First of all, what is a Conspiracy Theory?
According to the online version of the Cambridge Dictionary, a Conspiracy Theory is “a belief that an unpleasant event or situation is the result of a secret plan made by powerful people” and, while a similar definition can be found in the Oxford Dictionaries, it is one that does not mention a negative effect – “a belief that some covert but influential organization is responsible for a circumstance or event”.
Sometimes, the negative aspects considered to be encompassed by the syntagm’s meaning are highly accentuated, like we can see in this definition: “narratives about hidden, malevolent groups secretly perpetuating political plots and social calamities to further their own nefarious goals” (D. Davis, according to Oliver & Wood, 2014).
So there are people who believe that certain significant events – social, political or even environmental, happen because a group of people, usually considered the social and economic elite, or other types of physical entities, conspired to generate those events in order to help fulfill their own goals, mostly considered to be detrimental to the average, non-privileged human.
What Conspiracy Theories are out there and how many people believe them?
I would say there are hundreds of Conspiracy Theories (main and spin-offs), and tens of them have been the object of surveys, studies, and critical analysis. Among the most popular such theories we find the following: secret group of people is controlling the world (Illuminati, Bilderberg, Freemasons, Jews, etc), 9/11 attacks were an inside job, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy involved more than a lone gunman, an alien race called “the Reptilians” is actually in charge of the world and manipulates individuals into fulfilling their goals, we’ve made contact with alien civilizations, but the governments are hiding the information from the masses, the Moon landing was a hoax, medical and pharmaceutical industries own the cure for cancer, but keep it a secret to maintain profit, chemtrails (chemical and biological agents are being sprayed in residential areas via aircrafts for reasons undisclosed to the public), etc.
Some of these conspiracy theories gather more followers than others, but overall, there is a rather significant number of people who believe their claims. According to a study published by Robert Brotherton and Cristopher C. French in Applied Cognitive Psychology in 2014, 79.1% of the people included in the study believed Princess Diana’s death was not an accident, 54.9% believed the JFK assassination conspiracy scenario, 42.5% considered the claim regarding the catastrophic climate change development is fraud, 23.5% believed governments are suppressing evidence of the existence of aliens and 21.1% consider the American Moon landing was faked (these are selective results, they investigated 16 conspiracy theories; a rather small sample size).
Why is it important to discuss about and critically analyze Conspiracy Theories?
Since a significant part of the general population seems to embrace some of these views that they believe explain past events and can help society prepare for the future, there came the necessity to develop a proper understanding of the phenomenon. Enter Conspiracy Theory Psychology, a new field of study that aims at shedding a light on the psychological aspects that drive the extended beliefs in the covert and unofficial explanations of social, political or environmental events.
Generally speaking, according to a study by Karen M. Douglas, Robbie M. Sutton, and Aleksandra Cichocka, published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, in 2017, belief in Conspiracy Theories seems to stem from three broad categories of motives – Epistemic (people try to understand their environment), Existential (people want to feel safe and in control) and Social (people want to maintain a positive image about themselves and the social group). According to the authors, the belief in Conspiracy Theories does not necessarily fulfill these motivations and appeal may be more significant than satisfaction in these contexts.
Since this is a relatively new field of study, most research focused on the causes, rather than the individual or social consequences of these beliefs, but existing results reveal an association between the exposure to Conspiracy Theories and decreased civic engagement, and in some cases, prejudice, radicalization and violence (Brotherton and French, 2014; Stockholm University, Department of Social Anthropology, 2017). The trust in democratic institutions and media can become decreased and people who believe in such theories may choose to significantly alter their everyday life through decisions such as not to consume mainstream media or refuse to follow national immunization programmes (Harambam, Stockholm University, Department of Social Anthropology, 2017). Disempowerment, inaction or a call to opt out of society may also be consequences of the belief in Conspiracy Theories – the belief in the power of an outer group, to be more specific (Franks, Bangerter and Bauer, 2013).
In order to counteract the wide range of possible individual and social negative effects, it is necessary that we understand the genesis, the maintenance and the transmission of Conspiracy Theories.
No social group seems to be completely safe from the susceptibility to these categories of beliefs. Supporters of Conspiracy Theories come from all walks of life, they can be well-educated or have little education, they are both male and female (Harambam, 2017). However, not all Conspiracy Theories appeal to individuals in the same way, young people seem to be more drawn to the Illuminati-related Conspiracy Theories, for example and are even more likely to believe in Conspiracy Theories altogether (Harambam, 2017).
