There appears to be a rise in conspiratorial thinking in modern Western democracies. Whether we cite beliefs that Bill Gates placed microchips in COVID-19 vaccines, that the world is ruled by an elite closed group of selected individuals, or that 9/11 was an inside job, beliefs — and, therefore, social discussions — about conspiracies are becoming increasingly common in our collective consciousness.
Although some social psychologists have started to build a fairly comprehensive understanding of why people believe in conspiracies, we are still limited in how well we conceive of conspiratorial thinking within groups. One recent study has started to unpack this tendency.
Conspiracy thinking is on the rise — even within groups.
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Conspiracy Thinking and Collective Narcissism
A body of evidence is emerging that highlights the important role of a construct called “collective narcissism” in group-based interactions. Briefly, collective narcissism refers to a tendency to experience threat from others and to address this perceived threat by bolstering the subjective status of one’s ingroup. In recent work, collective narcissism has been associated with support for populist politicians (who typically seek to focus their attention — and therefore policies — on bolstering national identity and strength), as well as being linked to acts of aggression directed toward perceived outgroup members.
Collective narcissism has been correlated with conspiratorial thinking in a number of previous research programs. This link makes logical sense, in that if a collectively narcissistic person feels threatened by others, they may start to attribute malevolence to outgroup members when this is not present. For example, in the Polish context (where ideas related to collective narcissism are commonly studied), participants who scored high on a measure of collective narcissism were more likely to believe that the Smolensk air disaster had foreign involvement.
One limitation of the conspiracy theory literature — similar to other areas of social psychology — is that there is a tendency to label some issues as conspiracies and others as not. For instance, one study found that Catholics scoring high on collective narcissism were increasingly likely to believe in what researchers dubbed “the gender conspiracy,” which is a collection of beliefs centered around the idea that gender activists are seeking to promote an ideological view of binary gender that subverts traditional social organization. The issue here is that this is a stated aim of many social activists with regard to gender.
Despite this issue, collective narcissism — particularly with its roots in perceived threat — may be a sensible candidate as a personality factor linked to belief in conspiracies. However, whether this extends to conspiratorial thinking (and, indeed, conspiratorial action) within groups — rather than merely being a way to malign outgroups — was, until recently, still unexplored.
Collective Narcissisists Turn on Themselves
In new research led by Dr. Mikey Biddlestone — a postdoctoral researcher within the Social Decision-Making Lab at Cambridge University — the idea that those with collectively narcissistic identities might conspire within their groups was investigated. Speaking of the motivations for the research, Biddlestone said:
The defensive and insecure group identity that collective narcissism captures (rather than the more secure, solidarity-based conventional identification with an ingroup) appears to show worrying implications for the treatment of fellow group members. That is, those displaying this form of identity are willing to treat their fellow ingroup members instrumentally, using them for their own personal gains. This is especially important when referring to populist movements, which have been shown to espouse stronger forms of this defensive identity.
With this in mind, the researchers expected those with higher levels of collective narcissism to be associated with conspiring against ingroup members and beliefs in conspiracies within the ingroup.
Across four studies — collectively containing more than 2,000 participants recruited from Poland, the United Kingdom, and the United States — the researchers demonstrated that collective narcissism was predictive of intentions to engage in conspiratorial actions (including wiretapping communications, promoting trusted ingroup members to positions of authority, and setting up surveillence systems). These trends were still observed when controlling for so-called “dark” personality traits (including Machiavellianism, which is distinguished as being associated with manipulativeness) and a preference for hierarchical social structures.
In one study, intentions to engage in conspiratorial actions were linked to a belief that conspiracies were afoot within an ingroup, leading Biddlestone to speculate on the reasons underpinning the link between collective narcissism and conspiracy belief. He said:
… it is still unclear whether people are willing to engage in conspiracies against their ingroup in order to satisfy their selfish needs, or whether conspiratorial plots are a defensive reaction to the belief that others in their group are likely to conspire as well. In our paper, we argue that both of these processes are likely, meaning that people may conspire to satisfy their thwarted needs for control, but then project their own intentions onto others, once again increasing their willingness to conspire as a pre-emptive defense against other group members’ plots.
This is interesting, as it suggests a self-perpetuating cycle of conspiratorial action into perceived conspiracies within a group, which is likely to enhance both perceived and actual conspiratorial thinking (and action) over time. Thinking of implications of these findings, Biddlestone added:
This is not to say that banding together to uncover Machiavellian or nefarious plots is a bad thing in itself, but more that a group identity based on defining the “real” vs. “Fake” members of our society are divisive and can create a toxic culture of ingroup paranoia.
More work is clearly needed to unpack the causal relationship at play here, but the findings are intriguing and have real implications for how people behave in groups where their identity is inherently tied to membership. Biddlestone concluded that “… people should remain vigilant against certain individuals who might try and steer the group in directions that are unlikely to benefit anyone or anything but their own selfish agendas.”
The research is published in the British Journal of Psychology.