“You do know that the coronavirus vaccine is a front for population control set up by the government, and that it implants a microchip used to track us, right? The virus is being spread through the 5g cell phone towers, and the vaccine actually morphs your own DNA! And I hope you know that climate change is a complete hoax, despite what the leading scientists say. How about the fact that the presidential election was rigged? All the information and facts are out there if you just open your eyes and look for them.”
How do you feel when you hear claims such as these? Do you believe that powerful people are pulling the strings to benefit themselves at the cost of the well-being of the public? Do they sound utterly ridiculous? Do you think that there might be some truth to at least part of these claims? Do you think that they are simply entertaining? Perhaps you don’t care either way and you just want to go on living your life without giving these claims a second thought.
Regardless of where you stand, there are psychological mechanisms at work that may help explain why you feel the way you do about conspiracy theories in general. By no means are these explanations simple. There are a multitude of factors that contribute to one’s tendency to believe a conspiracy theory including age, culture, presence of societal crises, individual measures of narcissism, a desire to be in control of stressful situations, and many more. It is also important to note that belief in conspiracy theories have an adaptive component to them as well. It is actually quite normal and healthy to be suspicious of other people's motives as this trait has enhanced our species chances for survival throughout history and even today.
However, there are obvious downfalls to this type of persistent cynicism and mistrust, especially when these claims lack solid evidence to back them, and people decide to act. In today’s world, we see this in the form of burning cellphone towers across Europe, the storming of the Capitol Building in the United States, pharmacists destroying hundreds of coronavirus vaccines, and further deterioration of our environment and atmosphere to name a few. Like all things in life, developing a balanced perspective on these conspiracies is the key to better understanding them and taking appropriate actions to ensure the wellbeing of ourselves and society at large.
What is a conspiracy theory? How do they arise?
Let us start by defining the term conspiracy theory: “A conspiracy theory can normally be defined as a proposed plot carried out in secret, usually by a powerful group of people who have some kind of sinister goal.” This definition is consistent with the previously mentioned theories above. Another common thread between conspiracy theories is that they tend to thrive in times of crisis and social upheaval. Think about the subject matter surrounding the conspiracies of recent times. They don’t normally persist and cause societal upheaval when they are rooted in trivial matters. They usually tend to pick up traction when they are rooted in issues of controversy and uncertainty that contribute to an increase of anxiety for the society as a whole.
To further support this notion, it is important to note that conspiracy theories are not a new phenomenon. Despite the apparent increase of exposure to theories via various media in recent years, this type of suspicion is quite common in societal times of crisis and uncertainty. Research suggests that a rise in conspiracies and general distrust for the government and powerful groups occurred shortly before the year 1900, a period characterized by the rise of major companies, quick technological progress, and rapidly changing power structures. Another spike occurred in the late 1940s and early 1950s, a time that marked the beginning of the Cold war. We can even look all the way back to the year 64 AD during ancient Roman times. After the great fire of Rome, conspiracy theories spread claiming that Emperor Nero himself purposely started the fire to rebuild Rome according to his own vision, and that he sang as he watched the city burn to the ground. In fact, Nero responded to these claims in haste by starting his own conspiracy theory, blaming the Christian community for initiating the fire!
The common thread between all these situations and the conspiracy theories that resulted from them is a period of anxiety and uncertainty among the general public. Crisis situations often lead people to feel like they have little control over their environment. The value of conspiracy theories during these times is that they help people “make sense of the world by specifying the causes of important events, which further helps them predict, and anticipate, the future.”
Why do some people believe in conspiracy theories while others don’t?
While large groups of people experience these moments of crisis, not everyone buys into the conspiracy theories that arise because of them. There is a plethora of psychological factors that we can use to help explain this difference in belief. People gravitate towards conspiracy theories in order to feel more in control of a hectic situation, or at least have the information that explains why they don't have control over the situation.
Along this same thread of logic, research shows us that people that report higher levels of feeling powerless, as well as people who strongly experience a fear of death, are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, which makes a lot of sense. Research also reveals an association between the personality dimension of narcissism and a tendency to believe in conspiracy theories across multiple studies. Ultimately, people that have a relatively strong external locus of control (a structural tendency to attribute one’s own successes and failures to factors that are out of one’s control) are more likely to report prominent levels of interpersonal mistrust, paranoia, and belief in conspiracy theories.
People like to have high self-esteem, and conspiracy theories can provide this too. On the individual level, it can boost self-esteem by knowing that you have access to information that other people don't necessarily have, and this can result in a sense of superiority over others. This self-esteem boost can occur at the group level as well. When people have an overinflated sense of the importance of the groups that they belong to, and at the same time feel as if their groups are being under-appreciated, people feel the draw to conspiracy theories. They make things make sense. These theories may allow them to maintain the idea that their group is good, moral, and upstanding, whereas the other groups are evil cheaters who are trying to ruin things for everyone else.
Aside from individual factors, there are also cultural factors that we must consider while examining why certain people buy into conspiracy theories. A glaring example of this would have to be the relationship between Black Americans' perspective on the Covid vaccine and their long history of documented abuse by the medical establishment. In this case, many would agree that suspicion is understandable when we look back at incidents like the Tuskegee studies that left participants to endure their disease without proper medical treatment although it was available.
Some researchers also suggest that conspiracy theories persist in large part due to their entertainment value. Multiple studies have revealed that sensation seeking individuals are more likely to believe in a range of societal conspiracy theories. Like individuals that watch scary movies for a thrill, some individuals simply look at conspiracy theories as a source for thrill and entertainment. This doesn’t mean that the theories themselves should be treated as fact and gain endorsement, but that the motive behind engaging in them makes sense when considered through this lens.
How can we differentiate between the truth and the lies?
As previously mentioned, expressing skepticism is actually an adaptive trait. The true problem lies with the individuals that choose to engage in harmful actions that are detrimental to themselves, others, or the environment, without having a solid understanding of the problem at large. This makes finding credible sources of information vital. Oftentimes people exposed to non-credible sources get the ball rolling, and from here they tend to endorse other sources that confirm their certain theory while disregarding other sources that contradict their views, even if that information is coming from a more credible source. Social media and the polarized flooding of information that spams your feeds, presenting you with the information you want to see as opposed to unbiased credible information makes this task even harder. However, if you really are a truth seeker, the path to your answers is simple. Do your research, be open to entertaining multiple sources of information, and have faith in credible sources, not only sources that are telling you what you want to hear.