A recent a piece of research published by Viren Swami and colleagues has uncovered a link between feeling stressed and belief in conspiracy theories.
Swami and colleagues gathered responses from over 400 people, where the responders completed various measures, such as indicating their perceived stress (over the last month), stressful life events (over last 6 months) and belief in conspiracy theories. They found that more stressful life events and greater perceived stress predicted belief in conspiracy theories.
There are a couple of reasons proposed why this may be the case. For example, when people experience stress (say a stressful life event), they may start thinking in a particular way such as seeing patterns when they do not exist, which may lead on to prompting a conspiratorial mind set. Once this worldview has begun to develop therefore, belief in conspiracy theories are more easily reinforced.
Alternatively, the researchers suggest stress may not be the central driving force, but rather, the findings may be caused by a threat to a sense of control. When an event happens; the death of JFK as an example, this causes people to feel a sense powerlessness, thus people may seek out conspiracy theories as a way to reinstall a sense of control. The next step in the research is to examine the complex relationships between stress, control and belief in conspiracy theories in order to tease apart the mechanisms.
Investigating the associations between beliefs in conspiracy theories and factors such as stress is an important avenue of research. From my own work, we have highlighted the potential negative consequences of belief in, and exposure to, conspiracy theories. It is therefore paramount that we strive to learn more about the psychology of conspiracy theories.
Of course conspiracy theories may offer several benefits. They can be a way to gain a sense of control as suggested and can be said to promote transparency within authorities. Conspiracy theories can also reduce the likelihood of people voting, taking action against climate change, and having a fictional child vaccinated. In some of my most recent work, conspiracy theories can be used as a way to express negativity, alongside changing how we perceive other social groups.
As highlighted by Swami and colleagues therefore, examining belief in conspiracy theories remains an urgent issue for researchers and policy-makers.