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Monday, September 26, 2022

Why do narcissists find conspiracy theories so appealing?

A. Cichocka, M. Marchlewska, & M. Biddlestone
Current Opinion in Psychology
Volume 47, October 2022, 101386


Narcissism—a conviction about one's superiority and entitlement to special treatment—is a robust predictor of belief in conspiracy theories. Recent developments in the study of narcissism suggest that it has three components: antagonism, agentic extraversion, and neuroticism. We argue that each of these components of narcissism might predispose people to endorse conspiracy theories due to different psychological processes. Specifically, we discuss the role of paranoia, gullibility, and the needs for dominance, control, and uniqueness. We also review parallel findings for narcissistic beliefs about one's social groups. We consider the wider implications this research might have, especially for political leadership. We conclude by discussing outstanding questions about sharing conspiracy theories and other forms of misinformation.



Although narcissists are typically overconfident in their abilities, judgments, and intelligence, they tend to be naive and less likely to engage in cognitive reflection. For example, Hart and colleagues found that those scoring high in narcissistic rivalry/antagonism (but not admiration/agentic extraversion) were more gullible, that is insensitive to cues of untrustworthiness and vulnerable to being manipulated. Furthermore, studies consistently show that both grandiose (especially its antagonistic, but less consistently agentic extroversive, component) and vulnerable (its antagonistic and neurotic components) narcissism are associated with a predisposition towards odd and unusual beliefs. Conspiracy theories can be one example of such beliefs. There is also evidence that gullibility strengthens the association between narcissism and conspiracy beliefs. In a study by Ahadzadeh and colleagues, the link between narcissism and endorsement of COVID-19 conspiracy theories was especially pronounced among those who were not skeptical towards social media posts in the first place. Taken together, this research suggests that narcissistic antagonism and neuroticism might predict higher gullibility, further related to conspiracy beliefs.

Parallel effects of collective narcissism

Multiple studies indicate that conspiracy theories might not only be appealing to those high in individual narcissism, but also in collective narcissism—a belief that one's group is exceptional and deserves special treatment. Collective narcissism predicts beliefs in conspiracy theories about outgroups, for instance accusing them of involvement in high-profile events (such as the 2019 Smolensk air disaster). Collective narcissism has also been linked to beliefs in anti-science conspiracy theories (e.g., about vaccines, COVID-19, or climate change). These associations are typically explained by the exaggerated intergroup threat sensitivity of collective narcissists, analogous to the paranoia and threat sensitivity of individual narcissists. A conviction that one's group is unique and entitled to special treatment might also increase the need to deny or deflect from national failings by pointing a finger towards malevolent forces undermining the ingroup. Furthermore, there is evidence suggesting that a motivation to restore personal control strengthens the association between collective narcissism and outgroup conspiracy beliefs, echoing the role of control and dominance motives in individual narcissism. Finally, given studies linking collective narcissism to bullshit receptivity and low cognitive reflection, it is at least plausible that gullibility also plays a role. Thus, collective and individual narcissism could be linked to conspiracy beliefs via similar psychological processes. At the same time, while the effects of individual narcissism might be relatively stable across contexts, any effects of collective narcissism might depend on whether certain identities are important or salient to participants. More work is needed to examine these possibilities.

Some important information for mental health clinicians.