Dark Personalities, Cognitive Style, and Conspiracy Theories

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Events in recent years have demonstrated the growing danger of conspiracy theories as well as the pressing need to combat them. To this end, considerable research has examined their causes and consequences as well as potential means of addressing them. While there remains much to explore and understand, by now it is well-established that some individual characteristics can make people more susceptible to conspiracy claims while other traits can make them more resistant to them.

A new study, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences (Došenović and Dinić, 2024), reports on important new findings about how a particular set of these characteristics: dark personality traits. Using a statistical analysis of survey data, the research examines how different cognitive styles mediate the effect that these traits can have on an individual’s willingness to believe in conspiracy claims.

Personality and Thinking Styles

First, a dark personality is a type of disposition a person may have that is generally considered to be negative, antisocial, or simply unpleasant to others. For at least the past few years, psychologists have shown an increasing interest in examining the connections between this type of personality and proneness to belief in conspiracy theories (see, for example, “Why Narcissists Love Conspiracy Theories”). This body of work generally shows an association with higher average levels of belief, but the results are often mixed and not entirely consistent from one study to the next.

One reason for this variance is that there is no single dark personality type but, instead, a set of distinct yet potentially interrelated traits associated with it. In their study, Došenović and Dinić adopt the “Dark Tetrad” model of these traits. This conceptualizes four characteristics of dark personalities, of which they measured six dimensions. These include the following:

  • Machiavellianism: manipulative and exploitative traits
  • Primary psychopathy: absence of empathy and guilt
  • Secondary psychopathy: impulsivity and lack of forethought
  • Narcissistic admiration: high self-esteem and grandiosity
  • Narcissistic rivalry: derogatory and aggressive behavior toward others to protect self-esteem
  • Sadism: enjoyment of others’ suffering and misfortune

Whatever predisposition to conspiracy beliefs a dark personality trait might provide, it is not a guarantee that an individual will entertain these beliefs. Many other factors potentially modify the actual outcome. In their paper, Došenović and Dinić test how “thinking styles” might play such a mediating role. This refers to the general way people contemplate issues and process information to arrive at a conclusion. There are two general modes of thinking (Epstein, 2003): (1) intuitive/experiential and (2) rational/cognitive. The former is a quick, emotional response to information. It relies on one’s “gut” or feelings. Conversely, the rational style is slower and more deliberate. It involves close analysis of information instead of automatic, affective reactions.

Given these differences, it is not surprising that prior research links the intuitive mode with greater susceptibility to conspiracy theories (Biddlestone et al., 2022) and the rational approach with lower vulnerability (Yelbuz et al., 2022). However, different personality types, including specific Dark Tetrad traits, can also predispose a person to be more likely to adopt one of these thinking styles. Thus, while personality can have a direct effect on conspiracy beliefs, it could also have an indirect or mediating effect on them through its influence on cognitive style. This is what the authors investigated.

Effects on Conspiracy Beliefs

In examining the correlations in the mediation analysis of their sample, the researchers found some patterns that fit their expectations as well as some surprises. One unexpected result was that sadism did not have any relationship with general conspiracy beliefs at all—either directly or when mediated by cognitive style. As a more recent addition to the dark personality concept, it’s possible sadism is undertheorized relative to the other dark traits, at least when it comes to its relationship to thinking style and beliefs.

The model did find some direct links, where Dark Tetrad traits were associated with higher levels of conspiracy belief without necessarily having to be mediated by thinking style. Specifically, Machiavellianism, primary psychopathy, and secondary psychopathy all demonstrated a direct relationship with greater levels of belief. There were no significant, direct effects for either dimension of narcissism, however. This also comes as something of a surprise given its frequent association with conspiracy beliefs in prior research. The authors point out that this could be another situation where differences in the method of measurement could explain the difference.

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In terms of indirect effects, the intuitive thinking style did not yield any significant mediation results for any of the Dark Tetrad variables. However, the rational style did, for all traits except for sadism. Interestingly, the direction of the effect was not consistent. Primary and secondary psychopathy both corresponded with lower levels of rational cognition, which then increased conspiracy beliefs. This was predicted by the authors given the nature of these traits. For example, secondary psychopathy’s association with impulsiveness could reasonably be expected to lead to less careful, fast thinking.

Machiavellianism was also linked to greater conspiracy beliefs through an association with intuitive thinking. Whereas psychopathy features traits conducive to relying on intuition, Machiavellianism is not, so this was another surprise. Instead, it involves careful, premeditated planning and manipulation to get what an individual wants. The authors suggest researchers consider a more nuanced approach to understating this disposition, which might offer some solution to this puzzle. For instance, maybe these individuals are motivated to rational analytic thinking primarily when it comes to their self-interested manipulations and not when thinking about popular conspiracy topics that are less relevant to them and more global in scale.

Finally, both narcissistic traits demonstrated indirect effects on conspiracy beliefs mediated through rational thinking. As predicted, the narcissistic rivalry trait tends toward a less rational style that makes belief more likely. On the other hand, narcissistic admiration was actually associated with less belief in conspiracies. This trait corresponded with a greater degree of rational cognition and, consequently, less belief in conspiracies. The authors offer some speculation as to why this might be (e.g., effects of self-esteem-related biases, measurement issues given the nonsignificant main effect). However, the result presents a mystery pending further investigation.

Learning From Research on Conspiracy Beliefs

While these results are compelling, it is important to consider them with caution. As the authors acknowledge, the sample was nonrandom and limited to citizens from a single nation (i.e., Serbia). Consequently, the results may not fully represent the population from which they were drawn, and they might not generalize with samples from other countries even if they do. Additionally, the method relies on self-report from its subjects, who might not answer questions entirely honestly since these ask about controversial issues. Moreover, as noted above, there are different ways to measure many of the factors that played an important role here. The results may not be fully comparable with work using alternative measurement models.

Despite these limitations, most of which are fairly standard and difficult to avoid, research like this is necessary and important for dealing with the challenges of dangerous and false information. It helps improve our understanding of dark personality traits as well as what factors predict belief in conspiracy theories. It also contributes to the growing body of literature that could help combat the dissemination of questionable and dangerous beliefs. In part, this is due to the study’s distinctive focus on cognitive style mediating the effects of personality type.

While individuals might have a general tendency toward a particular cognitive style, everyone is capable of using either mode given the right circumstances (Zang, 2013). So, with proper motivation, people can engage with a more rational, analytical thought process when dealing with conspiracy theories. As this research shows, this can help protect them against the siren song of these dangerous claims. This is important for everyone, but especially for people with personality types that might already predispose them to susceptibility. Unfortunately, the rational mode of cognitive style is generally more resource-intensive and slower than the easy, rapid intuitive approach, so considerable incentive might be necessary to encourage it.

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