Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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The Psychopathological Foundations of Conspiracy Theorists

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posted on 2021-11-14, 09:15 authored by Kumareswaran, Darshani Jai

The primary aim of this thesis was to understand some of the factors that make an individual more likely to ascribe to conspiracy theories. Ascription to conspiracy theories was conceptualised dimensionally along a continuum labelled Conspiracy Theory Affinity (CTA). Strong CTA reflects both a high level of belief in conspiracy theories and a tendency to create conspiracy theories (conspiracy theorising). To gauge this, I measured level of conspiracy belief, conspiracy pattern perception (conspiracy theory creation), as well as various forms of psychopathology. The findings of the psychopathology study (study 4) suggested that high conspiracy theory affinity individuals are more likely to present with high levels of paranoia, delusion, general mental pathology, as well as a high level and range of schizotypal traits. The conspiracy theory literature has also suggested that a lack of control is germane to development and maintenance of the tendency to believe in conspiracy theories (Abalakina-Paap et al., 1999; Douglas & Sutton, 2008; Groh, 1987; Hofstadter, 1965; Leman, 2007; Newheiser, Farias, & Tausch, 2011; Swami et al., 2013; Sullivan et al., 2010; Whitson & Galinsky, 2008). The literature also suggests that one compensatory strategy commonly used to re-establish a semblance of control is illusory pattern perception. Illusory pattern perception or Apophenia, is when unrelated stimuli (either visual or situational) are perceived to be connected in some meaningful way. Therefore, I also sought to establish if a direct link between illusory pattern perception and CTA actually exists. In studies 1 and 2 I experimentally induced a sense of low control using methods that have proven effective in previous research. The findings of these studies suggested that a lack of control does not necessarily reflect that a person is more likely to engage in conspiracy pattern perception. However, the findings also suggested that when a low level of control is felt by an individual who also has a magical thinking style, they are more likely to demonstrate illusory visual pattern perception. Limitations of these studies and therefore their potential influence on interpretations of the findings were also considered. Another major research aim of this thesis was to elucidate how society perceives conspiracy theorists and how those with strong CTA perceive the label of conspiracy theorist. The findings of two studies (studies 3b and 5) revealed that the majority of respondents considered conspiracy theorists to be characteristically similar to those with current mental health concerns and also convicted criminals, and dissimilar to targets with resolved mental health issues and no current mental health issues (e.g. the average man). In contrast however, those with strong CTA rated the target Conspiracy Theorist significantly more favourably than those with low CTA. Theoretical and clinical implications of these findings across these 5 studies are discussed, and methodological limitations are also acknowledged.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline


Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970117 Expanding Knowledge in Psychology and the Cognitive sciences

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Psychology


McDowall, John; Wilson, Marc