Study: Mid-Life Conspiracy Theorists Are Indeed Lonely Weirdos

It's a commonly-held assumption that most people who believe in conspiracy theories are loners — and new research backs it up.

There are also classic questions of what's causing what. In a new paper published in the journal Nature Communications, a group of Norwegian psychology researchers found that when they looked over long-term life trajectory data, those who were lonely as teens seemed more likely to ascribe to conspiratorial beliefs later in life than those who had stronger social ties in their youth.

With COVID-19 misinformation running rampant over the past four years, there has been, as the University of Oslo researchers note, plenty of research in recent years about the mental states of people who ascribe to such beliefs. Far fewer, however, look into what emotional experiences in their pasts might have led them there.

"Existing studies capture only short periods of time, complicating the identification of early antecedents," the Norwegian psychologists expound. "Developmental perspectives examining how people’s life trajectories are associated with conspiracy mindsets are therefore missing due to the lack of suitable data."

With a 2022 meta-analysis strongly associating social alienation with conspiratorial beliefs, the Oslo researchers decided to look into nearly three decades of records on more than 2200 Norwegians, using healthcare and psychological data to determine what factors might help explain mid-life conspiracism. What they found, as they explain in their paper, was fascinating:

Conspiracist worldviews were particularly appealing to participants who were relatively lonely as adolescents and experienced increasing loneliness through their lives. One possible explanation for this pattern, albeit tentative and requiring further research, is that the contrasting of one’s own increasing loneliness relative to peers might be potent in fostering feelings of social isolation motivating our participants to turn to conspiracy theorizing to protect their ego, or to seek social connection among like-minded conspiracist groups.

As with any other study of this sort, context is everything. The writers point out that in 1992, when the people whose records they analyzed were in middle or high school, it was "impossible" to control for conspiracy theories because research into those beliefs is quite new.

The researchers also noted that because their data comes from Norway, a "technologically advanced society with high levels of institutional trust," their findings can't necessarily be used to generalize such beliefs in other cultures.

All the same, it's intriguing — albeit sad — to know that people who were loners are teens might be more likely to be conspiracy theorists as adults. And it could aid families, communities, and mental health practitioners in "deprogramming" interventions, too.

More on conspiracy theories: Conspiracy Theorists Said People Who Got the COVID Vaccine Would Be Dropping Like Flies. That Hasn't Remotely Happened