The balance between raising a kid who’s unique and raising a flat-earther may be hard to strike, a new study suggests. Researchers found that people raised to consider themselves unique were more likely to believe in conspiracy theories.
“People who believe strongly in conspiracy theories are more likely to be distrustful of others, narcissistic, have an authoritarian personality, or show a propensity to become bored easily,” coauthor on the study Anthony Lantian of the Université Paris Nanterre told Fatherly. “Our research has identified an additional psychology trait related to a fundamental motivation—the need for uniqueness.”
Past studies have linked narcissism, paranoia, and even feelings of uniqueness to belief in conspiracy theories. But “at the time our studies were conducted,” Lantian says. “This idea had never been tested empirically.”
So Lantian and colleagues conducted a series of four separate experiments. They first surveyed 190 adults and found that people who believed in conspiracies were more likely to think they had access to less information than the average person, and were less likely to trust information obtained from others. In the second experiment, which involved an additional 208 participants, researchers found that people who displayed a chronic need to feel unique were more likely to believe in conspiracies. The third and fourth experiments confirmed the findings from the first two, but fed participants two specific conspiracy theories—a fake news article and a fake meta-analysis in a scientific journal.
The results imply that conspiracy theorists are not necessarily desperate truth-seekers, but individuals intent on reassuring themselves that they are unique and have special access to information. “Interestingly, the motive is not based on a pure truth seeking,” Lantian says. “It is based on goals related to management of one’s identity.”
The findings put parents in a bind—you want your kid to be unique, but you certainly don’t want them wearing tinfoil hats and going on about faux lunar landings. “It is difficult to really know the role that parents could play in the development of their children’s desire to feel unique,” Lantian says. “It could have no effect at all, it could even backfire,” he says. So until we have further research, there’s no reason for parents to downplay their children’s individuality. Until that’s empirically tested, it’s not a good reason to caution children against blazing their own trails.
Instead, Lantian suggests, parents can protect their kids from conspiracy theories by downplaying the significance of these theories and reinforcing the idea that belief in conspiracies is not unique. “Reducing conspiracy theories’ attractive attributes could be a potential solution to prevent the seductive power of conspiracy narratives’ appeal among youngsters,” Lantian recommends. Because the world doesn’t need any more nut jobs rambling about the Illuminati.