It is easy to get frustrated with a friend who refuses to get vaccinated and thinks COVID is a government ploy.
What is their problem?
Quite a few things according to psychologist Adrian Furnham. In two new studies, he looks at the psychology of conspiracy thinkers, and how they view the world.
Life is hard and the world is unfair
“People who believe in conspiracies are often poorly educated and unsuccessful in their careers. Conspiracy theories are a way for these individuals to find a sense of meaning in the face of the difficulties they experience,” Furnham says.
In a study of over 400 people, he finds that conspiracy thinkers see bad things happening to good people and conclude the world is an unfair place.
“This leads some on society’s margins to look for patterns in the injustice, and identify what they think are hidden or secret reasons for events. It is an illusion of control over something that cannot be controlled,” he continues.
For example, in believing it is possible to take a stand against COVID or government control by refusing harmful or unnecessary vaccines. When the far more mundane truth is that we are facing a very difficult situation for which no one is entirely to blame, and which we all must work together to get through.
Personality disorders often play a part
In a separate study of almost 500 people, Furnham finds that conspiracy thinkers may suffer from some well-known personality disorders.
“They are typically odd or eccentric people, and often self-centred. They believe it is the world that is wrong or out of line, rather than themselves. In addition to a general distrust of society and authorities they are often socially awkward and tend to withdraw from other people,” Furnham says.
They also tend to be overly emotional and dramatic, thinking in inconsistent and unpredictable ways. For example, by accepting some facts while ignoring others.
“Poor education and a lacking understanding of complex subjects doesn’t help. Educated people in general tend to be more skeptical and less attracted to popular theories. Providing adequate training and education is an important measure to combat conspiracy thinking,” Furnham says.
Try to understand rather than reject
Conspiracy theories harm society because people use them to justify bad actions. Yet getting frustrated with your conspiracist friend, shouting at them, or ignoring them won’t change their mind.
“Try to remain open and listen to what people are saying. Show that you take them seriously and avoid talking down to them. You may not be able to convince everyone but listening and trying to understand is a step in the right direction,” Furnham says.
Furnham, A. Just world beliefs, personal success and beliefs in conspiracy theories. Curr Psychol (2021).
Furnham, A, and Simmy G. Do You Have to Be Mad to Believe in Conspiracy Theories? Personality Disorders and Conspiracy Theories. International Journal of Social Psychiatry, (July 2021).