Mind in the Media: Shadowland the Psychology of Belief in Conspiracy Theories

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Verywell / Peacock

Key Takeaways

  • Shadowland is a new docuseries investigating the lives of those who believe in right-wing conspiracy theories.
  • One of the major questions the series poses is, why do so many people fall prey to such irrational thinking?
  • Having a better understanding of—and empathy for—these people can get us a little closer to the root of what makes conspiracy theories so enticing.

The six-part docuseries Shadowland, which is streaming on Peacock and based on reporting by The Atlantic, delves into the lives and circumstances of people who believe in right-wing conspiracy theories, such as QAnon, that the 2020 election was stolen, and that the coronavirus or its vaccines were conceived by a powerful cabal for sinister purposes.

Many of the individuals profiled in the series are leaders or influencers who are profiting off of their involvement in conspiracy theories.

While these individuals may be motivated, at least in part, by the possibility of amassing recognition, influence, and economic advantages, there are also millions of people in America who believe in conspiracy theories who are not seeking those things.

In this article, we’ll explore the psychology of these individuals, including what makes people vulnerable to belief in conspiracy theories, what the mental health consequences of those beliefs can be, and what people whose loved ones have adopted conspiratorial thinking can do to help.

Are People Who Believe in Conspiracy Theories Delusional?

When people who don't believe in conspiracy theories are confronted with people who do, their knee-jerk reaction may be to label them “crazy” or “delusional.”

In fact, this response is so common that many of the individuals profiled in Shadowland rage against it, claiming they’re not crazy conspiracy theorists, even though in the process they acknowledge that they know their thinking is outside the norm.

However, Peter Frost, Professor of Psychology at Southern New Hampshire University, observes that most people who believe in conspiracy theories would not be diagnosed as clinically delusional, because their thinking doesn't disrupt their daily lives.

As he notes, 37% (121.7 million people) of the American population believes global warming is a hoax and 4% (13 million people) believe that lizard people control politics. This is an extraordinary number of people, yet as Frost says, although the line can get blurry in some cases, many of the people who believe in conspiracy theories “have this magical realm of thinking that they keep separate from their day-to-day, so they can still function.”

Who’s Vulnerable to Conspiratorial Beliefs?

Shadowland emphasizes that anyone could fall into conspiratorial thinking, and to a certain degree that appears to be true. According to Frost, “we used to think that conspiracy theory [belief] was associated with one type of person, but we’re finding the more we study this, that different people believe in conspiracy theories for different reasons.”

Meanwhile, Clinical Psychologist David Tzall. PsyD cautions that when we try to understand what makes people believe in conspiracy theories, we’re trying to rationalize something that’s coming from a fundamentally emotional place. As a result, we must remember that faith in various conspiracy theories may be about much more than it seems on a surface level.

David Tzall, PsyD

The social support and fulfillment of the need to belong offered by a community can be so powerful that what the community believes in may not matter as much.

— David Tzall, PsyD

There are numerous factors that can contribute to belief in conspiracy theories, including situational factors and personality traits, which may interact with one another. At the same time, conspiracy theories are more visible and easier to be exposed to than ever before because of the internet and social media.

Situational Factors

One of the things that drive belief in conspiracy theories of all kinds is fear and anxiety. As Tzall explains, when we’re fearful or anxious, “we have to make sense of it in a particular way.” Conspiracy theories may be one way avenue for doing so.

Frost concurs, noting that there could be a cultural pathology at work that’s left people feeling disenfranchised due to issues like the loss of their job or business, the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, and the divide between classes.

These things prime people for conspiratorial beliefs. “That’s not to say just anybody who’s [feeling] disenfranchised will feel that way,” Frost observes. “But certainly [conspiracy theories] give them a venue to blame some other group rather than themselves, and that’s easier for some people to do.”

Shadowland traces this trajectory through Pauline Bauer, a restaurant owner in Pennsylvania who had almost paid off her business when the pandemic hit. Her best friend Bill Blauser remembers the formerly apolitical Pauline changing when she was forced to shut down her restaurant in early 2020.

Believing she could lose her business, Pauline started searching the internet for information on the coronavirus, which led her to a conspiracy that claimed the virus was created to enrich pharmaceutical companies. From there, Pauline fell deeper into right-wing conspiratorial thinking and eventually was arrested for entering the Capitol during the January 6 insurrection.

This is just one case where someone's situation led to belief in conspiracy theories. Frost adds that for people who are bored or struggling to find meaning in their lives, conspiracy theories can offer an avenue for excitement or purpose.

This certainly seems to be the case for some of the individuals profiled in Shadowland. For example, based on comments by her best friend, Sarah Lewis, a woman who died during the January 6 insurrection, Rosanne Boyland, appeared to be struggling with a lack of meaning and purpose in her life that only got worse with the isolation brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. When she discovered QAnon, it gave her a purpose that she couldn't find elsewhere in her life.

Personality Traits

Frost shares that studies have shown there are a number of personality traits that are correlated with conspiracy theory beliefs, including:

Meanwhile, people who are less likely to believe in conspiracy theories are more likely to be:

Traits exist on a continuum so, in most cases, people with the traits associated with conspiracy theory beliefs would be toward the side of the continuum where they would be considered to have the trait but not at a level where they would be clinically diagnosed with anything due to that trait.

