The Psychology Behind Conspiracy Theories
by Victoria Sebastian | published Nov. 3rd, 2020
Take a moment and think about as many conspiracy theories as you can. Quite a few probably come to mind.
There are hundreds of conspiracies out there that range from believable to outlandish. There are also many who believe in these theories — you may even be one of them!
Why do so many people believe in conspiracy theories? In order to uncover the answer, we must first understand what a conspiracy theory is.
What Is a Conspiracy Theory?
There are different ways you can define a conspiracy theory that usually revolve around the idea of secrecy. Both Nicholas DiFonzo and Daniel Jolley have spent their time researching this specific topic and both provided similar definitions. DiFonzo is a professor of Psychology at RIT while Jolley is a senior lecturer located at Northumbria University in the U.K.
"It is a rumor ... [a conspiracy theory] has an exclusionary theme where a secret powerful group is harming a weaker set of people," DiFonzo said.
Jolley's definition was that "there's a perceived powerful group, doing something in secret for their own sinister gain."
Conspiracy theories are not a new concept either; they have been around for a long period of time. The only difference lies in the avenues used to spread these theories.
“Back in the day, a conspiracy was spread by letters to an editor ... [conspiracy theories] are published in magazines and newspapers. They were talked about on the radio,” explained Jolley.
Now, with one click, a theory can be shared to millions via the internet.
Why Do We Believe?
In any given year, according to The Washington Post, about half of the general public believes in at least one conspiracy theory, especially when a crisis occurs. Jolley talked more about certain catalysts for believers.
He explained, “It can be outbreaks, it can be political change, terrorist attacks — it’s a situation that breeds uncertainty and anxiety ... It makes us out of touch with reality in a way where we’re trying to understand what’s happening.”
"It makes us out of touch with reality in a way where we're trying to understand what's happening."
Distrust is also a proponent when it comes to '
“Whenever there is a great deal of distrust in official information sources ... then we tend to get more rumors in general,” he said. “Because of that lack of trust, that provides fertile ground for these conspiracy theories that can make sense of things that need explanation.”
"Because of the lack of trust, that provides fertile ground for these conspiracy theories ... "
This is shown in theories such as 9/11 being an inside job or COVID-19 being caused by the government.
It also doesn’t matter how crazy or how factual a conspiracy theory is. As long as the theory gives new evidence to someone’s pre-existing beliefs or opinions, they will accept it. In other words, people will always have a confirmation bias.
“It is a well-known phenomenon in social psychology — if I’m radically prejudiced in one way or another ... I will tend to receive the information and interpret it in such a way that confirms that stereotype or that narrative,” DiFonzo said.
This is very similar to the idea of an echo chamber, which Jolley talked about.
“Some people, they have their beliefs that are very echo chambered — they stay in the same circles and the same beliefs,” he said.
Individuals are less willing to accept anything that may discredit their own beliefs. This is just a part of being human — we all have certain theories we believe in and hold on to.
This can also occur within groups. Take a look at politics as an example: if you are a Republican you most likely won’t endorse conspiracies regarding your own group, but you might endorse theories about Democrats.
Confirmation bias and echo chamber can be seen in conspiracies such as Trump being the anti-Christ and QAnon.
Who's More Likely To Believe?
There are also certain characteristics that might make some more prone to believing in conspiracy theories.
Some people may simply want to go against the norm and feel unique. These individuals may be more likely to believe in something that makes them feel special.
“If you have the desire to be unique, to have unique knowledge, a conspiracy offers that potential,” Jolley said.
This can be seen in theories about extraterrestrials or UFOs.
Other times it is a lot more complicated. If you are from a disadvantaged group, you may be more susceptible to believing in theories.
“If you’ve already experienced discrimination in the past, then you’re more likely to be hyper vigilant to look for it in the future,” Jolley explained. “If they’ve done it to me before, why can’t they do it to me again?”
An example of this can be seen in theories that Hitler is still alive and conspiracies about target-directed energy weapons.
Lastly, sometimes people simply believe in conspiracy theories for the fun of it. A running joke in the Reporter office is the belief in the Mothman.
It is often fun to joke about these theories, and in most cases it doesn’t cause any harm. However, there are certain instances where conspiracizing can be actually be quite dangerous.
The Danger in Believing
Believing in some conspiracy theories can be detrimental to many. An example Jolley gave was the conspiracy that vaccines are not safe. This belief has caused once-gone illnesses to come back into society, such as the measles resurgence.
We must do what we can to ensure that our generation and future generations have the skills they need in order to ask questions and evaluate the evidence — to steer clear from any dangerous theories.
This doesn’t mean we should argue with theorists or patronize them for their beliefs. Instead, start a conversation, introduce differing facts, calm any anxieties or fears that may be present and gain their trust.
Much is unknown in the world and people will always want to uncover the truth. Just make sure you and others are conspiring safely and smartly.