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Negative Childhood Experiences Can Lead to Conspiracy Beliefs, Study Warns

If you don't want your kid to worry about the Illuminati, make sure their early needs are met.

Negative early childhood experiences might turn kids into conspiracy theorists, new research suggests. Although the only “inside job” most toddlers know about is in their diapers, the findings suggest that people with anxious attachment styles (desire for intimacy but fear of putting oneself out there) may be predisposed to fringe beliefs. As a result, efforts to reduce children’s risk of becoming flat-earthers should start sooner than many parents think.

“Recent theorizing in social psychology suggests that individuals use conspiracy theories as an attempted defensive mechanism to address psychological needs, including the existential need for security and control,” study authors write. “Individuals with anxious attachment are preoccupied with their security, tend to hold a negative view of outgroups, are more sensitive to threats, and tend to exaggerate the seriousness of such threats.”

Past research confirms that conspiracy theories appear to gain the most traction in individuals whose deeper psychological needs are not being met. And there’s evidence that, when people feel more disempowered or anxious, they’re more likely to subscribe to conspiracies. Likewise, people are prone to conspiracy beliefs when they have a high personal need for uniqueness, or when their personal image is threatened, studies show. Conspiracies may engender fear, but they also appear to be a stabilizing force for people craving stability. Perhaps there’s something calming about believing that vaccines cause autism. 

For this new study, researchers from Kent University surveyed 246 adults on their conspiracy beliefs using the Generic Conspiracist Beliefs scale, asked participants to assess the veracity of statements such as “certain significant events have been the result of the activity of a small group who secretly manipulate world events.” They then tested each participant’s attachment style using a 36-item questionnaire. Finally, they gauged each volunteer’s right-wing attitudes, religiosity, level of education, and interpersonal trust—all factors linked to belief in conspiracy theories that may have otherwise skewed the results. The results suggest that anxious attachment, but not avoidant attachment (loners who are comfortable without close relationships), predicts conspiracy beliefs.

It’s important to note that the findings demonstrate a correlation between anxious attachment and conspiracy beliefs, but do not prove causation. Still, study authors argue that the results could help prevent conspiracy beliefs by giving parents another reason to foster secure attachment during infancy by being present and engaged parents — something you had many, many reasons to do anyway. 

But Barna Donovan, a professor of  Communication and Media Culture Saint Peter’s University (who was not involved in the study), argues that the key to nipping conspiracy theorists in the bud is teaching critical thinking skills. “One of the antidotes for this is to make kids more media literate and savvy to the tactics of unethical communicators,” Donovan told Fatherly. “They need to have the proper skills to deconstruct the argument of a conspiracy theorist and see how such conspiracy theorists are using underhanded tactics to construct illogical and unsupported arguments.”