Conspiracy Theories and Personality Styles

  • October 29, 2020
  • Personality styles and personality disorders

By John M. Oldham, M.D., and Lois B. Morris


Does the New Personality Self-Portrait 25 capture a vulnerability to conspiracy theories?  Recent studies have targeted a handful of likely personality traits that we can track.

Popular U.S. COVID conspiracy theories

Honestly, with all the social and political instability of these times, who doesn’t entertain at least some unsubstantiated explanations?

“More than 1 in 3 Americans believe that the Chinese government engineered the coronavirus as a weapon,” reported New York Times science writer Benedict Carey in September.  As well, a third are sure that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention exaggerated the threat of the disease “to undermine President Trump.”

Pandemic falsehoods published worldwide

The Cornell Alliance for Science just reported the results of a worldwide study of 38 million English-language articles about the pandemic. They determined that more than a million of them “disseminated, amplified or reported on misinformation.”

Here are their top 11 COVID conspiracy categories:

  1. Miracle cures. Injecting bleach, hydroxycholoroquine, etc. This topic was reported more often than all the following 10 combined.
  2. New world order/deep state.
  3. Democratic Party hoax.
  4. Wuhan Lab/bioweapon.
  5. Bill Gates. Since he had previously predicted a worldwide pandemic, he must have caused it, was one thread.
  6. 5G technology. This developing technology is deleterious to human health.
  7. Antisemitic conspiracies.
  8. Population control.
  9. Anthony Fauci. “Fire Fauci.”
  10. “Plandemic.” The pseudo-documentary featured a discredited virologist.
  11. Bat soup. People eating infected bats in Wuhan started it.

Subsequent fact-checking likely undercut the power of some of the original reporting.  Of course, facts help guide appropriate responses to what is a very real threat.  New research findings are providing more scientific explanations.  Unfortunately, rejection of science can lead unknowingly to behaviors that spread the disease.

Personality research findings

For people who are drawn to unsubstantiated explanations, recent research has turned up a few characteristic personality patterns.

One such is “the Injustice collector,” according to Benedict Carey’s report of a study headed by Emory University psychology researcher Shauna Bowes.   This person is also “impulsive and overconfident.”  The study also pointed to a person with a typically solitary, anxious, moody, and perhaps detached personality style.

Extreme beliefs

The most extreme and persistent conspiracy beliefs, the study determined, likely reveal pathology equated with personality disorders.

This study, coauthored by psychologist Scott Lilienfeld, featured the personality profiles of over 2,000 people.  Four traits, it turned out, marked subjects who were most drawn to unfounded explanations:

    • entitlement
    • self-centered impulsivity
    • cold-heartedness
    • psychoticism  (This trait involves aggression and hostility.)

What to look for on the NPSP25

A Personality Self-Portrait that is dominated by Vigilant and/or Idiosyncratic styles may suggest a vulnerability to conspiracy beliefs.  Vigilant people are cautious, defensive, and reactive to criticism.  Idiosyncratic types are unconventional, speculative, and different.

Extreme conspiracy-related traits, however, make a personality disorder more likely. People with Paranoid personality disorder are suspicious of others’ intentions, actions, loyalty, or fidelity.  Those diagnosed with Schizotypal personality disorder reveal odd thinking and are extremely mistrustful.  (See the Personality Style-Personality Disorder Continuum. )

In these cases, there may be substantial impairment in functioning and a need for professional help.

A reminder

The NPSP25 does not diagnose personality disorders.  But it could help you put any attraction you might have to unsubstantiated explanations into better perspective.


Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash