It's all too easy to dismiss conspiracy theorists as just being dumb, and heaven knows I've fallen into that often enough myself.
Part of the problem is that if you know any science, so many conspiracy theories just seem... idiotic. That 5G cell towers cause COVID. That eating food heated up in a microwave causes cancer. As we just saw last week, that Satan's throne is located in Geneva and that's why the physicists at CERN are up to no good.
And sure, there's a measure of ignorance implicit in most conspiracy theories. To believe that Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin's on-field collapse was caused by the COVID vaccine -- as both Charlie Kirk and Tucker Carlson stated -- you have to be profoundly ignorant about how vaccines work. (This claim led to a rash of people on Twitter who demanded that anything with mRNA in it be officially banned, apparently without realizing that mRNA is in every living cell and is a vital part of your protein-production machinery. And, therefore, it is not only everywhere in your body, it's present in every meat or vegetable you've ever consumed.)
But simple ignorance by itself doesn't explain it. After all, we're all ignorant about a lot of stuff; you can't be an expert in everything. I, for example, know fuck-all about business and economics, which is why it's a subject I never touch here at Skeptophilia (or anywhere else, for that matter). I'm fully aware of my own lack of knowledge on the topic, and therefore anything I could say about it would have no relevance whatsoever.
Scientists have been trying for years to figure out why some people fall for conspiracies and others don't. One theory which at least partially explains it is that conspiracy theorists tend to score higher than average in the "dark triad" of personality traits -- narcissism, sociopathy, and black-and-white thinking -- but that isn't the whole answer, because there are plenty of people who score high on those assessments who don't espouse crazy ideas.
But now a psychologist at the University of Regina, Gordon Pennycook, thinks he has the right answer.
The defining characteristic of a conspiracy theorist isn't ignorance, narcissism, or sociopathy; it's overconfidence.
Pennycook designed a clever test to suss out people's confidence levels when given little to nothing to go on. He showed volunteers photographs that were blurred beyond recognition, and asked them to identify what the subject of the photo was. ("I don't know" wasn't an option; they had to choose.) Then, afterward, they were asked to estimate the percentage of their guesses they thought they'd gotten right.
That self-assessment correlated beautifully with belief in conspiracy theories."Sometimes you're right to be confident," Pennycook said. "In this case, there was no reason for people to be confident... This is something that's kind of fundamental. If you have an actual, underlying, generalized overconfidence, that will impact the way you evaluate things in the world."