9/11 Murals
Some conspiracy theories have been simply outrageous, while others have offered a kernel of truth. A mural honoring victims of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in the Queens borough of New York, Aug. 1, 2011. Reuters

History has shown any cataclysmic event in the world has resulted in not just grief and shock among the masses but a host of conspiracy theories also.

From the assassination of former U.S. President John F Kennedy to the death of Princess Diana, a member of British royal family; from the world-changing collapse of the twin towers in New York to the baffling disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, people have never shied away from putting their own spin on the details of an event when the reasons from the authorities concerned have failed to satisfy them.

Some conspiracy theories have been simply outrageous, while others have offered a kernel of truth. But there’s no denying the fact that conspiracy theories strongly influence the outlook of a certain section of people. Now the question is why do people give in to these conspiracy theories?

A study published in the journal Social Psychology in July tries to answer this question by suggesting that the need to be special and unique drives the people to believe in conspiracy theories.

More than 1,000 people took part in the study titled “I know things they don’t know!" that was co-authored by Anthony Lantian, Dominique Muller, Cécile Nurra, and Karen M. Douglas of Grenoble Alps University. “An intriguing feature in the rhetoric of people who believe in conspiracy theories is that to justify their beliefs, they frequently refer to secret or difficult-to-get information they would have found,” Lantian was quoted as saying by psychology news website Psypost in a report published in August.

“This fascination for what is hidden, emerging from conspiracy narratives, led us to the concept of need for uniqueness,” he added.

The researchers found evidence to support three main tenets of their hypothesis:

1. People who endorsed conspiracy theories were more likely to think that they possessed scarce and secret information.

2. People who reported a higher need for uniqueness were more likely to believe in conspiracy theories.

3. People who were encouraged to be unique had a higher likelihood of subsequently believing in a conspiracy.

Interestingly, two German researchers authored a paper testing the same hypothesis, and their method gave a glimpse of how conspiracy theorists buy into a preposterous claim in order to stand out. In the study titled "Too special to be duped: Need for uniqueness" motivates conspiracy beliefs, the two researchers in social psychology, Roland Imhoff and Pia Karoline Lamberty, created an experiment with an entirely made-up conspiracy theory.

The study made 108 participants read a fake article about how some people believed that “hypersound” emitted by smoke detectors were causing severe side effects on people’s health.

While there is no such thing as dangerous hypersound in smoke detectors, Half of the participants were given the article which said that the smoke detector conspiracy was believed by 81 percent of Germans. The other half were given the article that said the conspiracy theory was doubted by 81 percent of Germans.

The study revealed the participants were more likely to believe in a conspiracy theory if they were told it was a minority opinion. These participants were also the same ones identifying a high need for uniqueness. “This effectively shields their worldview from invalidation as the less the public and powerful agents agree with a certain theory, the more convincing they believe it to be,” the paper published in the European Journal of Social Psychology read.