A desire to disrupt the established political system is a strong motivator for sharing conspiracy theories, new research suggests. This is regardless of if the sharer believes the theories they're sharing or not.
Researchers even have a term for this hunger for sabotage: a 'need for chaos'.
While we all engage in conspiracy thinking to a certain degree, some of these beliefs can become dangerous. The increasing propagation and power of misinformation online, some fueled by vested interests, has created a strong motivation to investigate the psychology behind conspiracy thinking.
Expanding on previous research, Carleton University political scientist Christina Farhart and colleagues surveyed 3,336 individuals in the US, divided evenly across each side of the political spectrum. They posed questions to probe if the respondents were more likely to share conspiracy theories because they believed them, to sound an alarm or due to a need for chaos.
As in past research, Farhar and team found belief in the conspiracy is the strongest factor determining whether a person is willing to spread a theory through social media. Often these beliefs arise from legitimate and unmet concerns that people struggle with in their daily lives.
Surprisingly, the new data doesn't support the hypothesis that promoters of conspiracy theories are 'sounding the alarm' to bolster support against a perceived opponent. This would have indicated that the conspiracy sharers are motivated to support the cultural group they most identify with.
Instead, a need for chaos was a stronger indicator of whether or not the volunteers believed they were willing to spread a conspiracy theory. This suggests a deeper complexity than "cheering for one's own team".
"Whereas some individuals share specifically to impugn political rivals, others do so to challenge the entire political system," the researchers told Eric W. Dolan at Psypost.
As the research is observational and based on self-reported answers, the team can't attribute the motivations directly to the act of sharing. But they did account for a multitude of factors that might influence the results, including how political the respondents are, their inclination for trust, and their age, gender, income and ethnicity.
The chaos seekers were more likely to say they strongly agreed with statements such as:
"We cannot fix the problems in our social institutions, we need to tear them down and start over."
Those who believe the conspiracy theories are also more likely to share them if they also share this need for chaos.
But this motivation doesn't even necessarily require people to believe what they are sharing either. Instead, the chaos seekers seem to feel justified adding to the flood of online misinformation, either as an attack against an establishment that's not working for them, or merely to mitigate boredom, as indicated by strong agreement to the statement:
"I need chaos around me – it is too boring if nothing is going on."
This aligns with previous studies suggesting people who feel financially or socially insecure are more likely to believe in conspiracies. It would also explain why there's a rise in conspiracy thinking during times of crisis, as people encounter financial hardships and health uncertainties.
Previous research has also confirmed fooling someone else can provide a momentary sense of control that the conspiratorially inclined may be lacking elsewhere in their lives.
So given the mounting stresses we're all facing in our daily lives on way too many fronts, the new results probably shouldn't come as a surprise. US citizens, for example, are experiencing rising costs of living, declines in health, increased financial insecurity and worse education outcomes, more natural disasters and rising death rates.
"Our findings… [provide] strong evidence to suggest individuals are willing to share conspiracy theories on social media not only to reinforce existing beliefs, but also to mobilize others against the entire political system," Farhar and colleagues conclude in their paper.
This research was published in Research and Politics.