By Emma Young
Conspiracy theories stoke anxiety and uncertainty and can even threaten the health of those who espouse them. Take Covid-19 anti-vaxxers, for example, who put themselves at risk by refusing a vaccine. So given those negative consequences, it’s surprising that conspiracy theories are so prolific.
Research shows that beliefs that other groups are colluding secretly to pursue malevolent goals (the definition of a conspiracy theory) are more common during times of crisis — like a global pandemic. Heightened anxiety is thought to lead people to (erroneously) believe that there are hostile forces at play. But now a paper in the British Journal of Psychology reveals another reason for why conspiracy theories can be appealing. Jan-Willem van Prooijen at the Free University Amsterdam and colleagues found that conspiracy theories provoke a stronger emotional reaction than relatively dull-but-true reality — and this encourages belief in them, especially for people who have the personality trait of being “sensation-seeking”.
In two initial studies, participants read either a conspiratorial or an accurate story about the Notre Dame fire in Paris (which was in reality a tragic accident, but in the conspiratorial version was set on fire deliberately) or the death of the US sex offender Jeffrey Epstein (who died by suicide in his cell, but in the conspiratorial version was ‘murdered’ by powerful people). Finally, all participants were asked whether they believed that there was a conspiracy behind the fire or death of Epstein.
The team found that participants who had read the conspiracy text also reported stronger belief in the conspiracy theory in both cases. But importantly, the conspiracy text was also judged to be more entertaining, and it seemed to be this “entertainment value” that ultimately led these participants to have a stronger belief in the conspiracy theory.
A further study more clearly linked the emotive nature of a text to its entertainment value. This time, participants read either an emotion-laden or emotionless description of a fictitious election, with no reference to any conspiracy theories. The text with lots of emotion was deemed to be more entertaining and also provoked a stronger emotional reaction. What’s more, even though it didn’t mention any conspiracies, participants who’d read this text were more likely to agree with conspiracy-related statements (such as “There will be cheating in the results counting process” or “A conspiracy will determine the election outcome”) — but only if they also scored relatively highly on a measure of sensation-seeking.
Sensation-seekers love excitement and thrills; they also enjoy scary movies and new and risky experiences, for example. And, according to yet another study reported in the paper, employees who score higher on the sensation-seeking dimensions of boredom susceptibility, disinhibition and adventure-seeking are more likely to believe that their bosses secretly pursue malevolent goals — in other words, to believe in workplace conspiracy theories.
A final study assessed participants’ belief in various common conspiracy theories, such as that the US government had advance knowledge of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and that NASA faked the Moon landings. The researchers found a link between the strength of these beliefs and scores on the three dimensions of sensation-seeking identified in the employee study. “The results reveal that sensation seeking reliably predicts people’s belief in specific and concrete conspiracy theories,” they write.
So — yes, conspiracy theories may make people feel more anxious and uncertain. But perhaps sensation-seekers not only don’t mind this, they even enjoy it. The researchers add that to have this effect and attract believers, a conspiracy theory would have to be at least somewhat credible. But let’s not forget that some 12 million Americans reportedly believe that the US is ruled by giant lizards… Scores on the sensation-seeking scale alone clearly don’t explain that extreme type of misguided belief. But given just how common conspiracy theories are, any insight into what encourages people to believe them is interesting.
Of course, the idea that adding emotion to a factual story makes it more appealing is hardly new: news outlets and true crime podcasts do it all the time. But this new work does also perhaps imply that the more entertaining we can make the truth, the more likely that sensation-seekers will buy into it, rather than a twisted alternative.