Why Do We Believe in Conspiracy Theories?

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Over 1 in 3 Americans believe that global warming is a hoax. A full 49% of New Yorkers believe that the United States government was complicit in the 9/11 attacks. Over 50% of Americans believe that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Approximately 37% of Americans believe that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is deliberately keeping the public from getting natural cures for cancer.

Conspiracy theories are incredibly widespread and seem to be a part of all modern and traditional societies. No study has ever been able to identify a culture that did not hold some sort of conspiracy beliefs.

This article breaks down the main components of conspiracy theories and how they have always been with us and likely always will be. It covers why they tap into some fundamental characteristics of human nature such as a desire to belong to a like minded group of people. The article also goes over some of the consequences of believing in conspiracy theories.

Understanding Conspiracy Theories

Social scientists have come to a consensus about what exactly constitutes a conspiracy theory. A look at the key elements of a conspiracy theory helps shed light on why the era of social media, increased news consumption, and the confusion that came along with a novel virus created the perfect environment for conspiracies to emerge.

Conspiracy Theory

A conspiracy theory is defined as a theory that rejects the standard explanation for an event and instead credits a covert group or organization with carrying out a secret plot.

Conspiracy theories involve the idea of powerful groups of people taking secretive actions that are hidden from public scrutiny. This inherently means that they would be extremely difficult to disprove. A conspiracy theorist is likely to believe that anyone who tries to debunk their theory is in on it and part of the conspiracy themselves.

A scientific publication on the psychology of conspiracy theories broke conspiracy theories down into five major parts that are always present:

  1. An assumption of how people and events are causally interconnected or form some pattern
  2. The conspirators are intentional in their actions
  3. A group of dishonest, bad actors are working in conjunction towards a goal (lone wolf explanations do not meet the definition of a conspiracy theory)
  4. There is threat of harm to others from the conspirators
  5. The conspirators act in secrecy, which explains why there is often sparse evidence and also make them hard to disprove

Of note, the information above was actually published in 2017, although it seems an apt description of current events.

How Conspiracy Theories Are Spread

There is no evidence that there are currently more conspiracy theories now in comparison to other time periods. There are just much better and more efficient means of amplifying any given conspiracy. Any idea, regardless of how baseless, can now travel at the speed of Wi-Fi.

The internet allows for social media and other news sources to disseminate any opinion. Because social media platforms, in particular, are designed to optimize user engagement, customers are fed more and more of an idea based on their demonstrated interest in a belief system. This made it so that, before long, there were two or more parallel streams of information and completely divergent interpretations of the events of 2020. 

COVID-19 changed our lives in almost every way including causing a massive increase in news consumption in all forms—particularly social media.

One survey found that almost 70% of people across the globe had ramped up their news consumption in an effort to learn more about the coronavirus. Understandably, everyone was consumed with trying to figure out how this virus could impact their health, their families, and their businesses.

This, along with a taxed health care system, unrelenting anxiety and innumerable unanswered questions created fertile soil for what the World Health Organization (WHO) called a “massive infodemic.” This term was meant to describe the fact that much of the news consumed was false and/or politically motivated.

So much news seeking gave a boost to the news producing industry and actually provided an over abundance of information, some accurate, some inaccurate, and some conflicting. It became difficult for a layperson to navigate the landscape of information and know what to believe or how to find reliable guidance. 

Studies showed that the majority of information about the pandemic was correct but that false news seemed to be shared and spread more.

As we know, there are now several conspiracy theories particular to the pandemic. A march 2020 survey of U.S. residents revealed that 1 in 4 Americans believed that the coronavirus was intentionally developed by scientists.

There is a substantial subpopulation that believes that the coronavirus doesn’t exist at all and that the entire pandemic is a hoax. Another idea put forth on social media is that the testing itself infects people and urged people to refuse testing.

A YouTube video describing how Bill Gates engineered COVID-19 in an effort to eventually inject microchips into people has been viewed several millions of times.

Who Is Most Likely to Believe Conspiracy Theories?

Those who feel ostracized or lack a sense of belonging are more likely to believe in conspiracies. Those who feel that they are of a status that is threatened or who objectively have lower income also are prone to conspiracies.

Examples of Conspiracy Theories

Let's take a look at some examples of prominent conspiracy theories in history.

The Salem Witch Trials

The Salem Witch Trials are an excellent example of the power of conspiracy theories and the potential for lethal consequences. The Salem Witch Trials started in 1692 when a group of young women in Salem, Massachusetts believed that they were demon possessed and accused several women in the area of witchcraft.

It may seem unimaginable now, but during this period, average people became convinced that their neighbors were witches. This wasn’t a brief lapse in judgment; the trials went on for over a year.

These supposed witches were actually tried by a judge and jury and, apparently, for 30 of them, there was sufficient evidence for a guilty verdict and a sentence of hanging.

This is a conspiracy theory because it was a group of people who came to believe that another, powerful group was working together with evil intentions to cause harm.

Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment

Interestingly, some conspiracy theories have been proven to be true. The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, for example, started off as a conspiracy theory. 

