In fact, they were imparting genuinely interesting information — about themselves. New research suggests belief in such theories may reveal a Machiavellian mindset.
“At least among some samples and for some conspiracy theories, the perception that ‘they did it’ is fueled by the perception that ‘I would do it,’” University of Kent psychologists Karen Douglas and Robbie Sutton write in the British Journal of Social Psychology.
“These studies suggest that people who have more lax personal morality may endorse conspiracy theories to a greater extent because they are, on average, more willing to participate in the conspiracies themselves.”
The reasons people persist in believing conspiracy theories — even when there is overwhelming evidence debunking them — have long been debated by psychologists. One credible theory contends convincing ourselves of conspiracies allows us to avoid acknowledging the terrifying arbitrariness of life.
“In a strange way, some conspiracy theories offer us accounts of events that allow us to retain a sense of safety and predictability,” British psychologist Patrick Leman noted in New Scientist in 2007. “Instability makes most of us uncomfortable.”
Douglas and Sutton aren’t denying that fear avoidance plays a role, but they’re pointing to a different (perhaps complementary) phenomenon. In some cases, they argue, belief in conspiracies is a matter of psychological projection — that is, the tendency to apply one’s own attitude to others.
In one study, 189 British undergraduates completed the MACH-IV questionnaire to measure their level of Machiavellianism (that is, their tendency to deceive and manipulate others for personal gain). This involves expressing one’s level of agreement with a series of statements such as “The best way to handle people is to tell them what they want to hear.”
They then read a series of 17 statements describing well-known conspiracy theories and rated their plausibility on a 1-to-7 scale. They also rated the likelihood that, if they were in the shoes of the alleged conspirators, they would have taken part in the conspiracy.
The researchers found that “personal willingness to engage in the conspiracies predicted endorsement of conspiracy theories.” So did a propensity to manipulate others for personal gain.
“For example,” they write, “highly Machiavellian individuals were seemingly more likely to believe that government agents staged the 9/11 attacks because they were more likely to perceive that they would do so themselves, if [they found themselves] in the government’s position.”
A second study refined these results. A group of 60 undergraduates participated in the same experiment, but half of them were first asked “to spend a few minutes thinking of a time when they helped another person.”
Those who had been contemplating their own act of kindness were less likely to agree with the conspiracy theories — with the exception of those who scored high on the Machiavellian scale.
“We do not argue that projection alone explains why people believe in conspiracy theories,” the researchers caution, but these findings point to a potent psychological mechanism that helps explain why some rumors refuse to die.
The theme of the conspiratorially-minded television series The X-Files was “trust no one.” Perhaps it should be amended to read: “Trust no one — especially devoted fans of The X-Files.”