Conspiracy Theory

Social Isolation Could Breed Conspiracy Theorists

Most of us have a few conspiracy theorists in our lives. With them, popular topics of conversation might include chemtrails, the Illuminati, or the notion that aliens are contacting us. What makes a person start thinking like a conspiracy theorist? According to research from Princeton University, social exclusion may be to blame. Yep—your superstitious friends might just be a little lonely.

Related: Do People Really Believe In Outlandish Conspiracy Theories?

You Can't Sit With Us

For a study published in 2016 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, researchers had volunteers write about a recent unpleasant experience they had with friends and rate how excluded they felt. Then they answered questions relating to their search for purpose in life and their beliefs surrounding various conspiracies, such as "pharmaceutical companies withhold cures for financial reasons" and "events in the Bermuda Triangle constitute evidence of the paranormal." The more excluded the participants felt, the more they desired meaning in their lives and the more likely they were to believe in the conspiracy theories.

Related: The Government Mind-Control Conspiracy Theory Of Chemtrails

That experiment proved that there was an association between feeling excluded and harboring alternative beliefs, but the researchers' second experiment put a causal link in the mix. In it, researchers put one group of college students in a position where they felt excluded by their peers and another group in a position where they felt included. Next, they were prompted to read two conspiracy scenarios and a fictional good-luck ritual—all stories that involved an ambiguous situation that included a coordinated effort by several people that may or may not have had an effect on an outcome . The students who were excluded thought there was more of a connection between the characters' actions and the outcome than those who were included.

A Vicious Cycle

But why does this happen? As the study's co-author, Alin Coman, explains to Princeton University: "Those who are excluded may begin to wonder why they're excluded in the first place, causing them to seek meaning in their lives. This may then lead them to endorse certain conspiracy beliefs." That's dangerous, since conspiratorial thinking itself can alienate people and cause further exclusion, creating a cycle that can be very difficult to escape. Instead, people—both loved ones and lawmakers—should work to make people feel included in society.

What makes people believe in pseudoscience and conspiracy theories? To get some answers, we talked to renowned skeptic Steven Novella of The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe on the Curiosity Podcast. Stream or download the episode using the player below, or find it on iTunes, Stitcher, or Gretta.

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Written by Curiosity Staff May 8, 2017

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