Conspiracy believers exhibit reduced emotional granularity and heightened rumination

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A recent study published in Applied Cognitive Psychology reveals that people who struggle to distinguish between different negative emotions are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. Additionally, these individuals often engage in rumination, a maladaptive strategy for emotion regulation. The findings suggest that improving emotional granularity— the ability to identify and describe emotions accurately—may help individuals manage their emotions better and reduce their susceptibility to conspiracy beliefs.

“Particularly on the internet and in social networks, you often come across explanations that convey a supposedly elitist secret knowledge about the ‘true’ cause of significant events,” said study author Albert Wabnegger, a senior scientist in the Clinical Department of the Institute of Psychology at the University of Graz.

“Such conspiracy theories are compelling because they offer simple explanations for complex events and play on people’s feelings. They usually involve a powerful group working in secret to achieve sinister goals. It is not only fascinating but also important to understand who is most likely to believe in such theories and which psychological factors favor such beliefs.”

The study involved 165 participants, predominantly psychology students, with a mean age of 26 years. Participants completed an online survey and installed a custom app on their smartphones to track their emotional states. Over one week, the app prompted participants twice daily to describe their current emotional state using their own words. They also rated the intensity and pleasantness of these emotions.

To assess emotional granularity, researchers categorized the adjectives participants used as either specific (e.g., “isolated”) or unspecific (e.g., “bad”). Two independent raters evaluated these descriptions, and inter-rater reliability was established. Participants’ ability to differentiate emotions was measured based on the specificity of the words they used.

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