Why Some People Can't Get Enough Of Conspiracy Theories

Psychologist Zuzanna Molenda explains what lies behind our instinct to go down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | February 7, 2023

A new study published in Personality and Individual Differences suggests that a person's attraction to conspiracy theories may be associated with their inability to regulate negative emotions.

I recently spoke to psychologist Zuzanna Molenda of the Polish Academy of Sciences to understand this link better. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to explore conspiracy theories through the lens of emotion regulation?

Research has shown that belief in conspiracy theories is related to different types of psychological threats, for example, anxiety or perceived stress. Also, studies on coping with stress show that more frequent use of maladaptive (i.e., avoidance) coping strategies are linked to higher conspiracy beliefs.

Therefore, it seems that conspiracy beliefs are linked not only to psychological threats but also to insufficient ability to cope with them. Bearing this in mind, we hypothesized that conspiracy beliefs should also be associated with some phenomena involved in processing negative emotions – in this case, emotion dysregulation.

Thus, building on past research, we aimed to explore not the role of negative emotions in conspiracy theories endorsement but rather the role of people dealing with these emotions. This led us to assume that insufficient abilities related to regulating one's emotions could be associated with the endorsement of conspiracy theories.

What constitutes a conspiracy theory within the purview of your research? Why do you think conspiracy theories emerge in the first place?

We understand conspiracy theories as secret plots by powerful malevolent actors or groups. These plots allegedly influence some world events, attempt to take over political power or gain financial profit, and aim to keep the truth about the conspirators' actions a secret from the public.

There might be several reasons why conspiracy theories emerge and why they are appealing to some people. Conspiracy theories often arise after some impactful (and usually threatening) events or crises, which often are not very easy to comprehend.

We could observe that in the case of the Covid-19 pandemic, a huge global crisis that impacted most people's lives. These threatening events might have psychological effects on people, including feelings of uncertainty, anxiety, or stress, which might be further linked to the emergence of conspiracy theories.

In other words, conspiracy beliefs might constitute a response to the aversive states people experience. Scholars argue that conspiracy theories are more appealing when some important psychological needs are unsatisfied.

For example, the epistemic need for knowledge and certainty is threatened when something unexpected yet impactful happens, and conspiracy theories emerge to offer an easy explanation. In this case, conspiracy theories might be appealing as they constitute an attempt to satisfy one of our psychological needs to feel sure about the world.

Could you tell us how negative emotionality can lead to biased information processing?

The research on negative emotional states and biased information processing can be found in the literature about mood and anxiety disorders. For example, anxious or depressed individuals exhibit greater interpretation bias and tend to interpret ambiguous situations as negative or threatening.

According to some arguments, negative emotionality might activate particular schemas about the world and ourselves, making some interpretations of ongoing experiences more accessible. However, the links between emotion regulation, negative emotionality, and cognitive biases in the endorsement of conspiracy theories are yet to be disentangled thoroughly.

Could you briefly walk us through the methodology of your study? What would you say was your most important finding?

We conducted three correlational studies, measuring the amount of self-reported difficulties in emotion regulation and asking about beliefs in conspiracy theories, both general (i.e., non-specific, generic conspiracy beliefs about conspiratorial activity in the world) and specific (regarding some particular, embedded in a context; e.g., anti-vaccine or presidential election) theories.

One of the most critical findings in our studies is that the positive link between emotion dysregulation and conspiracy beliefs emerged in all three countries in which we conducted our studies (the U.S., U.K., and Poland), suggesting that this phenomenon occurs in different political contexts.

Moreover, in Study 3, in which we measured belief in specific conspiracy theories, we included conspiracy theories that are appealing to liberals and conservatives, and we showed that emotion dysregulation is linked to various conspiracy beliefs, regardless of the specifics of the theory and participants' political orientation.

Do you have any words of wisdom for people who feel attracted to conspiracy theories frequently? What can one do to improve their emotional regulation skills?

It might be challenging to say any words of wisdom for people who feel attracted to conspiracy theories frequently because it seems that for some of these people, the conspiratorial worldview becomes a lens through which they perceive the world; thus, they may not see it as a problem, nor seek for any "help" or wisdom.

Recently, Sutton and Douglas (2022) described a "Rabbit Hole Syndrome," explaining when people might become more attracted to conspiracy theories and why some seem to go deeper and deeper into this rabbit hole of conspiracy beliefs. Hopefully, these new theoretical frameworks and empirical research will help us better understand how to break the cycle and design effective interventions.

Is there a particular personality type and/or trait that has been strongly associated with a penchant for conspiracy theories? What about gender differences?

It is difficult to say that there is one particular personality trait (or trait-level variable) linked to conspiracy beliefs. As with everything, the relationships between personality traits and conspiracy beliefs might be more complex than it seems.

Of course, researchers have linked conspiracy theories endorsement with several traits, especially narcissism, but also anxious attachment style or need for cognitive closure. The last two decades of research shed more light on possible underpinnings of conspiracy beliefs; however, there is still a lot to disentangle.

Regarding gender differences, according to my knowledge, there is no robust and consistent evidence for significant gender differences in conspiracy theories endorsement.