Do Conspiracy Theories Constitute a Psychopathic Disorder?

They’re a topic that have received relatively little attention throughout the advancement of psychological research. Yet conspiracy theories have a large impact on our involvement with society. We may only turn a tolerant scientific smile to those who tell us that 9/11 was plotted by the US government, but what about theories that our politicians are trying to engineer the decline of different systems to achieve their hidden motives? Such topics often grab our attention far more powerfully, and not always for bad reasons.

Early work by Hofstadter (1971) argued that conspiracy theories developed from people feeling incapable of bringing about change through social or political action. Because of this, some researchers even suggest that producing conspiracy theories is symptomatic of psycho-pathological behavior (Swami and Coles, 2010). Much of the current research does suggest that the underlying cause of conspiracy theory circulation is related to negative aspects of peoples lives.

The sharing of conspiracy theories have been found to change opinions, arouse anger and cause people to become more apathetic within the political system (Butler et al, 1995). It has been suggested that they are used as a means of justifying outraged and distressed emotions (Festinger, 1957), or that they manipulate emotions to further their message (Sunstein and Vermeuhle, 2009) and that their use often causes people to take a biased view towards evidence (McHoskey, 1995). All these sources, as cited by Swami and Coles (2010) present research that implies the promulgation of conspiracy theories is abnormal behavior.

But I don’t think that’s fair. As I said above, we may think it a bit odd, that people are making claims like that princess Diana was killed on purpose. But what about on a smaller scale? What if I say that university tuition fee’s have been raised to attack the poor? Or that the capacity of the A65 has been reduced, thus increasing traffic so as to justify gaining funding to build a rail connection to the local airport. Am I spreading an emotion fuelled message without solid evidence because I feel unable to make my voice heard through the proper systems? Yes, I am.

Look at how I changed the wording though. Swami and Coles used the word “incapacity”, while I just used the word “unable”. That is because I don’t believe that I am not physically capable of raising my opinion, I just feel like it isn’t listened to. And that’s what Clark (2002) argues, that they demand greater transparency from government behavior. In some ways, they are a force to unite people in campaigning for much needed changes (Sasson, 1995).  This is exemplified by evidence that has come forward in recent years surrounding attempts by the US government to provoke war with Cuba in 1962 (Swami and Coles, 2010, see also Ruppe, 2001)

While certain conspiracy theories can be highly unethical, such as those that discriminate against different races or socio-economic class, the manor of pathologising a behavior that we all exhibit in some form makes me skeptical. The research carried out on this topic is largely subjective, with no common construct upon which to determine if this behavior is healthy or not. We may choose to frown upon certain theories, while embracing others, yet the above evidence suggests this freedom of thought creates an open channel for democratic action, allowing us to put to use our powers of reason that separate us from all other species.


Ruppe, D. (2001). U.S. Military Wanted to Provoke War With Cuba. ABC News, Retrieved from

Other references as cited by:

Swami, V. & Coles, R. (2010). The truth is out there. The Psychologist, 23(7), 560-563.



Getting More from Qualitative Research using NVivo

In writing this post, I shall try not to sound like I am giving a sales pitch.

I really like the idea of qualitative research. It’s the part of psychology which I would say I live for. Actually getting out and working with a real individual, whose thoughts and feelings I explore. Qualitative research has had its quirks, such as Franz Joseph Gall’s ‘phrenology’, measuring ‘bumps’ on the skull to determine mental ability, however it has also been instrumental in developing categories for the more scientifically regarded quantitative research (Howitt & Cramer, 2008).

At the end of last semester, in commenting I came across a qualitative study (Harper & Makatouni, 2002), that I chose to use for evidence to support one of my discussion points. The research in question covered members of the public’s attitudes towards organic food and animal welfare. Research was gathered was through focus groups, each of between six and eight people, who were primarily involved in buying food for families with young children.

The focus groups were recorded, and transcribed verbatim. They we’re then fed in to a computer package called NVivo, for analysis. I should like you to think of NVivo, as the SPSS of qualitative research. Naturally, NVivo isn’t magic, but it streamlines and improves accuracy in the handling of qualitative data as it rises to the challenge of presenting it systematically.

It is able to examine texts, and seek out patterns within a manuscript; that is words or similar phrases that are often repeated. It creates a computerized working environment where researchers can effectively examine, organize, categorize and understand data and get more from it. It can produce coded output which can then be used in programs such as SPSS. It can allow researchers to “uncover subtle trends” (NVivo, 2012).

The results of the above mentioned study came in different forms. For a simple analysis, three distinct groups could be identified. To relate closer to the data, related quotes could be drawn from the transcript, which bring a personal link between the reader and the participant, opening other researchers to novel thought and deeper insight in to the study.

There are two types of systems in this world, those that have failed, and those that will. No system is immune to inaccuracy, and so despite the improvements and advantages such a program presents, it doesn’t remove the need for common sense. Some are concerned that it may ‘guide’ researchers, not just assist them. Also, when using a computer program, you are relying on code that someone else has written to do what you need it to do. It removes control of analysis processes away from researchers (Welsh, 2002).

Despite that, NVivo is reputed to be based off well grounded theories of analysis, such as the grounded theory approach. With the proper understanding, we can pass some of the administrative work over to a computer, and benefit from its precision in boosting the benefits of qualitative data.


Harper, G. C., & Makatouni, A., (2002) Consumer perception of organic food production and farm animal welfare. British Food Journal, 3/4/5, 287-299.

Howitt, D. & Cramer, D., (2008), Introduction to Research Methods in Psychology Second Edition. Harlow, England: Pearson Education

Welsh, E. (2002). Dealing with Data: Using NVivo in the Qualitative Data Analysis Process. Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 3 (2). Retrieved from

Other references as hyper-linked.