A new study from psychologists Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz helps to untangle the relationship between belief in conspiracy theories and paranoia.
The researchers found that conspiracy theorists are not necessarily paranoid. While paranoid people believe that almost everybody is out to get them, conspiracist believe that a few powerful people are out to get everybody. Their findings were published in the European Journal of Social Psychology.
“I have been studying conspiracy mentality for almost ten years now and although there is fantastic scholarly work out there, something bugged me about the way conspiracy scholars talk about conspiracy ‘believers’. Too often, there is a slight pathologizing tone and a certain arrogance towards the ‘crazy’ conspiracy believers,” explained study author Roland Imhoff, professor of social and legal psychology.
“On the one hand, I can see where this comes from, also because several colleagues have really negative interactions with people who endorsed conspiracy theories,” he told PsyPost. “On the other hand, I have always tried to not take a normative stand but merely describe what correlates, antecedent and consequences of belief in conspiracy theories are without claiming that having such beliefs is either correct or incorrect, normal or paranoid.
“In this study, we wanted to counter the impression that belief in conspiracy theories is just a symptom of a paranoid delusion.”
An initial meta-analysis of 11 previously published studies, with a combined total of 2,006 participants, found there was a significant correlation between conspiracy beliefs and paranoia.
The researchers then conducted two studies, with 209 German and 400 American participants in total, to better understand the overlap and differences between conspiracy beliefs and paranoia.
The conspiracy mentality of the participants was measured by asking them how much they agreed or disagreed with statements like “There are certain political circles with secret agendas that are very influential.” Paranoid, on the other hand, was measured with statements like “I need to be on my guard against others.”
They found that conspiracy beliefs were associated with socio-political factors like decreased trust in the government, but paranoia was more indicative of a person’s personality traits. Beliefs in conspiracy theories were also strongly associated with assigning blame to a few powerful people, while paranoia was associated with assigning blame to humanity in general.
“I think our findings are best encapsulated in the notion that while there is a certain overlap of subclinical paranoia and conspiracy beliefs, the two markedly differ in their scope of both the threat and the target: Whereas paranoid people believe that virtually everyone is after specifically them, conspiracy believer think that a few powerful people are after virtually everyone,” Imhoff explained.
The researchers said the findings also suggest that belief in conspiracy theories is more of a political attitude than a symptom of a psychopathological issue.
However, the study has some limitations.
“We looked at variations within non-selected samples, not at cases of clinical paranoia,” Imhoff said. “Also, we explored existing inter-individual differences at a certain point in time, but we have no longitudinal data to follow whether one of the two typically precedes the other.”
The study, “How paranoid are conspiracy believers? Towards a more fine‐grained understanding of the connect and disconnect between paranoia and belief in conspiracy theories“, was authored by Roland Imhoff and Pia Lamberty.
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