People who feel isolated or left out of the crowd are more likely to develop a sense that the world is conspiring against them, leading to beliefs that oppose conventional views, a new study on conspiracy theories and superstitions has found.
Researchers found that people who don't feel they fit into society are more likely to seek out meaning in dubious or elaborate stories that may or may not be true - which could help explain the 'fake news' phenomenon plaguing the internet right now.
According to a team from Princeton University, conspiratorial thinking can trigger a dangerous cycle, pushing friends and family further away, and deepening the problem of social exclusion.
"Those who are excluded may begin to wonder why they're excluded in the first place, causing them to seek meaning in their lives," explains psychologist Alin Coman.
"This may then lead them to endorse certain conspiracy beliefs. When you're included, it doesn't necessarily trigger the same response."
The study was split into two parts. First, the researchers enlisted 119 volunteers online, and assessed their feelings of social isolation.
Participants were asked to fill in a questionnaire about their emotions and goals, write out a story involving a personal friend, and rate their feelings in 14 different categories (including exclusion).
Next, the participants were asked how strongly they endorsed three popular conspiracy theories: pharmaceutical companies withholding cures for financial reasons; governments using subliminal messages to influence the population; and signs of paranormal activity in the Bermuda Triangle.
Those whose responses indicated that they felt more socially excluded were also more likely to agree with the conspiracy theories, the team found.
Next, a group of 120 university students were asked to describe themselves in a couple of paragraphs of writing, before being told that their writing would be used to assess their suitability for a task. Some were added to a "chosen" group, while others were put in a "non-chosen" group instead.
In reality, their writing wasn't assessed at all - the researchers just wanted to create feelings of acceptance or exclusion in the volunteers.
The students were then asked to rate the plausibility of three stories - this time, superstitious rather conspiratorial. Again, those who felt excluded by having been put in the "non-chosen" group were more likely to believe them.
Based on the survey responses of the 239 participants overall, the researchers think that the search for meaning that comes along with feeling excluded is what's causing a stronger belief in tall tales and conspiracy theories - and that insight could help us fight against misinformation.
"Attempting to disrupt this cycle might be the best bet for someone interested in counteracting conspiracy theories at a societal level," Coman says.
"Otherwise, communities could become more prone to propagating inaccurate and conspiratorial beliefs."
Given the small sample of participants surveyed, future research will be needed to explore this area further, to see if the findings are confirmed in larger studies.
But in the meantime, the researchers' conclusions certainly don't seem like a bad idea: stressing the need to keep communities and individuals feeling included and involved in the bigger picture of societal decisions, as it could be one way of stopping fake news from spreading.
"When developing laws, regulations, policies and programs, policymakers should worry about whether people feel excluded by their enactment," says Coman.
"Otherwise, we may create societies that are prone to spreading inaccurate and superstitious beliefs."
The research has been published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.