Moreover, the relationship between each of these traits and conspiratorial thinking is small, meaning that people who believe in conspiracy theories aren’t always going to fit a specific personality profile.

Amplification by Social Media

Conspiracy theories like QAnon may seem unusual but there have always been conspiracy theories of one kind or another. However, as Frost notes, "conspiracy theories never used to have a very big bullhorn. They didn’t reach a very wide audience, but now with social media and whatnot, they can reach a very large group.”

Social media and political rhetoric expose people to conspiracy theories and then validate belief in them by introducing them to others who believe in the conspiracies too.

Furthermore, if these individuals start espousing conspiracy theories on social media and find followers and supporters as a result, it can embolden them to discuss their beliefs more, further amplifying the message.

In addition, Tzall notes that confirmation bias, in which people find evidence to back up their existing beliefs, is often at work when it comes to the information people find on the internet.

For people who believe in conspiracy theories, the internet is likely to offer evidence to support the conspiracy. This can keep people interested and invested, even if the evidence they rely on seems limited or questionable to others.

Almost every individual profiled in Shadowland initially learned about QAnon and other conspiracy theories from the internet or social media, which also fueled their introduction to further conspiratorial thinking. Without these things at our fingertips, it’s likely the right-wing conspiracy theories that have gained the most prominence today wouldn’t have nearly as many believers.

Are There Mental Health Consequences to Believing in Conspiracy Theories?

According to both Tzall and Frost there are a number of mental health consequences to belief in conspiracy theories, both positive and negative.

Positive Consequences

When someone initially begins to believe in a conspiracy theory, many of the consequences appear to be positive.

One of the most powerful mental health benefits of conspiracy theory belief, which Shadowland touches on, is a sense of community. Tzall notes "the social support and fulfillment of the need to belong offered by a community can be so powerful that what the community believes in may not matter as much."

Frost observes that conspiracy theories can also help people feel more empowered and in control because the theories provide explanations that enable them to “understand” what’s happening in the world. Plus, it’s exciting to feel in the know and like you’re helping to solve important problems.

Or if you don’t feel your life has a purpose, helping fight against a problem posed by a conspiracy theory can provide a sense of meaning and identity that you haven’t been able to find elsewhere.

Negative Consequences

That said, Frost suggests that ultimately there may be quite a few negative consequences to conspiratorial thinking.

One, which is experienced by many of the individuals in Shadowland, is the loss of or isolation from their families. For example, Christopher Key, known as the Vaccine Police, still sees his family occasionally, yet he doesn't speak to them often, especially his father, and indicates he feels alienated from them due to his beliefs, which he indicates he finds upsetting.

Moreover, Frost suggests that in the long run, conspiracy theory beliefs may hurt people more than they help. Although Frost acknowledges many people are so good at rationalizing their beliefs that this may not be a consequence for everyone, for some, “because you are putting your destiny in the hands of this group of conspirators that are pulling the strings of society, you're not the one in control,” Frost observes. Instead, conspiracy theorists are reacting to the actions of the supposed conspirators, and the conspiracy starts to control them.

Peter Frost, PhD

Because you are putting your destiny in the hands of this group of conspirators that are pulling the strings of society, you're not the one in control

— Peter Frost, PhD

Yet, “[conspiracy theory believers] never get the smoking-gun evidence…. Every turn is a dead end,” Frost continues. “They defer to authority figures who are engaged in magical thinking, faulty thinking and… sometimes outright delusional thinking. Instead of a growth mindset, your mindset becomes more divisive. It's us versus them, zero-sum game. You do have an external locus of control where you are letting other people dictate what's happening with the world.” This could lead people to feel isolated, disenfranchised, and disempowered.

Can Loved Ones Help People Who Believe in Conspiracy Theories?

In Shadowland, conspiracy theory expert Kathleen Hall Jamieson at the University of Pennsylvania observes that once someone has fallen deep into belief in conspiracy theories it can be nearly impossible to get them back. Frost says he largely agrees with this observation. So is there anything people can do to help family members or loved ones who believe in conspiratorial theories?

Frost notes that in many cases the best solution may be to “agree to disagree” and to avoid talking about certain topics. Although Frost admits it’s not ideal, “it beats certain family members going into isolation and going even further down the rabbit hole.”

Meanwhile, Tzall suggests people who have friends or family members who believe in conspiracy theories would benefit from practicing empathy. That’s because confronting their loved ones about their beliefs won’t help.

“The more you push against it the more that person is going to pull back [from the relationship],” Tzall warns. However, Tzall observes that if you can meet people where they are, accept they believe what they believe, and even try to understand where they’re coming from, it’s more likely an opportunity to discuss it can open up.

Tzall also says that family members and other loved ones should keep in mind that it may not always be the conspiracy theory that people have fallen for, it may be some other need that's being fulfilled by the conspiracy theory, such as a desire for community or a sense of purpose. If a loved one can understand what that is, Tzall explains, they may be able to “intervene in a more productive way."

By Cynthia Vinney
Cynthia Vinney, PhD is an expert in media psychology and a published scholar whose work has been published in peer-reviewed psychology journals.