Although not all Conspiracy Theories are false, and some of them are based on the critical analysis of available evidence, most of them are the result of distorted cognitive processes, logical fallacies, ineffective emotional coping mechanisms and general beliefs about the self and the world, that generate and support these types of views.
The causes of the belief in Conspiracy Theories are complex and a single root should never be considered responsible for the existence of such a complex phenomenon. The available data has been mostly extracted from studies that tested a specific theory in a single country. Therefore, general conclusions about the global population cannot truly be formulated at this time. However, individual traits are usually verified in relation to the general belief in conspiracy theories or a specific theory and certain psychological processes can be assigned to the complex context of Conspiracy Theories.
We will now take a look at 15 of what I believe to be the most significant Psychological Factors and Reasons Why People Believe (in) Conspiracy Theories (CT). This list is by no means complete, and it mainly takes into account the psychological aspects that are related to critical thinking and analysis, basic cognitive processes and social characteristics that can be used to explain the complex phenomenon.
15 Psychological Reasons Why People Believe Conspiracy Theories
1. Proportionality Bias
What it means: Assuming that causes and effects are proportional in magnitude. Significant events require significant causes. Events of little significance must have simple causes (this is often true).
Applied to CTs: Events of great social or environmental significance must be the result of a great plan. A person as important as JFK couldn’t have been the victim of a random individual who just decided and succeeded to shoot him.
2. Conjunction Fallacy
What it means: People tend to overestimate the likelihood of co-occurring events. Specific conditions seem to be more likely than a single general one. People with a stronger belief in the paranormal tend to make more errors related to the conjunction fallacy (Brotherton and French, 2014).
Applied to CTs: If presented with two options, one of which is a conjunction (a sentence in the form of “A and B”, people will consider the conjunction more likely than the single event (just A or just B). “An unidentified flying object crashed in Area 51” will be considered to be less likely than “An unidentified flying object crashed in Area 51 and alien bodies have been retrieved from the crash site”.
3. Desire for Control
What it means: People like to believe and feel that they are in control of their own lives and the environment.
Applied to CTs: Conspiracy Theories may offer believers a temporary or compensatory sense of control because they can now reject the official accounts and explanations and believe an alternative version that they feel more comfortable with. Also, pointing fingers at “the bad, untrustworthy men” may offer the opportunity to reduce or neutralize threats and danger (Goertzel T.,1994; Douglas, Sutton, and Cichocka, 2017).
4. Pattern Recognition
What it means: We are wired to recognize rules and connections in randomness. The illusion that there is a pattern connecting unrelated elements can be one of the causes of conspiracy theory belief formation.
Applied to CTs: We are wired to recognize faces. Elements of blurry images of the Moon surface get connected in one’s mind as depicting a human face. Also, clouds seem shaped like animals or UFOs due to the way we perceive contours and shade.
5. Intentionality Bias
What it means: Things happen in the way they happen because someone or something intended them to happen like that. Even ambiguous or insignificant events, such as sneezing or falling over (Brotherton, in Lynne Malcolm, 2016). I will also mention here the Fundamental Attribution Bias, which makes people overestimate the importance of dispositional factors when seeking to understand and explain the behavior of others and mainly consider situational factors when trying to understand and explain their own behavior (Clarke, 2002).
Applied to CTs: “Recent problems with the national economy are the result of the actions of the global elite. They wanted this to happen”. “This politician’s speech is always reflecting the agenda of the elite, not his/her own views”.
6. Confirmation Bias
What it means: A person’s relationship with information and even that with other people is guided by their pre-existing beliefs, ideologies or hypothesis. We search for, select, interpret, favor and recall information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs. Also, we may find ourselves in the company of people who share our views more often than we meet with those who hold opposing beliefs or values.
Applied to CTs: If you believe in The Reptilian Elite Conspiracy Theory, you may choose to focus on how Queen Elizabeth II’s eyes shine in “a strange way” or on how green or yellow-ish they seem in certain interviews. Those must be the eyes of a Reptilian. At the same time, you ignore all her very human features.
7. Lack of Trust
What it means: Anomy, lack of interpersonal trust, paranoid thinking, and insecurity about employment present correlations with the belief in Conspiracy Theories (Goertzel, 1994; Brotherton and French, 2014). People who lack trust in others may be prone to seeing the other people as capable of conspiring to do them harm. Ostracism, or social exclusion, is also a factor of the enhanced belief in Conspiracy Theories (Graeupner, Coman, 2016). *Also spelled anomie or anomia, anomy refers to an individual’s or a group’s characteristic of acting outside social or legal norms.
