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Are Conspiracy Theorists Always Extremists?

Levels of conspiracy theorizing suggest an array of people believe in them.


On May 14, 2022, an 18-year-old man opened fire at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, killing 10 people. The suspect, Payton S. Gendron, had apparently been planning the attack for several months. Subsequent investigation of his social media accounts suggested a racist motivation behind the attack, with Gendron having chosen this particular area because it has a high proportion of Black residents. The tragedy was soon labeled a hate crime by the U.S. Justice Department. Of the 13 people shot at the supermarket that day, 11 were Black. The shooting was another in a line of recent White supremacist hate crimes, including recent mass shootings in El Paso, Texas; Charleston, South Carolina; Norway; and New Zealand.


"The Great Replacement"


The gunman in the Buffalo shooting seems to have subscribed to a particular conspiracy theory called “the great replacement.” Between 2010 and 2020, a great deal of demographic change has happened, especially in Western European countries and the United States. During this time, the percentage of Americans who identify as “white only” dropped from 72 to 62 percent, and, at the same time, there were record influxes of migrants from Muslim nations, especially into Western Europe. The "great replacement” posits that this demographic shift has been orchestrated by elite power holders as a kind of “white genocide.” In the United States especially, believers in this theory posit that Jews are bringing in immigrants and promoting interracial marriage to suppress the white population. What’s especially frightening at this point in time is that this seemingly “fringe” theory has become much more mainstream, with one in three Americans now believing some version of this idea.


Source: Val Dunne Photography/Shutterstock


While some might think about conspiracy theorists as people in tinfoil hats who believe the moon landing never happened or that the Earth is flat, these ideas affect much more than what we think of the galaxy. Especially recently, the tie between conspiracy theories and extremist political and social beliefs is undeniable. QAnon, with its very clear white supremacist undertones, is a good example of this. The beliefs spouted by “Q” and his or her followers are particularly “moralist” in nature, suggesting that the “enemy” is unthinkably evil. This enemy is not only the opposite political party but also very often any group that might be maligned by Q’s followers, including Black people, immigrants, and Jews. After being marginalized from politics for so long, the alt-right, neo-Nazis, and neo-Fascists certainly saw the value of QAnon to help them shoulder their way back into the political mainstream, and they were often successful.

But what about the one in three Americans who believe versions of the great replacement theory? Is everyone who engages with a conspiracy theory an all-out extremist? It is difficult to fathom that this is in fact the case, considering the extremely high percentage of people who believe in at least one conspiracy theory. The vast majority of them will thankfully not act on their beliefs, as the Buffalo shooter did. So what makes the difference between someone who dabbles in these ideas and someone who acts on them?


Susceptibility to Conspiracy Theories


There is good research now to suggest that certain circumstances and personality traits make some people more susceptible to conspiracy theories than others. People who are socially isolated, have high levels of existential doubt and paranoia, and who feel socially and politically powerless and marginalized are especially at risk. More recent research also suggests that openness to new experiences as well as personal traits such as agreeableness are protective against conspiracy theories. “Disagreeable” people, who are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, tend to have higher levels of Machiavellianism (manipulativeness and cynicism), narcissism, and sadism. These are all traits that are on a spectrum, with everyone displaying some degree of all of them.

Feeling socially and politically powerless and marginalized can especially motivate people to seek out in-groups that will make them feel included. Conspiracy theories offer an automatic, tightly knit group of people who share particularly strong beliefs. The strength of shared beliefs helps make the group relationship even tighter. The personality traits and feelings of overall uncertainty and existential dread can range from being somewhat muted to being quite powerful. Small amounts of these traits and circumstances can push someone to start engaging with conspiracy theories but may not cause them to be completely taken over by them. In instances such as the case of the Buffalo shooter, it is completely appropriate to ask questions about highly pathological traits that may be associated more with mental illness than just with variance from the mean. For example, the Buffalo shooter may have had pathological levels of paranoia, rather than simply a higher dose of it than the average conspiracy-theory adherent.


Understanding What Drives People to Act


Our job is to better understand what drives people such as the Buffalo shooter to do what he did and to make sure that there are more societal safeguards to ensure that a person like this does not carry out what he did. These safeguards might include things like better access to mental health care and less access to firearms. But it is also our job to understand how people with low levels of conspiracy theory beliefs can be redirected. We are gaining a better understanding nearly every day about some of the protective features that may help us here, including open-mindedness and, especially in cases related to science, scientific curiosity.

Public acceptance of extremist conspiracy theories creates the environment for people with pathological traits and beliefs to blossom and flourish. Part of the answer to these tragic events is to better address the fact that many Americans engage with conspiracy theories at a lower level, utilizing the protective factors we already know about and the ones that will continue to emerge as a result of continuing research on the topic. Only then can we disrupt the feedback that ultimately gives extremists the encouragement and motivation to act on their beliefs.

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