Why Do We Love Conspiracy Theories?
We tend to believe that conspiracy theories are simply products of delusion or paranoia - but is conspiracy acceptance more universal than we think?
I was eight years old at Universal Studios when I first learned about ET, Steven Spielberg’s mini extraterrestrial masterpiece.
I was enamored by its concept: I wanted to believe ET was not just a fabric of our imagination, that aliens had a high probability of greeting us and helping us fly bicycles into the sky.
As childhood passed and I watched UFO documentaries, my conviction became stronger that aliens not only existed but that a UFO likely had visited Earth.
I didn’t think there was anything strange about this conviction. After all, about half of Americans believe there is life on other planets and also believe the government knows more than it leads on.
But I hesitated to consider myself a conspiracy theorist.
When I thought of conspiracy theorists, I thought of the crazies and the cranks. The people who believed in lizard people taking over the world or that the moon landing was a hoax to win the Space Race. When I asked friends if they believed in conspiracies, I found I wasn’t alone.
There were people who believed in entertaining conspiracies (i.e. the theory that Paul McCartney died in 1966 or that the close density of Mattress Firm stores in Chicago might suggest a larger money laundering scheme), but these were mostly harmless. Few believed in anything more nefarious.
The pattern I found was representative of a stigma.
Widely accepted theories can swing political activity, familial relationships, and even lead to stark violence. We want none of this.
We like to set ourselves outside of conspiracy culture, marveling at conspiracism as though it’s some sort of foreign disease that only foams about at the fringes of modern society.
But, this doesn’t mean we can ignore them.
While many of them are largely based on no evidence, they seem to catch on like wildfire. With the amount of information we have to consume, it’s increasingly harder to separate fact from fiction. In this reality, fiction can tend to win.
With the recent deplatforming of the President after weeks of election fraud theories that led to attempted insurrection, it begs the question: is deplatforming going to stop conspiracy theories?
Is this actually going to make information sharing easier?
My curiosity led me to a core question: What is it about humans that makes conspiracy theories stick in the first place?
Let’s take a deeper look under the hood … of conspiracy theories.
What is a Conspiracy Theory?
So what is the sandbox we’re playing in?
What is the definition of a conspiracy theory?
I opted to go with the definition researchers Oliver and Wood gave in the Washington Post on conspiracy theories: “An explanation that makes reference to hidden, malevolent forces seeking to advance some nefarious aim.”
While this does remove legends like Bigfoot and Loch Ness (fun, not but necessarily nefarious) from the realm of conspiracy theories, it does help us better define the intent of such theories.
Once a theory becomes an accepted explanation, it disappears. Many thought Watergate was outlandish in 1972, but few would hesitate to describe it as a theory today.
So why do they start?
This is where psychology gets interesting.
Why Do We Believe in Conspiracy Theories?
The increase in spread and concern of conspiracy theories has led many behavioral scientists in the past two decades to look at them more closely, trying to better understand the exact predictors of conspiracism.
Are they products of circumstance? Emotion? Core belief systems?
It turns out, all of them.
One of the largest hypotheses around predicting conspiracy acceptance is anxiety or a lack of control.
In her piece “Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories” in the Scientific American journal, author Melinda Wenner Mayer suggests elements of emotion play a role in getting people to believe in conspiracy theories. Mayer finds that feelings of anxiety, along with disenfranchisement, are “comforted by identifying scapegoats and making the world seem more straightforward.”
While this may seem obvious, the experiments she cites illuminate the unique role of stressors in conspiratorial beliefs.
In one experiment, a 2015 study in the Netherlands, college students were split up into multiple groups. One group was told to write about a time they felt they were not in control, another to talk about a time they felt in control.
When the larger group was asked to comment on how they felt about the construction of a new subway line that had been plagued by problems, those primed to feel a lack of control were much more likely to believe in an unlikely conspiracy to the problem.
If we look at this study as a microcosm of the human experience that leads to conspiracism, you can imagine that most people are primed to feel this way through a string of experiences - foreclosures, lost jobs, and crumbling relationships that need an answer.
A general belief that someone else is responsible for your misery vs. random chance.
Meyer suggests that this can be compounded by another hypothesis: the feeling of alienation or being unwanted.
In a 2017 Princeton study, participants were requested to write an essay about themselves, which they were told would be shared with another participant to see if the other participant wanted to work together.
Some were randomly accepted, some randomly rejected. Those rejected were quick to assume that their rejection was the product of a larger conspiracy.
This can make sense for a lot of political conspiracies that come from a disenfranchised demographic or ignored class of America - indeed, a number of theories are strongly aligned to socioeconomic classes, including presidential birtherism.
But to suggest that all conspiracists are paranoid loners might not paint the full picture.
This is the image we usually have. The reality is a bit different.
In their research on “Conspiracy Theories and the Paranoid Style(s) of Mass Opinion”, Oliver and Wood draw larger correlations between innate psychological tendencies and how they influence acceptance of conspiracy theories, adding yet another hypothesis: Normal, everyday people with no emotional vacuums are just as likely to believe in conspiracy theories.
