Conspiracy theorists - normal or psychopaths?

Conspiracy theorists - Machiavellian manipulators and psychopaths, or just ordinary people? 

Two new studies have come to very different conclusions on the kinds of people who believe in bizarre plots, such as alien lizards ruling the world and Hillary Clinton running child sex ring out of the basement of a pizza shop.

The first, conducted by researchers at the Australian National University, concluded they're by and large "pretty ordinary" people with otherwise "sensible" interests. 

They looked at 2 billion comments from eight years' worth of posts on web forum Reddit's conspiracy section, and found they're "not so crazy".

"In the past before the rise of online forums like Reddit, we tended to only hear about the most extreme views, and those people tended to naturally be wary about talking to someone else about their beliefs," said lead author Colin Klein.

"These massive online forums paint a very different picture. The enormous set of comments we examined show many r/conspiracy users actually have more 'sensible' interests.

"For example conspiracy theories about police abuse of power are common. That's not so crazy. These people might believe false things, but with good reason - because similar things have happened in the past."

David Icke - one of the world's biggest and best-known conspiracy theorists.
David Icke - one of the world's biggest and best-known conspiracy theorists. Photo credit: David Icke/Facebook

He said it's only a small jump from discussing politics to ending up talking about conspiracies, such as man having never walked on the moon or vaccines causing autism.

"It's very easy to look at conspiracy theories and think they're super wacky, and the people who believe in them are crazy, but it's actually much more continuous with a lot of things we do every day.

"Low level theorising goes on a lot in everyday life - I'm inclined to think the stuff you see online is just a strong outgrowth of that."

But another study, this one at Federation University Australia, found believers in conspiracy theories score highly on traits such as manipulation and psychopathy (including callousness and emotional detachment).

They had 230 participants fill in a questionnaire and found belief in conspiracy theories strongly correlates with "odd beliefs/magical thinking, trait Machiavellianism, and primary psychopathy". 

Magical thinking is the belief one's thoughts alone can influence the world - the best-known example perhaps Rhonda Byrne's 2006 best-selling self-help book The Secret.

"These results indicate that the individual more likely to believe in conspiracy theories may have unusual patterns of thinking and cognitions, be strategic and manipulative, and display interpersonal and affective deficits," the authors said, noting that belief in conspiracy theories "is is related to negative societal outcomes such as poor medical decisions... [and] more acceptance of violent behaviour". 

Both studies were published in journal PLOS One

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