Before the 2016 elections, you may have noticed a rise in conspiracy theories going around. Hilary Clinton got ill (or even died) and was replaced with a body double. Hilary Clinton was a Satanist and had tried “spirit cooking” (you don’t want to know), and the Democrats were running a pedophile ring out the basement of a Washington pizza restaurant that doesn’t even have a basement.
It was a strange time. You can blame a lot of these conspiracy theories on Russian misinformation, and that’s comforting. But many American voters did believe these theories, and spread them around. More mundane conspiracy theories of media and “establishment” bias also took hold, and even became fairly mainstream.
This increase in conspiracy theories and their proliferation around the time of the US election may now have been explained by a new study, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology.
Previous studies have indicated that conspiracy theories appeal most to narcissists, due to their paranoid tendencies, and appeal especially to those with low self-esteem.
Further studies have shown that collective narcissists – groups of people who think their group is more important than others and not given the importance it deserves – tend to believe that other groups are conspiring to suppress and undermine them. Sound familiar? (We’re looking at you, white nationalists).
This new study suggests that a rise in this collective narcissism led to a strengthening of conspiratorial thinking in America, which was in turn bolstered by a political environment willing to capitalize on this conspiratorial thinking.
The study, by psychologists from the Universities of London and Minnesota, looked at survey data taken between July and November 2016, PsyPost reports. The longitudinal study asked participants to rate statements such as “The United States deserves special treatment” in July and “Much of our lives are being controlled by plots hatched in secret places” in the November part of the study.
They found that collective narcissists, those who say that the United States deserves special treatment, for example, were much more likely to believe in conspiracy theories by the time November came around.
“Political campaigns, especially those that use conspiracy beliefs as a tool to mobilize their electorate, are likely to mobilize collective narcissists,” study author Agnieszka Golec de Zavala told PsyPost. “We found that American collective narcissism was linked to the conspiratorial mindset and this relationship strengthened during the 2016 presidential campaign in the US.”
In a separate study, the same authors also found that collective narcissism was the biggest predictor of voting for Trump, after political partisanship (i.e. I always vote Republican so I will again now).
The researchers believe that conspiracy theories appeal to collective narcissists as they offer simple answers to complex questions of why their group is not appreciated as much as it should be (in their view) by others.
“This reassures collective narcissists that their group is important and challenging enough to inspire envious plotting of others,” said Golec de Zavala.
Worryingly, the authors suggest this is then used to justify hostility towards those other outsider groups.