Conspiracy theorists are often portrayed as nutjobs, but some may just be lonely, recent studies suggest. Separate research has shown that social exclusion creates a feeling of meaninglessness and that the search for meaning leads people to perceive patterns in randomness. A new study in the March issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology connects the dots, reporting that ostracism enhances superstition and belief in conspiracies.

In one experiment, people wrote about a recent unpleasant interaction with friends, then rated their feelings of exclusion, their search for purpose in life, their belief in two conspiracies (that the government uses subliminal messages and that drug companies withhold cures), and their faith in paranormal activity in the Bermuda Triangle. The more excluded people felt, the greater their desire for meaning and the more likely they were to harbor suspicions.

In a second experiment, college students were made to feel excluded or included by their peers, then read two scenarios suggestive of conspiracies (price-fixing, office sabotage) and one about a made-up good-luck ritual (stomping one's feet before a meeting). Those who were excluded reported greater connection between behaviors and outcomes in the stories compared with those who were included.

“People think of conspiracy theorists as these weirdos,” says psychologist Alin Coman of Princeton University, the paper's senior author, but even college students at a prestigious university can harbor these views. Coman adds, “Anybody could become entrenched in that kind of thinking if the right circumstances arise.”