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Why narcissists love conspiracy theories

Man in a green shirt standing in front of a wall smiling

The truth may be out there, but don’t bother asking a narcissist to believe it. 

New research from Bond University has found this particular personality type is more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. 

PhD Candidate Tylor Cosgrove has been studying narcissism in the context of conspiracy theories and he’s discovered that narcissists are also particularly resistant to the usual strategies for changing people’s minds. 

Debunking with facts and statistics? Don’t even bother trying, he says. 

“In the context of conspiracy beliefs, education is usually what we call a ‘protective’ factor – so usually people that are more educated are less likely to believe in conspiracy theories,” he says. 

“But from the research we did, that doesn’t appear to be true for narcissists. We found that when narcissists are highly educated it doesn’t make them less likely to believe a conspiracy. It either has no effect or can even make them more likely to believe it.” 

Tylor says there are a few theories behind why narcissists were more inclined to believe conspiracy theories than other personality types - they want to feel special, unique and smarter than everyone else. 

“(Conspiracy theories) offer them the feeling of being privy to information that most people aren’t and of being smarter than all the ‘sheep’,” he says. 

“Narcissists also quite often like to deal in black and whites. They don't like thinking in the grey area, and that's one of the key features of conspiracy theories - they offer simple explanations for complex problems.  

“The other thing the research shows is that people who believe in conspiracy theories are often people who would be likely to conspire themselves. Narcissists, being quite controlling and manipulative, if they found themselves in a position of power, they probably would be more likely to conspire. Therefore, they presume that other people would do the same. 

“Trying to convince them otherwise can also make the situation worse”.  

Tylor says narcissists often see a challenge to their beliefs as a personal attack and will dig their heels in as a result. 

“The traditional methods for conspiracy belief are called debunking - usually around educating the person and providing evidence. But it looks like that kind of thing maybe wouldn't work on a narcissist. 

“If you were to try and dissuade them once they had adopted those beliefs, you would basically have to try and deceive them into thinking that it's their idea.” 

That’s where the strategy of ‘pre-bunking’ comes in. It’s being developed in Cambridge in the UK, headed up by Dr Sander van der Linden. It focuses on educating people about how conspiracy theories work and how they get traction before people are exposed to them. Pre-bunking may appeal to the narcissist’s need to be the smartest person in the room, Tylor says. 

“They’ve made a game that allows people to play a main character that is trying to spread conspiracy theories and misinformation. So, I think that particularly for narcissists, they might quite enjoy feeling empowered and in control and that they're trying to manipulate people,” he says. 

“But suddenly they're being taught about the methods that people use to do that successfully. I think that can be used to our advantage by covertly teaching them how these things spread, what to look out for and why they're so good at manipulating people's emotions.” 

Hear more about Tylor's research here and read the full study here.

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