Why Does Your Eccentric Uncle Believe in Conspiracy Theories? He’s Probably a Narcissist Study Finds

Experts estimate that up to 5% of people have a narcissistic personality disorder.
conspiracy theories

A recent paper by Cichocka and colleagues from the Polish Academy of Sciences and the universities of Kent and Cambridge dwells into why narcissists are drawn to conspiracy theories. The paper is scheduled to be published in the October issue of Current Opinion in Psychology.

What are conspiracy theories?

A conspiracy is a covert scheme to carry out evil or destructive deeds. Conspiracies usually seek to “usurp political or economic authority, violate rights, breach established agreements, undermine fundamental institutions, or withhold important knowledge.”

A conspiracy theory, however, is an idea that a group of people is working together in secret to accomplish evil goals. It is an alternate explanation in which the underlying reason for a major socio-political event is attributed to secret and malicious machinations orchestrated by ostensibly powerful agents or groups.

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There are conspiracy theories about many things: vaccinations, JFK’s assassination, moon landings, 9/11 attacks, climate change, etc.

Conspiracy theorist protest Berlin Strase des 17 Juni 2020 08 01 33
Conspiracy theorist protest Berlin by Leonhard Lenz under CC0 1.0

Are conspiracy theories wrong?

Conspiracy theories are not always wrong: for instance, the “Watergate scandal.” Belief in conspiracy theories can be adaptive and logical. But frequently enough, conspiracy theories are wrong. Major conspiracies frequently fall apart rather quickly or are discovered as false sooner or later.

What does narcissism mean?

Narcissism refers to ostentatious self-regard. It is linked with jealous tendencies, feelings of superiority and arrogance, a sense of entitlement, self-promotional activity, manipulativeness, and aggressive behavior toward rivals.

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London2007 by Gürkan Sengün under CC BY-SA 3.0

The authors suggest that narcissism has three underlying components: antagonism, agentic extraversion, and neuroticism:

  • Agentic extraversion: Associated with assertiveness, charisma, and a desire for rewards. Narcissists do this to win others’ admiration.
  • Antagonism: Known to be haughty, cynical, dishonest, untrustworthy, exploitative, and entitled. This is how narcissists compete with rivals and protect themselves from threats.
  • Neuroticism: Associated with feelings of guilt, low self-esteem, unfavorable emotions, and relationship problems.

They also suggest that each of the components of narcissism might predispose people to endorse conspiracy theories due to different psychological processes.

The link between narcissism and conspiracy beliefs

According to Cichocka et al., narcissism is one of the best psychological predictors of conspiracy beliefs, with meta-analytic effects ranging from r = 0.22 to r = 0.26.

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Many people believe in conspiracies, but research indicates that narcissists are especially likely to believe them, just as they are likely to believe in other strange or inexplicable phenomena.

Narcissists frequently believe that people are “out to get them.” Maybe these paranoid impressions of threats to oneself are what lead people to believe in conspiracies and societal threats.

Compared to the average person, narcissists and people with other dark personality traits, such as Machiavellianism and psychopathy, tend to have higher levels of paranoia. (Paranoia is the demand for power, the desire for uniqueness, and the capacity for gullibility.)

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The Dark Triad.svg
The Dark Triad by Aniol under CC BY-SA 4.0

Belief in conspiracies is also linked to the desire for dominance and control as well as the fear of losing. After all, scapegoating others is simpler than admitting failure to people who have a strong need for control and dominance.

The desire for uniqueness, which is frequently linked to the agentic extraversion component of grandiose narcissism, may also make someone more likely to believe in conspiracies. Why? The ability to see through the “smoke screens that cover the incredible truth” could provide narcissists a “feeling of being exceptional, and of being one of the few individuals who perceive the truth.”

Despite their arrogance, narcissists can be incredibly gullible and naive. This might be partially explained by their propensity to act on instinct rather than reason.

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Narcissists frequently hold strange and outlandish ideas, such as believing in astrology or conspiracy theories, which may also be explained by an overreliance on intuition and gut sensations.

Collective narcissism

Collective narcissism is the propensity to make overly optimistic assumptions about one’s group. Some studies suggest that people who rank higher on the collective narcissism scale are drawn to conspiracy theories.

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The authors claim that the connection between collective narcissism and conspiracy theories can be explained by the fact that group narcissists have increased intergroup danger sensitivity, which is similar to the threat sensitivity and paranoia of individual narcissists.

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Additionally, those who believe their nation or group deserves special treatment may feel compelled to downplay any shortcomings on a national level and attribute them to external forces (such as other nations) that are working against them.

Furthermore, the desire to restore personal control strengthens the connection between collective narcissism and outgroup conspiracy views, echoing the role of control and dominance objectives in individual narcissism.”

Why is the interest in conspiracies among narcissists so alarming?

Narcissists are more successful than the typical individual at achieving positions of power, including becoming elected leaders. Even narcissistic children have been seen to exhibit this tendency. Political leaders, particularly autocrats and populists, tend to have high narcissism levels.

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Additionally, narcissistic political figures are more likely to spread conspiracies, particularly when they see their hold on power to be eroding.

Naturally, it has more impact when influential leaders attribute their shortcomings or misfortunes to a group of conspirators. Why? Because narcissistic leaders can seriously hurt society by spreading conspiracy theories, whether it be by discouraging political participation, pushing harmful ideas and actions (like the anti-vaccination movement), inciting prejudice, or inciting violent acts.

Conclusion

As we have seen, conspiracy theories appeal to narcissists for reasons that may be connected to:

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  • Paranoia and gullibility.
  • The desire to draw attention to themselves.
  • The tendency to blame others for their failures or misfortunes.
  • The desire to manipulate others (e.g., social media followers on Twitter or Facebook).
  • As we’ve seen, these ideas can inspire harmful actions, like violence. 

So what’s the other option? Accepting everything that is said? No, there is a neutral position. To approach conspiracy theories and official explanations of significant events with the same level of suspicion, we must strive for healthy skepticism.

Conspiracy theorists don’t behave in this way because, according to research, they “have less developed critical thinking skills.”