Conspiracy Theories Are Fueled By The “Need For Chaos”, Study Finds

Some people just want to watch the world burn, and their willingness to share conspiracy theories has nothing to do with their actual belief in them.

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology

Dr. Russell Moul

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology

Dr. Russell Moul

Science Writer

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology.

Science Writer

A group of Americans protesting vaccines while looking angry and holding angry looking signs.

Not everyone who shares a conspiracy theory online actually believes it. Some people just want to cause as much disruption as possible.

Image credit: Vic Hinterlang/

The subject of conspiracy theories and why some people believe them has become increasingly popular over the last few years. However, less attention has been paid to the reasons why people will share them with others. In a new study, a team of researchers have found that the “need for chaos”, the desire to challenge and disrupt the political system, plays a large role here.

The researchers were interested in three forms of motivation that may lead others to perpetuate conspiracy theories. These included motivated sharing, where content is shared to bolster the individual’s or group’s beliefs; sounding the alarm, which aims to generate collective action against a political outgroup assumed to be winning; and the need for chaos, where someone tries to motivate others against a political system. 


What this test has at its heart is the understanding that one does not necessarily have to believe a conspiracy theory in order to share it with others – so what’s the motivation for doing so if you’re not a true “believer”? 

“We argue that, whereas motivated sharing is more internally focused and dependent on belief, sounding the alarm is more externally focused on defeating an outgroup and may operate independently of [conspiracy theory] belief”, the authors write.

In particular, they argued that chaotic motivations actually supersede those based in partisanship. The “motive for sharing a [conspiracy theory] is to “burn it all down” regardless of which party is in power and belief in the [conspiracy theory]”, they added.

To test this, the team circulated a survey in December 2018 using the Lucid platform that has been used in other studies. The software uses quota sampling to recruit participants in accordance with US Census margins. The team managed to recruit 3,336 respondents, 1,772 of which identified as Democrats/leaned Democrat, and 1,564 identified as Republicans/leaned Republican. 


In order to measure the “motivated sharing”, participants were assessed on their belief in specific conspiracy theories and their willingness to share them with others. This willingness to share was then analyzed in relation to whether the conspiracy theory in question aligned with the respondent’s partisan identity. This was achieved through specific questions, such as: “Some people believe Donald Trump is plotting with secret societies of white supremacists, such as the Ku Klux Klan, to take control of the United States. Others do not believe this. What do you think?”

Republican-aligned participants received questions like: “Some people believe that the Mueller investigation is not, in fact, an investigation into the Trump campaign’s collusion with the Russian government. Instead, they believe it is an investigation into nefarious activities, including child molestation and a variety of other crimes, perpetrated by the Clintons, Barack Obama, and other unelected people who are currently working behind the scenes to run the government. Others do not believe this. What do you think?”

To address the “sounding the alarm” motivation, participants were asked whether they perceived their political party/side as “winning” or “losing” more frequently on important matters. This helped the researchers assess how feeling like you’re on the losing side may influence the desire to share conspiracy theories. 

The need for chaos was explored through an established eight-item scale that measured the participant’s desire for extreme disruption of the existing order. This was designed to assess whether those who scored high on this need for chaos were more likely to share conspiracy theories regardless of whether they believed them or whether they aligned with their political partisanship.   


The questions that measured this included, “We cannot fix the problems in our social institutions, we need to tear them down and start over,” and “I need chaos around me – it is too boring if nothing is going on.”

A set of control variables were also included, which screened participants for things such as the level of their partisan identity, their authoritarianism, trust, religiosity, education, income, gender, age, ethnicity, and race. Participants were also given questions randomly related to their partisan belief, in order to mitigate priming. 

The results show that those who believe in a given conspiracy theory are more likely to share it online, which makes sense. However, they also found that the need for chaos was positively associated with the willingness to share conspiracy theories on social media. In fact, those with a high need for chaos were more likely to share all six conspiracy theories mentioned in the study. This need for chaos was a stronger motive for sharing content than to sound the alarm for the perceived losing side. 

This was an interesting result from this study. The researchers found that loser perception was actually negatively associated with willingness to share conspiracy theories, while, conversely, those who regarded themselves as “winning” were more likely to spread content. 


“In other words”, the authors write, “those who perceived their side as currently winning more often than losing (on issues that matter to them), expressed greater willingness to share [conspiracy theories] than their counterparts.”

“In pitting these three motives against each other, we ultimately find that while [the need for chaos] had smaller effects on sharing compared to belief, it consistently had greater effects on sharing compared to partisanship and ideology – indicating that the motivation to challenge the entire political system, rather than partisan/ideological rivals, is a strong driver of willingness to share [conspiracy theories] on social media.”

The study has its limitations. Firstly, it relies on the sample provided by Lucid, which is not necessarily representative of the population at large. Secondly, it was based on observations, which means that it assesses existing behaviors instead of manipulating variables. Moreover, the results are drawn from self-reported data, which means the analysis is dependent on information participants are willing to provide and not behaviors seen in action. 

Ultimately, the team conclude that “our findings reveal that prior notions of partisanship and chaos as drivers of sharing hostile political rumors (including [conspiracy theories]) are perhaps more nuanced than extant literature suggests.”


 The study was published in Research and Politics


  • tag
  • psychology,

  • Conspiracy theories,

  • misinformation,

  • conspiracies,

  • online behaviour,

  • belief,

  • disinformation