Link between stress and conspiracy theories

Published: 11 May 2016 at 15:29

Sign showing site of a 'UFO crash'

Research by psychologists indicates why some people are more likely to believe

New research shows that people who believe in conspiracy theories are more likely to be suffering from stress, or have experienced stressful events, than non-believers.

Led by Professor Viren Swami of Anglia Ruskin University and published by the journal Personality and Individual Differences, the study is the first to assess the relationship between psychological stress and belief in conspiracies. 

The researchers surveyed 420 adults (225 women and 195 men) aged between 20 and 78, and participants rated their belief that various conspiracies were true on a nine-point scale, ranging from one (completely false) to nine (completely true).  

Examples of the conspiracies included that that the Apollo moon landings were staged in a Hollywood film studio and that the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr was the result of a plot by US government agencies.  

The study found that a stronger belief in conspiracy theories was significantly associated with more stressful life events in the last six months and greater perceived stress over the last month.

Women and men did not significantly differ in their belief in conspiracy theories.  Younger participants were more likely to believe, but there was no significant correlation between belief in conspiracy theories and social status.

Professor Swami, of Anglia Ruskin University’s Psychology department, said: 

“More stressful life events and greater perceived stress were both linked to greater belief in conspiracy theories.  We think there are a couple of reasons why this might be the case.

“Stressful situations increase the tendency to think less analytically.  An individual experiencing a stressful life event may begin to engage in a particular way of thinking, such as seeing patterns that don’t exist.

“Therefore stressful life events may sometimes lead to a tendency to adopt a conspiracist mind-set.  Once this worldview has become entrenched, other conspiracy theories are more easily taken on board.

“Alternatively, it is not stress that is driving someone’s way of thinking, but rather a threat to their sense of control.  In the aftermath of distressing events, it is possible that some individuals may seek out conspiracist explanations that reinstall a sense of order or control.”