The researchers first asked a sample of 238 US participants recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk survey website to complete a self-reported “Need For Uniqueness” scale (they rated their agreement with items like “being distinctive is extremely important to me”) and a Conspiracy Mentality scale (e.g. “Most people do not see how much our lives are determined by plots hatched in secret.”) before indicating whether or not they believed in a list of 99 conspiracy theories circulating online. Endorsement of the different conspiracy theories was highly correlated: belief in one conspiracy theory meant beliefs in others would be more likely. Participants’ self-reported Need For Uniqueness also correlated with their stronger endorsement of the conspiracy beliefs.
The second study replicated this finding with a further 465 Mechanical Turk participants based in the US, but this time half the sample read a list of the five most well known conspiracy theories and the five least known ones, whereas the other half of the group read the five most popular conspiracy theories and the five least popular. Again, self-reported Need For Uniqueness correlated with stronger agreement with the various conspiracy theories. It’s not clear from these findings whether need for uniqueness was really driving greater conspiracy endorsement so the researchers devised a third experiment to test this.
A final, unforeseen and particularly astounding finding emerged only after the participants had been debriefed. A full 25 per cent of the sample continued to retain beliefs in the made-up smoke detector conspiracy even after they had been told that the theory was false and had been made up by the researchers for the sole purpose of the study. Supporting the researchers’ conclusion further, this continued belief in the made-up conspiracy theory was correlated with the participants’ self-reported Need For Uniqueness. Taken together, the findings provide convincing evidence that some people are motivated to agree with conspiracy theories with an aura of exclusiveness. To them it may not matter in the slightest that their views are in the minority, to the contrary this knowledge could actually amplify their beliefs.