Almost every office has one conspiracy theorist, infecting the workspace with gossip and wild claims. For some of these gossipers, the more outlandish the rumor, the more they believe it as fact. Science now has an answer as to why this may be.
A new study in the European Journal of Social Psychology found that a need to be special and unique drives people to believe conspiracy theories. Researchers recruited more than 200 U.S. participants through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk website to participate in three studies on the subject. Participants were asked how much they believed in statements like, “Most people do not see how much our lives are determined by plots hatched in secret.” Those that strongly agreed that we live in a shadow world of predetermined choices and duplicitous actors were considered conspiracy theorists.
Study: The more unique you want to be, the more likely you are a conspiracy theorist
What researchers found is that participants who self-reported as wanting to be special were also more likely to entertain irrational conspiracy theories not grounded in facts. In fact, to highlight this, the researchers created a final experiment with an entirely made-up conspiracy theory. They got 108 participants to read a fake article that said some people believed smoke detectors were causing severe side effects on people’s health due to the “hypersound” they emitted. To be clear, there is no such thing as dangerous hypersound in smoke detectors, but the conspiracy theorists in the experiment bought it.
Conspiracy theorists believe in conspiracies more if majority opinion doesn’t believe in them
The article included a fake poll to see if conspiracy theorists could be swayed by majority opinion. Half of group read that the smoke detector conspiracy was believed by 81% of Germans, while the other half read that the conspiracy was doubted by 81% of Germans. The conspiracy theorists in the study were more likely to believe this wacky study if they read that it was a minority opinion. The conspiracy theorists in the experiment were also the same ones identifying a high need for uniqueness in their surveys.
This further proves the researchers’ point that a need to be special may be a motivating factor driving conspiracy theorists. Conspiracy theories don’t want to believe a claim that’s gone mainstream. That would make them one doubter amongst many and take away their special skeptic identity.
“This effectively shields their worldview from invalidation as the less the public and powerful agents agree with a certain theory, the more convincing they believe it to be,” the study states.
Once a smoke detector truther, always a smoke detector truther
These findings have ironic implications for officials and bosses who use numbers and statistics to try to convince conspiracy theorists. The more you say that a theory is incorrect, the more likely a conspiracy theorist will doubt you.
Just look at what happened to participants in the fake smoke detector study. Worryingly, 25% of participants who identified as conspiracy theorists continued to believe in this smoke detector conspiracy even after researchers debriefed them and told them the study and polls were fake. Once a smoke detector truther, always a smoke detector truther.
Wanting to believe in outlandish rumors certainly helps you stand out from a crowd — but it won’t get you the kind of attention you necessarily want. Being a conspiracy theorist who won’t listen to data and fact will come at a professional cost to jobs, promotions, and relationships.