Conspiracy Theorists Just Want to be Special Snowflakes

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New research published in the European Journal of Social Psychology suggests that people who believe in many conspiracy theories do so in part out of a need to feel unique. But I think that that’s just what the researchers wanted me to think so that I’d make this video about it. Stupid researchers don’t realize how smart I am.

German psychologists recruited 238 subjects from the United States to answer questions on how many conspiracy theories they believe in, and also asked them to rate how important it was for them to be distinctive. They found that people who wanted to feel unique were more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. (They also found that belief in one conspiracy theory was correlated with belief in a bunch of conspiracy theories, something that the literature has shown repeatedly to be the case — if you can believe we never landed on the moon, you can also believe that 9/11 was an inside job.)

The researchers then conducted a follow-up test with another 465 Americans, which supported the first study.

Of course those studies show correlation but not causation. Do people believe in conspiracies because they want to feel unique, or is it just a coincidence?

To answer that, they set up a third test, and this is where things get weird. They told about 300 American subjects about a German conspiracy theory, in which people believe smoke detectors produce “hypersound,” which is damaging to humans. They told half the subjects that the conspiracy theory was a popular one believed by the majority of Germans, and they told the other half that only a small percentage of Germans believed it.

Among the subjects who believed in a lot of conspiracy theories, they were actually more likely to believe the smoke detector theory if they thought it was unpopular, as opposed to popular. That’s like hearing 4 out of 5 dentists recommend brushing your teeth and then throwing out your toothbrush.

But that fits if you’re the sort of person who wants to feel unique, and believe it or not you’ve probably experienced this feeling yourself. Have you ever liked a band or a television show, but then felt irrationally annoyed when it gets popular? I mean, I’ve been a hipster since the 90s, so I know that pain all too well.

Here’s the crazier part of that last study: after it was over, the researchers told participants that they had made up the smoke detector conspiracy theory. Yet a full 25% of them still believed it, and that number correlated with those people with a high need to feel unique. I mean, it makes sense — the least popular conspiracy theory would definitely be the one that was literally just made up on the spot for the study you participated in. Get on that train quick! Soon Dr. Oz will be warning people to disable their smoke detectors and it’ll be way too mainstream to bother with.

I’ll mention that this paper happened to be published at nearly the same time as another study from another team of researchers that showed the exact same effect: people who believe conspiracy theories have a desperate need to be unique. I love it when scientific research comes together!

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. I have a desperate need to be unique – for example, when I’m in a crowd, I find myself thinking about how I’m not really part of the crowd because I’m here for a different reason than they. However, I treat conspiracy theories as a source of entertainment and mockery. Apparently I’m doing it wrong. (Yay! I’ve just claimed uniqueness in my non-uniqueness!)

    I remember another study on conspiracy theory. They were looking at what conspiracy theories people had heard of, and also added their own fake theory. (I think it was that the flickering of florescent tubes made people suggestible.) Interestingly, as many people claimed to have previously heard of their fake theory as claimed to have heard of chem trails.

    Finally, a web-site note: My (Firefox) web browser points out that your login screen is insecure. It should be on https, not http. Please fix this.

    1. Far as I can tell, the flickering of fluorescent tubes does not make people suggestible. What it does do is drive a lot of autistic people and people with SPD nuts and wrecks their concentration by giving them sensory overload. Including me, an autistic, sometimes, if the flickering is really bad – in that case, I basically wish the light would shut up (read: stop flickering so badly).

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