Conspiracy theorists tend to have 'dark' personality traits

Flat Earthers are more likely to be PSYCHOPATHS: People who believe conspiracy theories tend to have ‘dark’ personality traits, study finds

  • Four undesirable personality traits are linked to believing in conspiracy theories
  • Narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy and sadism make up ‘Dark Tetrad’
  • Study from University of Oregon experts shows how ‘mediators’ explain this link 

Whether you’re a flat Earther, a climate change denier or an anti-vaxxer, you might have dark personality traits, a new study suggests. 

A psychologist at the University of Oregon has linked the tendency to believe in conspiracy theories with what’s known in psychology as Dark Tetrad.

Dark Tetrad comprises four ‘dark’ personality traits – narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy and sadism.  

Dark Tetrad traits may be linked to believing in conspiracy theories, not because of features that are unique to each of the traits, but because of features that are shared among the traits, according to the study. 

Believing in a flat Earth is suggestive of having the Dark Tetrad traits – narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy and sadism

The study has been conducted by Cameron S Kay, a researcher at the University of Oregon’s department of psychology, who used five ‘mediators’ to explain the link between believing in conspiracy theories and having a dark personality. 

‘Conspiracy theories may, at first glance, appear relatively benign, but they have been linked to serious real-world consequences,’ he said.

‘Exposure to and belief in conspiracy theories has been associated with holding antisemitic beliefs, being apprehensive of vaccines, being less motivated to vote and being less inclined to stop climate change. 

‘To develop interventions to combat these beliefs, it will be crucial to understand, not only the types of people that are drawn to these theories, but also why they are drawn to these theories.’

It is already known that scoring high on certain aspects of the Dark Tetrad are more inclined to believe in conspiracy theories. 

Each of the four Dark Tetrad traits – narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy and sadism – are made up of particular undesirable attributes. 

Machiavellianism is characterised by manipulation and exploitation of others, a cynical disregard for morality, and a focus on self-interest and deception.  

Narcissism is characterised by grandiosity, pride, egotism, and a lack of empathy, while psychopathy is characterised by enduring antisocial behaviour, impulsivity, selfishness, callousness, and remorselessness. 

Sadism, meanwhile, is characterised by the tendency to be cruel toward others for pleasure or dominance.  

WHAT IS THE ‘DARK TETRAD’? 

Dark Tetrad is an extension of the original dark triad

The Dark Tetrad comprises the personality traits narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy and sadism. 

It’s an extension of the ‘dark triad’ a name given to three of the traits – narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism. 

When all four traits are found in a single person, it implies a malevolent personality.

All four dark triad traits are conceptually distinct, but have been shown to have an overlap.

Narcissism is characterised by grandiosity, pride, egotism, and a lack of empathy.

Machiavellianism is characterised by manipulation and exploitation of others. It is also often linked to a cynical disregard for morality, and a focus on self-interest and deception.

Psychopathy is characterised by continuing antisocial behaviour, impulsivity, selfishness, callousness, and remorselessness.

While sadism is the tendency to derive pleasure, especially sexual gratification, from inflicting pain, suffering, or humiliation on others.

It can range from physical sadism (e.g., ‘I enjoy physically hurting people’, verbal sadism (e.g., ‘I enjoy making jokes at the expense of others’ and vicarious sadism (e.g., ‘In video games, I like the realistic blood spurts’) 

For his study, Kay recruited 474 students with an average age of 19.5 – 66 per cent of whom were women. 

All participants completed scales and questionnaires to assess their ‘conspiracy ideation’ – the tendency to believe in conspiracy theories – as well as prevalence of the Dark Tetrad traits. 

But Kay also recorded levels of five ‘mediators’ – the tendency to entertain odd beliefs, be fatalistic, desire control, distrust others and feel a need to be unique.  

Essentially, these mediators can account for the links between the Dark Tetrad traits and conspiracy ideation. 

For example, being fatalistic (i.e., feeling little control over one’s life), desiring control and distrusting others should mediate the link between Machiavellian views and conspiracist ideation. 

Previous studies have often focused on a single mediator, making it impossible to compare the ability of different mediators to account for the relationship between the Dark Tetrad traits and conspiracist ideation, according to Kay. 

Overall, the results showed aspects of all four of the Dark Tetrad traits are associated with conspiracist ideation. 

Moreover, nearly all of the associations were attributable to the tendency for those with aversive personalities to hold odd or unusual beliefs, be fatalistic and distrust others (three out of the five mediators). 

‘In contrast to what the previous literature would suggest, it appears that those with aversive personality traits believe in conspiracy theories for mostly the same reasons,’ Kay said.

‘Conspiracist ideation may, therefore, arise from some shared feature of these traits rather than a feature that is unique to each trait.’      

The study has been published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. 

BELIEVE IN CONSPIRACY THEORIES? YOU’RE PROBABLY A NARCISSIST, RESEARCHERS SAY

People who doubt the moon landings are more likely to be selfish and attention-seeking, according to a 2015 study.

Over the course of three online-based studies, researchers at the University of Kent showed strong links between the belief in conspiracy theories and negative psychological traits.

Writing in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, the team explained: ‘Previous research linked the endorsement of conspiracy theories to low self-esteem.’

In the first study, a total of 202 participants completed questionnaires on conspiracy beliefs, asking how strongly they agreed with specific statements, such as whether governments carried out acts of terrorism on their own soil.

Alongside this, they were asked to complete a narcissist scale and a self-esteem assessment.

The results showed that those people who rated highly on the narcissism scale and who had low self-esteem were more likely to be conspiracy believers.

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