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Higher stress levels could make you more susceptible to conspiracy theories

Tinfoil hats on.

DAVID NIELD
19 MAY 2016
 

If you think there are aliens in Area 51 or the shooting of JFK was an inside job, then it could be because you're overly stressed, a new study suggests. While the evidence isn't clear cut, the researchers think there's a link here, which could explain why some people are more likely to believe in conspiracies than others.

A team of UK researchers recuited 420 volunteers and asked them about various conspiracy theories. They were also asked to rate their anxiety levels and social status, and make a note of any stressful life events that had occurred in the last six months.

The team from Anglia Ruskin University found that a stronger belief in conspiracy theories was matched to individuals with both a greater perceived level of stress and a greater number of stressful life events in the recent past.

 

Of course, there's no shortage of well-known conspiracy theories to talk about: the idea that the Apollo Moon landings were faked, or that Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated by the US government were two examples included in the study.

As Ars Technica's Cathleen O'Grady reports, the tricky part with the research is proving causality: in other words, that higher stress levels actually cause the stronger belief in conspiracy theories, rather than the other way around. After all, conspiracy theories aren't exactly likely to make anyone feel more calm and reassured than they were before!

Even so, the team behind the new study thinks there's a connection. "Stressful situations increase the tendency to think less analytically. An individual experiencing a stressful life event may begin to engage in a particular way of thinking, such as seeing patterns that don't exist," said lead researcher, social psychologist Viren Swami.

"Therefore stressful life events may sometimes lead to a tendency to adopt a conspiracist mind-set," she added. "Once this worldview has become entrenched, other conspiracy theories are more easily taken on board."

An alternative hypothesis put forward by the team is that distressing events could prompt us to try and take more control over our lives, and seeking out conspiracy theories is an extension of that.

 

The study shows younger people are more likely to have conspiracist tendencies than older people, but there was no significant difference between men and women, or people of different social statuses.

Stress levels are unlikely to tell the whole story, though. Earlier studies have found links between believing in conspiracy theories and lower-than-average intelligence, political beliefs, a lack of trust in authority, low levels of self-esteem, and feelings of powerlessness – that's quite a mix of psychological factors. Of course, with the modern-day web, it's much easier to find like-minded people to share your opinions with too.

There's also research looking into just how implausible conspiracy theories are, based on the maths involved – but who's to say these conspiracy debunks aren't just another conspiracy, hmm? 

The findings are published in Personality and Individual Differences.

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