Applied to CTs: People who lack trust in others may be more inclined to believe that governments hide evidence of alien beings or that pharmaceutical companies keep cures for severe illnesses a secret. The belief that the elites are manipulating masses via subliminal messages in the media is also based on the belief that others are not to be trusted, this time “the rich” or “those who have the power”.
8. Unsatisfactory Levels of Critical Thinking and Critical Analysis
What it means: Critical thinking skills are needed in order to assess evidence in a realistic, science-driven manner. They are the best set of methods we have available to counteracting cognitive distortions and biases. People with strong conspiracy beliefs tend to also have lower levels of analytic thinking (Swami, Voracek, Stieger, Tran, and Furnham in Lantian, Muller, Nurra and Douglas, 2017). Also, we tend to construct possible explanations for an event by integrating all the available information, even if it implies a huge conspiracy or other unlikely conclusions (Raab, Auer, Ortlieb and Carbon, 2013). We may sometimes lack the proper information, the critical thinking skills or the motivation to properly analyze existing evidence. This may result in erroneous cognitive results and beliefs.
Applied to CTs: People whose predominant thinking patterns are more likely to produce results of an irrational nature are also more susceptible to believe conspiracy theories, as well as other claims that have no reasonable, scientific, relevant support.
10. The Mechanism of Mental Projection
What it means: Projection implies the attribution of one’s own (unconscious, often unacceptable) thoughts, impulses, feelings or other various characteristics to others. The person then reacts to this irrational attribution, often seeing it as an external threat. This is considered a defense mechanism, because it helps one avoid having to deal with their own unacceptable qualities. For example, if you feel hate toward a person, you may find more psychological comfort by believing they actually hate you, rather having to deal with the fact that you entertain the feeling of hate toward another person and analyzing the roots in order to eventually solve the existing issues.
Applied to CTs: Believers in Conspiracy Theories may be they themselves conspirators, in the sense that they may have the habit of engaging in behaviors that are conspiratorial in nature, such as gossip, spreading rumors, or being suspicious in general regarding the other one’s intentions or motives. To put it simply, if you have serious secrets and are usually suspicious, then it is more likely you would entertain the comforting thought that others also hide major things from you and conspire to harm you in some way.
11. Proneness to “Believing”
What it means: Some people are more likely to accept claims even if there is no relevant evidence in their support. Religious beliefs, beliefs in supernatural forces, and beliefs in Conspiracy Theories, they all require blind faith, where believers do not attempt to search for or ask from others, reasonable evidence. Most of the times, they are even discouraged to do so.
Applied to CTs: People who have a tendency to believe without requesting evidence for claims made in various contexts, are more likely to believe Conspiracy Theories that are presented to them. For example, if someone is inclined to believe in the healing power of crystals or homeopathy, even though no scientific data supports the claims related to these methods, they are likely to also believe that certain people have already made contact with alien civilizations, since they won’t ask for any specific evidence this time either.
12. Herd Mentality
What it means: We are social animals and we like to be members of a group. Sometimes, what brings us together is faulty reasoning or similar erroneous cognitive results. “If others believe it, I’ll believe it too, just to be with them”. Decisions may also appear justified just because social influence guides us toward them.
Applied to CTs: Belief in certain Conspiracy Theories is more likely assumed by an individual who is part of a social group that endorses that belief. Even more so if the group engages in ritualistic behavior or social activities that have a certain appeal to the segment of the population the individual is part of (linked to the social exclusion theory). For example, UFO believers may have monthly meetings in which they talk about the latest “findings”, Scientologists have glamorous events to which even celebrities decide to participate, Freemasons seem to be respected and have access to privileged contexts and information. A person who has needs that present the potential of being fulfilled by these types of social environments and qualities is more likely to start entertaining the beliefs promoted by the specific social groups.
13. External Locus of Control
What it means: Most of us may like to have a sense of control over our own lives and environment, but actually, not all people perceive control in the same way. According to J. B. Rotter (1975), people who tend to attribute the cause of their results, positive or negative, to external sources such as luck, chance, fate, being under the control of powerful others, or those who consider results completely unpredictable, given the high complexity of surrounding forces, have an External Locus of Control. They do what they do and get the results they get because the actions of others or certain supernatural forces lead them there. At the same time, people who consider the results of their actions to be directly caused by their own volition, relatively permanent characteristics, and actions, have an Internal Locus of Control.
Applied to CTs: People who believe their opinions and votes do not count, because governments and those in power will do what they please anyway, most likely have a predominant External Locus of Control.
