People who endorse conspiracy theories are more anxious and less tolerant of ambiguity, study finds

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Two studies in Germany found that endorsement of conspiracy beliefs was linked with higher levels of dispositional anxiety, but not situational anxiety. These individuals were also found to be less tolerant to ambiguity. The research was published in Personality and Individual Differences.

Conspiracy theories are beliefs that there is a secret, hidden plot or collusion by a group of individuals or organizations to manipulate events or control outcomes in a way that is often contrary to the mainstream narrative or official explanations. These theories typically involve attributing malevolent intentions and deceptive actions to powerful entities, such as governments, corporations, or influential individuals.

While the public often believes that beliefs in conspiracy theories have increased in modern times, studies have suggested that contents of conspiracy theories are changing through time, but that the share of people believing in them has remained relatively constant. Looking for the explanation for this finding, researchers have linked the trait of anxiety to these beliefs. Anxiety is an emotion characterized by a heightened state of alertness and heightened sensitivity to potential threats in the environment. It involves a constant scanning for signs of danger and an exaggerated startle response.

At the moment, it is unclear how increased levels of anxiety contribute to the development of conspiracy beliefs. Researchers have proposed that conspiracy beliefs might be a by-product of the application of some strategy for coping with stress, but the exact mechanism is not known.

Study author Jonas Krüppel and his colleagues wanted to find out whether conspiracy beliefs are indeed linked to a specific strategy for coping with stress. They devised two surveys in which they aimed to test whether there is a specific coping style that can explain the relationship between anxiety and conspiracy beliefs.

The first survey included 589 individuals whose mean age was. They completed it online. The survey consisted of assessments of conspiracy beliefs (the Generic Conspiracist Beliefs Scale), anxiety as a trait and as a state (the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory), coping strategies (The Mainz Coping Inventory), and self-efficacy (the Generalized Self-Efficacy Scale).

The second survey was conducted on a sample 177 participants — 66% were female and the average age was 39 years. Participants completed the same assessments of conspiracy beliefs and anxiety used in study 1, but also an assessment of sensitivity to rewards and punishments (BIS/BAS scales and the Visual Approach/Avoidance by the Self Task).

Results of the first survey showed a weak association between conspiracy beliefs and the trait of anxiety. Coping strategies that were tested were not found to change the relationship between anxiety and conspiracy beliefs. The same was the case for self-efficacy.

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