This research is long overdue:
In the most comprehensive analysis to date of people who are prone to conspiracy beliefs, a research team in Atlanta sketched out several personality profiles that appear to be distinct. One is familiar: the injustice collector, impulsive and overconfident, who is eager to expose naïveté in everyone but him- or herself. Another is less so: a more solitary, anxious figure, moody and detached, perhaps including many who are older and living alone. The analysis also found, at the extremes, an element of real pathology — of a “personality disorder,” in the jargon of psychiatry.
First let's look at my introductory sentence above. It is based on a (maybe) subconscious belief that conspiracy theories have not been taken seriously by the mental health community, when in fact delusions have been studied intensely for at least the last half-century. It's easy to be reductive; to discount the efforts of professionals on a wide range of subjects, while having no direct knowledge of those efforts. That is not analysis, it's throwing poop from one's cage. Let's talk about that first group of people, the injustice collectors:
I know several of these people, and so do you. These are the people who often call for a complete overhaul of the Democratic Party, ones who can only find a handful of Dems that meet their criteria of being a true Progressive. And of course that list keeps getting shorter, thanks to normal human behavior. They employ many broad-based assumptions as to the character of candidates and elected officials, and even a $1,000 contribution from a (fill in the blank) PAC is enough to generate gnashing of the teeth and self-righteous condemnation. They live in a world of black and white absolutes, where shades of grey don't exist. And as a rule, they are:
eager to expose naïveté in everyone but him- or herself.
I don't know if these folks are predisposed (psychologically) to this behavior, or have had so many negative experiences with party politics they have evolved into it. But either way, it's an unfortunate situation that I have exhausted myself trying to fix. We're not talking diminishing returns, we're talking no returns at all. But let's move on:
The belief that drug companies invent illnesses to sell their products, for instance, can provide a way of processing a grave diagnosis that arrives out of nowhere. The advent of the pandemic, and its injection into partisan politics in the United States and abroad, lend an urgency to a deeper understanding of conspiracy theories, given that false beliefs — that the C.D.C. is politically compromised, one way or another — can lead millions to ignore public health advice.
“You really have a perfect storm, in that the theories are directed at those who have fears of getting sick and dying or infecting someone else,” said Gordon Pennycook, a behavioral scientist at the University of Regina’s school of business, in Saskatchewan. “And those fears distract people from judging the accuracy of content they may read online.”
Not a fan of Big Pharma. The cost of prescription drugs is not just heinous, it has driven a huge wedge between the haves and have-nots as far as life expectancy is concerned. But some of the things I've seen (and heard) from people who should know better are astounding. A general rejection of pharmaceuticals in the treatment of various conditions, even life-threatening ones, while at the same time an eager acceptance of dietary supplements and "essential oils" as a much better alternative. Because Big Pharma doesn't want you to know about these things, apparently.
And that leads to distrust of medical professionals who would prescribe those drugs, driving people away from good primary care physicians into the hands of
quacks MDs who have lost their way.
Some details on the study itself:
The study had two elements. First, the team rated each person on their level proclivity for conspiracy theories. Participants were asked to rate the probable veracity of general statements such as “Some U.F.O. sightings and rumors are planned or staged in order to distract the public from real alien contact” or “The government uses people as patsies to hide its involvement in criminal activity.” The volunteers were then asked do the same for statements about specific events, such as “U.S. agencies intentionally created the AIDS epidemic and administered it to Black and gay men in the 1970s.”
The study included participants recruited both online and in person, at Emory. About 60 percent scored low on the scales, meaning they were resistant to such theories; the other 40 percent ranged above average or higher.
In the second phase, the research team gave the participants several standard personality questionnaires. One parsed general, fairly stable traits, like conscientiousness and sociability; another asked about moods like anxiety and anger; and a third addressed extremes, like narcissistic tendencies. (“I often have to deal with people who are less important than me.”)
“Keep in mind, personality tests are not very good measures of things we don’t understand very well,” Ms. Bowes said. “You’re going to get a fuzzy picture, especially the first time through.”
The personality features that were solidly linked to conspiracy beliefs included some usual suspects: entitlement, self-centered impulsivity, cold-heartedness (the confident injustice collector), elevated levels of depressive moods and anxiousness (the moody figure, confined by age or circumstance). Another one emerged from the questionnaire that aimed to assess personality disorders — a pattern of thinking called “psychoticism.”
Psychoticism is a core feature of so-called schizo-typal personality disorder, characterized in part by “odd beliefs and magical thinking” and “paranoid ideation.” In the language of psychiatry, it is a milder form of full-blown psychosis, the recurrent delusional state that characterizes schizophrenia. It’s a pattern of magical thinking that goes well beyond garden variety superstition and usually comes across socially as disjointed, uncanny or “off.”
So there is a spectrum (of course), with an easily identifiable extreme. But it's that overall 40% that is chilling, and can have (does have) a profound impact on our electoral system. Isolated by itself that 40% doesn't have the clout to do much damage. But it only takes an additional 11% of irresponsible voters to put our country (and the rest of the world) in jeopardy.