Is there a link between conspiracy theories and mental illness? There may be a psychological profile for conspiracy theorists like you and me. It might not be good. Research indicates a fundamental divide in style of thinking when it comes to those who believe conspiracies and those who dismiss them. Let’s have a look.
Metal Illness of Conspiracy Theories and Their Believers
Recent years have been filled with earth-shaking exposes: WikiLeaks, NSA spying on citizens and governments across the world, and the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers exposing huge money laundering among global elites. Many disturbing details have emerged about how Western governments and corporations really do business. There hasn’t been a better time to don the tinfoil hat and bend people’s ears. But historically, why do people believe conspiracy theories? A controversial paper written by Jan-Willem van Prooijen suggests there is a correlation between believing conspiracy theories and having less education. Ouch. He thinks less education causes people to think with less rigorous analysis, meaning they are more open to simple theories to explain injustices. People with more education should therefore be immune to conspiracy theories – but that’s not always true either.
CC Image Courtesy of Michael Gil on Flickr.
Do Conspiracy Theorists Suffer from Mental Illness or Something?
No, not necessarily. Good news for me! Actually, the resulting divide is mainly between analytic thinking versus intuitive thinking. Analytic thinking results in consciously trying to work through the information presented in a critical way. Intuitive thinking sees a “fact” or theory and believes it because it works within the person’s established worldview. In other words, it’s just not very critical. This distinction doesn’t mean a conspiracy theory can’t be complex and detailed. It just means that many conspiracy theories don’t put the brakes on to do some fact cross-checking, self-reflection, and self-critique.
CC Image Courtesy of Blink O’Fanaye on Flickr.
I’m a Loser Baby, So Why Don’t You Kill Me: Conspiracy Theorists are Special
So, to put it all straight, it seems “powerlessness” correlates most with the likelihood of accepting a conspiracy theory. If you look at fears of say, the Jewish world conspiracy, for example, most people backing it are disaffected folks who want to attribute their own marginal position in society/”the world order”, or their frustrated wish to be more rich, powerful, important, etc. to some byzantine scam, rather than their own bad luck, real-world complex societal oppression, or personal choices. Ditto for the New World Order thing. However, I don’t think the above theories completely explain why people believe conspiracies. But conspiracy theorists and mental illness are not correlated. For example, I believe the Titanic ship-sinking-for-insurance-money conspiracy theory is probably true, but I don’t believe that due to the fact “I feel powerless” (doing just fine over here, thanks!). I more-or-less believe it because of analysis. There’s a grey area. Reptilians, immortal Putin and stuff like that goes in one pile. In the other pile, there’s legit conspiracies that could be true – the investigation is more evidence-based and not unlike what detectives do. And that, my friends, is what keeps me going on this blog!