Shauna Bowes discusses her research on the psychological factors and personality traits behind conspiratorial beliefs.

Producer: Grace Lovins and Michael Gordon
05/15/2022 • 06:54 PM EST

Shauna Bowes, researcher of Clinical Psychology at Emory University, discusses her latest study, "Looking Under the Tinfoil Hat," on the psychological factors and personality traits that make someone prone to conspiratorial beliefs. She explains how her research allows for a better understanding of conspiratorial ideation (the tendency to believe in conspiracy theories), which may translate into approaches for intervention.

0:00: Grace Lovins:

With us today, we have Shauna Bowes, a doctoral candidate of clinical psychology at Emory University. She is also an author of Looking Under the Tinfoil Hat, a research study analyzing why certain people are prone to believing conspiracy theories. And we're here today to talk with her about her latest research. Shauna, thank you so much for joining us today.

0:17: Shauna Bowes:

Yeah, thank you for having me.

0:19: Grace Lovins:

So I've read a headline describing the findings of your study as "entitled people with low humility and low inquisitiveness" are more prone to believing conspiracy theories. If that is indeed what the study found, can you tell us first how the study was conducted and then we'll dive into the findings?

0:33: Shauna Bowes:

Yeah, absolutely. So this study had four individual samples. Three of which were recruited from online community platforms, like Amazon's Mechanical Turk, and one sample was recruited from Emory University, just like the undergraduate population. And it's important to emphasize that because we didn't intentionally recruit, you know, people who are enmeshed in QAnon or like dedicated to conspiracy theories. These are just like our normal everyday kind of folks.

1:03: Grace Lovins:

How did you test to see whether someone was more or less prone to believing in conspiracy theories?

1:08: Shauna Bowes:

We use self-report measures. Everything in this study was measured with self-report measures. So people are presented with a list of conspiracy theories, from validated measures and they write how much, like they believe in each one. Some of the measures were specific. So conspiracy theories like that are actually, you know, circulating in our culture like Princess Diana is actually alive, those kinds of things. And then general conspiracy theories as well. So they're not specific events, but things like the government is out to get us, so more general kind of statements. 

And then all of the personality traits and dispositions and other variables we measure were also via self-reports. So people agree or disagree with each statement on a certain scale.

1:53: Grace Lovins:

And how did you test for something like humility or enlightenment?

1:57: Shauna Bowes:

So again, we use valid self-report measures to measure general personality traits. We use a measure called the HEXACO, which actually you can take for free online. Anyone can take it. Even though it's like widely used in research, it's actually publicly accessible as well, which is pretty neat. And then we used measures that tap into more clinical related constructs, like narcissism and personality disorder traits and anxiety. But these are measures that were also developed to be used in community samples. So you can use them clinically, but you can also use them just to get scores in community populations. So again, self-report previously published measures.

2:40: Michael Gordon:

Something like narcissism, is this like a multiple-choice questionnaire they're answering? Like how do you measure that?

2:49: Shauna Bowes:

Yeah, so for the narcissism measure that we used, people are presented with two items and they pick which one fits them best. So it might be something like, I like looking at myself in the mirror while I walk by or you know, I don't really look at myself in the mirror when I walk by a mirror, and you pick which one kind of fits you best. And a lot of times people think like, how can you measure narcissism with self-report? Narcissists are actually pretty accurate at saying that they engage in narcissistic acts and narcissistic thoughts. They don't see a problem in talking about that because they think so highly of themselves anyway. So yeah, a lot of these measures are perfectly reliable and valid and can detect these traits and distinguish between people in the community.

3:36: Grace Lovins:

And you mentioned a list of questions called the HEXACO. Could you explain a little bit of what that is and how it kind of tied into your research?

3:44: Shauna Bowes:

Definitely. So I would say a HEXACO model was probably like the major thrust for this paper in many ways. So I'm not sure if people listening or tuning in are familiar with like the big five personality traits, but their general personality dimensions that were found decades ago and have been like, well replicated. The HEXACO model has a variance of the big five plus a sixth factor, and that sixth factor is honesty, humility. So the six dimensions are, like I said, honesty, humility, extroversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness. And these tend to be normally distributed, meaning people on-average kind of fall in the middle of these things. And at the extremes is where you might see more clinical kind of related expressions. So the major thrust of this paper was looking at these dimensions and also their facets for each dimension to see like the specific aspects of these dimensions and how they relate to conspirator ideation.

And the reason we were so interested in this question is, people have long assumed that conspiracy theories are sort of freaky, right? That it applies only to the fringe in society, the really weird people, the people who are totally different from us. And we wanted to see if we took a normal range, personality perspective, would we really like see anything here? Is it as weird and extreme as we think it is? And as with most things in psychology, it's kind of both, there's some normal aspects of it and there's some fringe aspects of it as well.