14. Catastrophic Thinking
What it means: Catastrophic Thinking is a subtype of a cognitive distortion known as Magnification or Augmentation, which implies giving more meaning to an element, cause or factor of a context or event, than it actually has. There is also Minimization, or the tendency to attribute less significance or meaning to an element, cause or factor of a certain event or context, than what they actually have. We usually tend to magnify the negative aspects, threats, and dangers and minimize the positive aspects and qualities. Catastrophic Thinking takes into account the worst outcome of all possible outcomes of a situation.
Applied to CTs: People who present the Catastrophic Thinking pattern are more likely to believe Conspiracy Theories that formulate grim outcomes for the world or society as we know it. Apocalyptic scenarios fall under this category.
15. Dichotomous Thinking
What it means: Dichotomous Thinking is a cognitive distortion and it means to only consider the extremes of a situation and ignore everything that is in between. Also known as polarized, black or white or all-or-nothing thinking.
Applied to CTs: Most Conspiracy Theories imply an “us versus them” scenario and usually the way they separate “us” from “them” implies a consideration of extreme values of certain qualities or characteristics. “The bad people versus the good people”, “People who know and those who don’t”, “People who have the power and are in control and those who don’t have any power or control”, “The rich versus the poor” etc.
These are just some of the factors and elements linked to the formation and transmission of Conspiracy Theories. Many others have been highlighted by the available research. Among them, self-esteem, schizotypy, authoritarianism, and low education levels. (Brotherton and French, 2014; van Prooijen, 2016). Some correlations even refer to race, gender or occupational categories (Goertzel, 1994). Some authors chose to address Conspiracy Theories as quasi-religious mentality, arguing that they present “quasi-religious, minimally counter-intuitive representations of external agents who are omniscient and omnipotent regarding the domain of [the] threat” (Franks, Bangerter and Bauer, 2013).
No matter what first drives a person toward believing a certain Conspiracy Theory, available research shows that they are very likely to start entertaining other similar theories as well (Goertzel, 1994). This presents a very prosperous future for them, unless we act, individually and as a society, to counteract their negative effects.
What can we do?
So basically now I’m going to conspire together with some of the readers of this article to bring about the individual and social changes required by an (almost) Conspiracy Theories-free society. Well, not really, but it seemed pretty funny to put it like that, knowing the fact that some people see even beneficial social measures as a big plot to manipulate masses. Vaccination campaigns and education programmes may become the subject of these theories.
I don’t claim to present in the following paragraph(s) the “cure” for conspiratorial thinking or behaviors (nor to have knowledge of such a method), but I believe (evidence-based belief, I incline to think) that there are some measures that we can take in order to diminish or even eliminate the negative effects of Conspiracy Theory related beliefs. And they work quite nicely with my main “agenda”, that of promoting Critical Thinking and its many methods.
Obviously, some or all of these recommendations occurred to many others before me and most likely they’ve done a better job at verifying the validity of the methods involved. Presenting these specific sets of data or creating an original one are not objectives of this blog article. So, the following recommendations and elements that I believe should be included in the general course of action regarding the social attitude toward Conspiracy Theories are to be considered general, incomplete and in course of being verified.
And yes, I advise in support of this attitude even when it comes to what seem to be pretty straight forward and benign measures, such as “Continue the research and study in the field of Conspiracy Theory Psychology, with the goal to advance the understanding of the mechanisms leading to the specific beliefs”. Why? Because even such actions and results have the potential to trigger the backlash effect – belief in a false claim, i.e. conspiracy, may be strengthened by the presentation of arguments that refute it. When we look at something, we also draw the attention of others to it and maybe even signal that this is significant enough to be taken into consideration. And we need to verify the pros and cons for all measures, before implementing any of them, especially on a large scale.
So, what can we do?
- Continue the research and study in the field of Conspiracy Theory Psychology & related fields, with the goal to advance the understanding of the mechanisms leading to the specific beliefs.
- Learn and intentionally use the main Critical Thinking Skills (assessment and formulation of arguments, identification, and management of main cognitive distortions and logical fallacies, etc).
- Increase the resistance to psychological manipulation through both cognitive and emotional techniques
- Promote the understanding that complex societal contexts and problems most likely do not stem from simple (unique) causes.
- Increase the sense of Internal Control, self-confidence and self-esteem levels, in yourself and others.
- Become aware of your own value in society and recognize the value of others.
- Empower others. Make them feel valued, included, understood.
- Request and participate in the creation of better education systems.
- Become a skeptic. Not of all things, but incorporate a healthy dose of skepticism and agnosticism in your everyday assessments and reactions to the world around you. Same can be healthy mechanisms when looking inward as well.
These measures and similar ones can be used to prepare both the individual and society for a more reason-driven society, which promotes individual and social well-being and development.
Share your thoughts on the topic in the comments section below.