They specifically call out two factors:
Tendency to attribute the source of unexplained or extraordinary events to unseen, intentional forces (i.e. attributing events to god or unexplainable noises to ghosts)
Natural attraction towards melodramatic narratives as explanations for prominent events, (i.e. narratives that break everything into good or evil or black and white)
This is where it gets easier to explain why many otherwise ordinary people may embrace conspiracy theories.
Believing in unseen forces or liking narratives of duality is not irregular and would not otherwise impact other routines. We see these cognitive tendencies all the time in situations that are perfectly appropriate - something like saying “Bless You” during a sneeze or knocking on wood for good luck. Basic heuristics we adopt over time.
The researchers suspected that tendencies with such normal occurrence meant they would find uniform acceptance across political affiliation, political interest, race, gender, and education for conspiracy theories.
To test this out, they gave a large group of people the following measures and statements and told them to rank each from 1 - 5.
About a quarter of respondents believed in the end times statement, over a third agreed with the Manichean worldview, and more than half the sample believed there was a case for believing in a secret cabal, supernatural phenomena, or paranormal phenomena.
When these same respondents were given seven conspiracy theories, ranging from 9/11 Truthers and the Iraq War being an inside job, to Soros, birtherism and a plot by the U.S. government to switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs to make people more obedient, these respondents had strong opinions about all of them.
They found that those with strong measures on Manichean and End Times were likely to believe in all the conspiracy theories, while strong Paranormal and Secret Cabal measures believed in almost all but the birther conspiracy.
What they ultimately couldn’t find was a single demographic or segment that was more susceptible to conspiracy theories than others.
While some patterns existed amongst the less educated, acceptance was ubiquitous. Women and men believed in a number of conspiracy theories, as did both liberals and conservatives. The researchers even later lamented that their research was a disheartening blow to the political pundits who claimed their side was above conspiracism.
This makes it hard to retain a lot of our initial bias that conspiracy theories somehow come from paranoid extremists or are products of gross misinformation.
Just because we read a lot or adopt a political ideology, it doesn’t mean we to make attributions to unseen forces or find dramatic narratives less compelling.
A commitment to some of the absurdity that comes with conspiracy theories is something all humans are capable of.
So the golden question: what can we actually do?
Can We Stop Conspiracy Theories?
As I searched for answers behind the psychology of these theories, I was hoping for a clear answer to curb them - something more concrete around how to use this information to stop their spread.
Overall, the findings give us unfortunately more cause for concern.
One, it generally proves the theory that humans act more through emotional instinct and subconscious bias than logic. This is something we’ve seen through the research on somatic markers and studies on scarcity, but those implications are less worrisome. Humans reacting quickly to decide on a brand of beer is different than humans fueled by anger about a completely illegitimate narrative on the president.
Two, stopping the spread of a single theory or filtering the distribution channel doesn’t address the root of the problem. When the Washington Post shared how misinformation had dropped dramatically the week after Trump was banned, people rejoiced.
The research by Zignal Labs in the Post article dissected apart the misinformation ecosystem, sharing how the President’s tweets were retweeted by supporters at a fast rate, giving him a huge influence over conversation. Once that channel was removed, information spread more slowly.
But while the channel was curbed, I thought about the views of those engaged in this misinformation - the closing of the channel did nothing to change the alienation, anxiety, or natural belief system of those people. It simply changed their ability to spread it their beliefs at the speed they desired.
The easy answer is that we want to make people feel more secure and included. We want to get out of this spiral where there is less disruption and anger in society. We want to enhance value systems.
But we’re at a precipice where none of this is easy to do - people are angry, there is good reason not to engage with those who once sent you death threats, and many politicians have given up on considering bipartisanship a try.
On top of that, even some scientists are skeptical. Jan-Willem van Prooijen, a psychologist at VU Amsterdam, is working on research to see whether false conspiracy beliefs can be corrected by giving participants power and control over their own lives.
But, as Maggie Korerth suggests in this piece, this is much harder to do in the real world than outside of laboratory experiments. Sure, controlled environments can sow change - but in the real world, the ability to empower and give people control over their lives comes from the very people they trust - leaders and government officials.
Maybe we’re meant to live the concept of these forever? Who knows.
So here’s a new idea: If we know that people are going to believe in conspiracy theories regardless, could we just feed them better theories to believe in?
What if there was a coordinated effort by the government to share theories that agencies were baking cookies underground and waiting until the right time to share them? Or that the chemtrails thought to be brainwashing gases were actually gifts from other planets?
I’m still on the lookout for better ways to curb misinformation that addresses the psychological root of why people go out of their way to search for it - but until that, maybe it’s not such a bad idea to just make the misinformation healthier to believe.
Special thanks to Wiley Online Library and Scientific American for allowing me to tap into their archives and to researchers J. Eric Oliver, Thomas J. Wood, and editor Melinda Wenner Mayer for the research that helped support these arguments.