5:27: Grace Lovins:

And how did self-perceptions or self-examinations tie into conspiratorial beliefs?

5:34: Shauna Bowes:

Pretty consistently we found higher levels of entitlement and narcissism and not really being curious or inquisitive or humble. Those are pretty strong predictors of conspiratorial ideation and also tendencies to be kind of be inflexible and have unusual experiences. So people who have more unusual thoughts and experiences also are drawn to conspiracy theories. So what's interesting about this study is, as much as I'd like to say, oh, you know, it's this one thing or these two things, we found quite a lot that seems to predict conspiratorial ideation across these different samples and pretty consistently, which I think really speaks to the fact that it's complicated. It's not just that you're weird. It's not just that you're narcissistic. It's not just that you're not curious. It's probably all of these things coming together in kind of a perfect recipe to make people particularly at risk or something like conspiratorial ideation.

6:39: Grace Lovins:

And how does this research better help us understand people who are inclined to believe conspiracy theories, like QAnon or COVID 19 conspiracies?

6:46: Shauna Bowes:

Yeah, I think it gives us more insight onto like targets. The more specific we are and what we look at, the more specific we can be with designing intervention. So yes, conscientiousness was a negative correlate of conspiratorial ideation, but that prudence element was an even stronger negative correlate of conspiratorial ideation that fits nicely with the impulsivity piece. So that clues us into like, okay, maybe we need to help people not only be less impulsive in how they behave, but also less impulsive in how they think. Like we typically think of impulsivity as like, you know, you're going and spending a lot of money and you're doing stuff, but people also can be pretty impulsive in their thoughts and not really check them and just kind of reach conclusions and move on. 

So yeah, I think we have better insight into what to actually target. And I hope these kinds of studies can also build a little more empathy for people who are, you know, really committed to conspiracy theories because it's not just coming out of a vacuum. There's all of these psychological experiences and traits and dispositions that people kind of come into the world with. And then those get shaped and reinforced across their life. And conspiracy theories just make sense to them. You know, it's not like they're trying to be defiant or be this crazy kind of part of society. It just fits with their psychological, you know, profile. So I hope that people can get a better understanding of that so that we can approach it with a little more kindness, even though it's very, very hard to do.

8:19: Michael Gordon:

Are you planning on doing any follow-up research to this study?

8:25: Shauna Bowes:

Yes. I'm very fascinated with conspiracy theories. So I just published a paper recently looking at intellectual humility and misinformation, and measures of conspiracy theories where in that, so kind of probing more into that humility plus thinking, you know, aspect. I'm interested in doing a meta-analysis of synthesizing across a bunch of studies, what's going into conspiracy theories. So yes, definitely hoping to do more work on this and then long term in my career, hoping to do more intervention work. How can we actually like to change these kinds of things

9:01: Michael Gordon:

Yeah, so that was actually my next question. Any ideas at this point, even though you're not really working on that right now, but about intervention or possible intervention?

9:12: Shauna Bowes:

Yeah. It's super tricky. So, you know, my first answer is people have looked at this. It's certainly not like a new question and it's just, it's really hard to change people's beliefs, whether it's conspiracy theories or political polarization. Once a belief kind of becomes a part of your identity, it's really threatening to change it and really scary to change it. So what I kind of see as potentially a helpful step is like helping people slow down that impulsivity piece of things, is like just generally helping people to like, understand how thinking works. And that, when we reach conclusions really fast, sometimes it's not always right. So helping people to slow down and kind of take stock of what they're believing. And then increase a willingness to even think that they might be wrong. I think if we go in guns blazing, like you're wrong, change your mind, here's all the evidence that shows that you're wrong. It's just gonna, it's not going to work. 

So I think that first step is like the willingness to even consider that you could be wrong. And the way you do that is with a lot of empathy, a lot of understanding and slow shifts to like, have you considered this? What might you be missing in your belief system? You know, what might be inaccurate here? Does your identity have to rest on this like conspiracy theory? I think there's so many needs that need to be fulfilled. If you're a part of a community like QAnon, you don't just lose a belief, you lose your community. So how can we help people find community in other places before even changing their beliefs? 

So I know like I threw out lots of different ways to do that, but I think we really think about what do these people need and what would they lose giving up this belief and how can we fulfill that with other things?

11:05: Grace Lovins:

Okay. It looks like we're out of time for today. We've been talking to Shauna Bowes, doctoral candidate of clinical psychology at Emory University and researcher of why certain people are prone to believing conspiracy theories. Shauna, thank you so much for joining us today.

11:19: Shauna Bowes:

Yeah. Thank you.