Essentially, conspiracy theories “refer to causal explanations of events that ascribe blame to a group of powerful individuals (the conspirators) who operate in secret to form hidden plans that benefit themselves and harm the common good.” 

Conspiracy theories, by definition, focus on a few key elements: conspirators, hidden plans, and malintent against others or society.

This definition is not conditional; it’s the same whether the theory is false or true. “Conspiratorial ideation, therefore, refers to a tendency to endorse conspiracy theories,” Bowes clarified in the study.

Correlates associated with conspiracy theories

“Conspiracy theorists are not all likely to be simple-minded, mentally unwell folks—a portrait which is routinely painted in popular culture,” Bowes told Newswise.[] “Instead, many turn to conspiracy theories to fulfill deprived motivational needs and make sense of distress and impairment.”

Bowes’ research found that conspiratorial ideation was more strongly related to abnormal traits than normal traits.

Specifically, Bowes found that individuals who engage in conspiratorial ideation are more likely to be “insecure, emotionally labile, suspicious of others, withdrawn, manipulative, callous, irresponsible, impulsive, egocentric, and eccentric.”

Individuals who engage in conspiratorial beliefs, Bowes wrote in the study, tend to be narcissistic—stemming from a “complex blend of overconfidence and vulnerability,” needing to have access to “secret knowledge” that others don’t have. 

Additionally, Bowes found, the strongest abnormal-range correlates of conspiratorial ideation include “schizotypy, paranoia, tendencies to have unusual experiences, trait psychoticism, and hostility”—constructs that indicate individuals believe others harbor malintent, while also believing that all events have a personal meaning, along with “odd perceptual and cognitive experiences.”

The tripartite motivational model

Relating to motivation, the research results support the tripartite motivational model of conspiratorial ideation, which includes three variables: the epistemic, the existential, and the social—which Bowes says were all medium correlates of conspiratorial ideation. 

Essentially, Bowes’ research validates the tripartite model’s core hypothesis. This includes the fact that individuals need to feel secure and safe in one’s environment, and need to maintain a superior, but fragile, image of oneself and one’s ingroup. When deprived of these elements, individuals are more likely to engage in conspiratorial thinking. 

One example of existential threat, Bowes writes, pertains to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks being “orchestrated by the American government rather than an extremist group.” If people believe this, then they can “spread the word and prevent such an attack from happening again by voting for the ‘right’ politicians,” she wrote in the study.

Furthermore, “the two largest correlations between conspiratorial ideation and any of the motivational constructs assessed in our meta-analysis were in the social domain,” Bowes wrote. These two correlates? Trust (the largest negative correlate) and social threat perception (the largest positive correlate). 

“I thought it was incredibly interesting and important that the two largest correlates of conspiratorial ideation fell within the social motivational domain: Trust was the largest negative correlate (more trust, less conspiratorial ideation) and social threat perception was the largest positive correlate (more social threat perception, more conspiratorial ideation),” Bowes tells MDLinx. “These results suggest that social motivations may be particularly important for understanding conspiratorial ideation.”

In both the motivational and personological areas, “there was considerable heterogeneity in the domain-level relation between psychopathology and conspiratorial ideation, indicating that a more fine-grained discussion of our findings is warranted,” Bowes wrote in the study.

“I expected the psychology of conspiratorial ideation to be complex and vast, [but] I was surprised about how complex and vast it turned out to be,” Bowes tells MDLinx.

Bowes notes that perhaps the individuals who engage in conspiracy theories are both somehow compelled to uphold their thinking while also being distressed by their own perception.

Going forward, “if researchers can work together to intentionally slice different pieces of the pie, then it will be possible to get a comprehensive understanding of the descriptive and explanatory processes giving rise to conspiratorial ideation,” Bowes wrote in the study.

Additionally, she added, future research should aim to identify who conspiracy theorists are in the real world while also identifying how conspiratorial ideation arises—and if it even satisfies an individual's psychological needs. 

How can HCPs work with patients who engage in conspiracy theories?

John Dolores, PhD, JD, FACHE, clinical psychologist and chief operating officer at Bespoke Treatment, tells MDLinx that psychologists and mental health professionals can use “empathic listening” to better understand their patients. 

"Creating a safe and non-judgmental space enables individuals to freely express their thoughts and conspiracy beliefs without feeling interrogated or judged."

John Dolores, PhD, JD, FACHE

“This approach not only validates their emotions and experiences but also paves the way for introspection and potential corrections in perspective,” he says.

He recommends cognitive behavioral therapy as a way of delving into the underlying cognitive processes influencing a patient’s belief systems. “Through a structured and evidence-based approach, this technique can foster more productive collaboration between the professional and the patient and lead to greater efficiency of the overall psychological intervention,” he says. 

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