A study from the journal Personality and Individual Differences suggests that there may be an underlying, shared feature of dark personality traits that explains why each one is tied to conspiracy belief. The study found that nearly all of the associations between dark traits and conspiracy belief could be partly explained by three mediators: the tendency to uphold odd beliefs, the tendency to distrust others, and a fatalistic attitude.
The Dark Tetrad traits describe the anti-social personality traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and sadism. While all four of these traits describe people who are prone to cruel behavior and taking advantage of others, each one is associated with a distinct profile. Narcissism involves the tendency to be overly concerned with one’s self-image, Machiavellianism involves the tendency to be deceitful and manipulative, psychopathy includes callousness and lack of remorse, and sadism involves pleasure from inflicting pain on others.
A common feature of dark personality traits is the tendency to believe in conspiracy theories. Researcher Cameron S. Kay was motivated to uncover what it is about these traits that might predispose people to such beliefs. In his study, he tested the potential mediators of odd beliefs, perceived lack of control, desire for control, distrust of others, and the need to feel unique.
A final sample of 474 undergraduate students completed a questionnaire that included assessments of each of these potential mediators, as well as each of the four dark personality traits. The students also completed three different scales to measure aspects of conspiracy ideation.
The results of the survey revealed that nearly all facets of the dark personality traits were linked to conspiracy belief through three main factors: the tendency to uphold odd beliefs, the tendency to distrust others, and a fatalistic attitude (the tendency to feel a lack of control over one’s future). The only exception was the leadership/authority facet of narcissism, which was tied to conspiracy ideation through odd beliefs, the desire for control, and distrust of others, but not fatalism.
“In contrast to what the previous literature would suggest, it appears that those with aversive personality traits believe in conspiracy theories for mostly the same reasons,” Kay notes in his study. “Conspiracist ideation may, therefore, arise from some shared feature of these traits rather than a feature that is unique to each trait.”
The study author suggests that one such shared attribute might be low-agreeableness, which is a common feature of the four dark traits and has also been linked to conspiracy belief. Another possibility, he says, has to do with life history strategy. People with dark personality traits tend to adopt a “fast life strategy” that leads them to pursue immediate gratification at the expense of long-term consequences. Fast life strategies involve a distrust of others and a fatalist attitude.
Kay’s findings offer insight into potential interventions aimed at reducing conspiracy belief. As the author proposes, these interventions might find success by focusing on altering an individual’s unusual beliefs, fatalistic attitude, and distrust of others, “without having to change the person’s underlying disposition.”
The study was limited by a non-representative sample, and additional mediators remain to be considered. While future studies will need to be conducted, the study offers tentative evidence that people with dark personality traits are likely prone to conspiracy belief for the same reasons.
The study, “Actors of the most fiendish character: Explaining the associations between the Dark Tetrad and conspiracist ideation”, was authored by Cameron S. Kay.