In 1932, a study was started without the consent of the Black men involved with the goal of observing the long-term effects of syphilis. The men enrolled at the Tuskegee Institute had syphilis and were told by the doctors involved that they were being treated, but they received no treatment. The illness was allowed to ravage their bodies and the men suffered irreversible consequences. This occurred while the treatment for syphilis, penicillin, was available.

It was not until 1972, that it was proven that this actually happened. Prior to that, it was only a popular conspiracy theory that the scientists of the Tuskegee Institute had perpetuated these acts against the Black men in that area.

Why Conspiracy Theories Are Believable

Conspiracy theories exploit some of the basic characteristics of being human. The human mind is always trying to find patterns and make sense of its environment. Humans are also always looking for their tribe or people with whom they feel connected. Conspiracy theories tap into those human traits and offers us explanations that can make us feel safer.

Conspiracy Theories Help Us Make Sense of the World

The human mind is always on the lookout for patterns, which is why we may see a face when looking at clouds. Similarly, we also look for and see patterns in situations. We find causal explanations for events and a set of behaviors. It is a way of making sense of a chaotic world with tons of stimulation and random events. 

A conspiracy theory provides an explanation for overwhelming events. It allows for the quenching of curiosity when there is insufficient data available about something. Basically, for humans, a false explanation is better than no explanation.

It makes sense then that conspiracy theories are more likely when there is minimal or conflicting information about a topic.

Conspiracies are also more prevalent when an event is very impactful and significant in many people’s lives but the public is offered relatively mundane or incomplete explanations.

Scientist’s conclude that conspiracies are a way for a person to have “cognitive closure.” This is thought to be a major appeal of conspiracies.

Conspiracy Theories Offer a Way of Having Control Amid Uncontrollable Events

Conspiracy theories offer a way for people to feel safe and have some sort of autonomy or control within random events. It is a coping mechanism for those who feel at the mercy of fate. People are more susceptible to them when they are anxious and feel powerless. Those who feel unable to predict outcomes in a given situation are more likely to rely on them for affirmation.

Evolutionary Psychologists Weigh In on Conspiracy Theories

It would be an evolutionary advantage if early humans found ways to manage their fears about things that posed a risk in their environment and to even anticipate threats. Conspiracy theories accomplish this.

In the ancestral environment, it would pay to be suspicious of powerful and potentially hostile coalitions. Our history primes us to come up with and believe conspiracies even in the face of little supporting evidence. This may be why they can persist, regardless of how implausible they may seem or despite direct evidence to the contrary. At one point, these tendencies were useful for survival. 

Theory of Mind and Conspiracy Theories

The basic capacity to understand what others might be thinking, also known as theory of mind, would facilitate ancestral humans’ communal living and cooperation.

Evolutionary psychologists have wondered if conspiracy theories represent an over-zealous application of an ability that likely evolved to regulate and improve the social life of humans. One may too readily jump to conclusions about the motives, intentions and the thought processes of others.

This is supported by the interesting finding that the capacity to read the emotions of others from their eyes alone accurately predicts for belief in conspiracy theories.

Believing in Conspiracy Theories Create Feelings of Belonging

A conspiracy theory also seems to satisfy the human desire to belong. The theories circulate among a group of people who come to feel almost like a family. The theory is the basis of the bond.

It also allows for validation of a self-image. Built into a conspiracy is the notion that one’s group and the associated belief system is right and others are wrong. The assumption is that the coalition is moral and good and being sabotaged by those outside the group. 

Studies support that faith in conspiracies are associated with a narcissisistic or an inflated view of oneself.

Humans are wired for finding threats in their environment but also to detect potential alliances. This would be an evolutionary advantage in finding food, shelter, and potential mates.

Negative Consequences of Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy theories can have negative consequences such as the deaths that resulted from the Salem Witch Trials or the mortality of COVID-19 possibly being higher than it needed to be.

They Spread False Information

A conspiracy theory is not just a harmless rumor. For example, social media claims that masks caused pneumonia or compromised oxygen flow led to controversy and confusion.

There is no great way to measure how acceptance of conspiracies changed the death count associated with the coronavirus. However, those who have looked at this issue critically concede that it undoubtedly increased the number of lives lost because of how it lowered the likelihood of some to engage in disease mitigating behavior.

This would be the most detrimental fallout of erroneous theories but certainly not the only one.

They Disempower the Believers

Because conspiracy theorists, in their mind, belong to the smaller, less powerful grouping who are at the mercy of a larger tribe, there is often an associated sense of disempowerment. This serves to only further increase feelings of anxiety, isolation and vulnerability to outside forces.

While studies confirm that a sense of ostracism strengthens conspiracy beliefs, self-affirmation appears to be the antidote. A strong sense of self reduces a person’s likelihood to endorse erroneous ideas.

A Word From Verywell

Perhaps understanding some of the evolutionary roots of how and why we are actually predisposed to invent and believe in conspiracy theories, will make us more patient with our fellow humans.

Going forward, everyone should consider it their duty to be responsible about what news they disseminate and the source of that news. We also need to be mindful about what information we consume.

Peer reviewed journal articles are a great source of information but can be a bit technical. The websites of the Center for Disease Control and World Health Organization are reputable, are kept up to date and their content is based on research.



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