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From Trump to Alec Baldwin, conspiracy theories, narcissism and celebrity culture go hand in hand

Whether spreading myths about vaccines, the Moon landing or Barack Obama's birthplace, science suggests conspiracy theorists tend to share certain characteristics.
Image: U.S. President Donald Trump greets officials after landing at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport in Cleveland, Ohio
President Donald Trump greets officials after landing at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport in Cleveland, Ohio on July 12, 2019.Carlos Barria / Reuters

Ever notice a certain paranoid strain in American celebrity culture? From moon-landing deniers to 9/11 “inside job” promoters, there’s rarely a shortage of famous folks endorsing conspiracy theories.

Just to take one example, the list of celebrity vaccine skeptics gets longer by the day, including Jenny McCarthy, Alicia Silverstone, Robert de Niro, Charlie Sheen, Robert Kennedy Jr. and Jessica Biel. The conspiracy theorist in chief, Donald Trump, also spent years citing the supposed link between vaccines and autism — until he suddenly changed his tune amid the rise in measles cases last April. The anti-vaxxers’ claims that scientific consensus is wrong and the government is withholding the truth about the safety of vaccinating children are helping to fuel measles outbreaks across the country.

It turns out that social scientists have found a link between conspiracy theories and narcissistic personality traits.

But whether spreading unfounded myths about vaccines, the Moon landing or lizard people, conspiracy theorists generally tend to share a common belief system. Taking up sinister, unfounded beliefs may be catnip to people who share certain characteristics. It turns out that social scientists have found a link between conspiracy theories and narcissistic personality traits. People who need to feel unique or appear better or smarter than others may find it irresistible to propound theories that cast them as having special access to the truth. Especially if, under the blustery façade, they actually aren’t too sure of themselves.

Statistics show that half of Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory, so the famous are surely expressing trends in the larger culture. At a time when paranoia reigns and many people have lost confidence in experts and even the future itself, taking up conspiracy theories to explain distressing or poorly understood phenomena can serve as a coping mechanism.

Studies also suggest that when we don’t think we can overcome the difficulties in the world, we start fantasizing about ways to merely survive. Celebrities have platforms and audiences that can turn this strategy into a kind of crude us-against-them survivalist mentality for the masses.

To be fair, it’s not hard to find real evidence of groups working together to wreak havoc on the public — like Big Pharma driving the opioid epidemic through deceptive practices — often with the aid of public officials beholden to their donations. Conspiracy theories breed partly because modern systems and institutions can seem so opaque and unaccountable. Sometimes, people really do collude to dupe and harm us — and sometimes they get away with it.

But that’s a long way from the rapper B.o.B. claiming that the Earth is flat.

Celebrities who back conspiracy theories are often smart, charismatic and convincing. Kennedy wields scientific-sounding data points and uses his gifts of persuasion to convince listeners that he knows more than massive studies conducted around the globe. He continues undeterred, despite the fact that scientists reject his claims and members of his own family have publicly denounced his position.

Maybe you’ve encountered Kennedy’s magnetic, less-famous counterparts at backyard barbecues and local pubs, watching in wonderment as they weave complex tales about secret plots and shadowy groups hiding crucial information at our expense. As the audience around them grows rapt, their eyes begin to glow and their gestures become animated — and it’s not just the beer talking. They seem to be hungrily feeding on something. Perhaps a special form of attention?

In 2015, researchers seeking to understand psychological factors underlying conspiracy beliefs found that people with high levels of individual narcissism tended to gravitate toward them — particularly, and perhaps counterintuitively, those with low self-esteem. The same year, another group of researchers revealed a correlation between belief in conspiracy theories and the need to feel unique.

While narcissism may look like an extra heaping of self-regard, psychologists have long observed that, unlike people with healthy self-esteem, those with narcissistic tendencies are commonly oriented toward boosting themselves by denigrating other people — a tendency easily observed in conspiracy theorists: Those who disagree with me are duped by propaganda. They also tend to have a negative view of humanity: Look at them, they are out to destroy us.

People with narcissistic traits also spend a lot of time comparing themselves to others, a tendency that suggests some underlying uncertainty about their abilities.

Loving yourself is healthy, but insisting that you possess the truth while everyone else is wrong or lying may be a sign of something less salubrious. Narcissists tend to express grandiosity, entitlement, exhibitionism and argumentativeness. Deep down, they may even harbor deep feelings of rage or shame. Narcissism is also linked to depression, substance abuse and anti-social behavior.

Celebrities like Alec Baldwin, famed for his penchant for conspiracy theories as well as his angry outbursts, or Kennedy, known for addictions and epic womanizing in addition to his promotion of various conspiracies, including his belief in a cover-up of his father’s assassination, seem to fit some of these patterns.

Often, conspiracy theorists display paranoia and a belief that others are trying to undermine them or challenge their uniqueness (hello, President Trump). When he made birther claims about Barack Obama — a ploy his son, Donald Trump, Jr. has picked up recently in trying to smear Sen. Kamala Harris by suggesting she isn’t really black — Trump was deploying narcissistic tactics to paint his opponent as a threat to the social order.

Josh Hart, associate professor of psychology at Union College, has noted that conspiracy theorists “tend to be more suspicious, untrusting, eccentric, needing to feel special, with a tendency to regard the world as an inherently dangerous place.” In an uncertain world, playing the guru with special knowledge and abilities of discernment provides powerful psychological incentives for spreading disinformation.

Of course, not every narcissist is a celebrity and not every celebrity is a narcissist. But celebrities are a self-selected group of people motivated to seek attention and single themselves out as deserving of particular recognition.

The public fascination with celebrity culture only serves to amplify any already-existing narcissistic traits. One of which appears to be the need to occasionally don a tin hat.

Right now, Americans should be on the look out for celebrities promoting the latest secret plan to destroy the country. The more uncertain we become in our own agency in the world and of the institutions that are supposed to be looking out for us, the more narcissistic conspiracy theorists, with their cocksure pronouncements and charismatic personas, appeal to our frustration. But they will only distract us from dealing with bad things happening in reality — often right out in the open — that demand our attention and energy.

If we turn to them for solace, we become ever more likely to elevate them to positions of power, where their paranoid style becomes normalized — right up to the White House.

Now, that’s really scary.