The average person on the street tends to have the impression that belief in conspiracy theories and paranoid personality traits are two things which are inextricably linked. However, new research from a team of psychologists from the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz has found that this is not necessarily the case.
Conspiracy theorists aren’t paranoid says new research
“In this study, we wanted to counter the impression that belief in conspiracy theories is just a symptom of a paranoid delusion, ” explained the lead author of the study Roland Imhoff, a professor of social and legal psychology.
Professor Imhoff explained that he has been studying the mentality of individuals who believe in what is commonly termed ‘conspiracy theories’ for almost ten years. He said that while there is some sterling work being conducted he had come to be perturbed by the way these individuals are referred to by academics. “Too often, there is a slight pathologizing tone and a certain arrogance towards the ‘crazy’ conspiracy believers, ” he said. According to Professor Imhoff, categorizing those who believe in theories which many others may think to be completely outlandish as pathological is neither helpful nor accurate. Therefore, he and his team set out to prove that paranoia and belief in conspiracy theories were not mutually exclusive.
The researchers first conducted a meta-analysis of eleven existing psychological studies into self-proclaimed conspiracy theorists which indicated a high level of correlation between paranoid personality traits and conspiracy theory belief. However, the team decided to dig deeper and conducted two studies using 209 German participants and 4000 American participants to probe the overlap between conspiracy beliefs and paranoia.
The level to which the participants believed in conspiracy theories was measured by how much they agreed or disagreed with certain statements such as, “There are certain political circles with secret agendas that are very influential.” After that, they were tested for paranoid personality traits by responding to questions such as “I need to be on my guard against others.”
The team found that there was very little correlation between conspiracy belief and paranoia in their participants. Instead, they found that belief in conspiracy theories tended to be bound up in socio-political factors, such as a lack of trust in the government. However, paranoia tended to be a deeply rooted personality trait unrelated in the main to political factors. When conspiracy theorists did exhibit paranoia, it tended to be about a small group of powerful people rather than humanity in general. Regarding clinical psychology, this kind of paranoia would not indicate pathology.
Their findings were published in the European Journal of Social Psychology.