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Why People Believe in Conspiracy Theories

Something has been puzzling me lately, so much that I had to do some research to understand for myself what is happening. Amidst all the chaos and fear of the spreading of COVID-19, another toxin has been spreading as well, belief in conspiracy theories. I’ve been concerned by how many people actually believe in some of these narratives. To the rational mind much of the current conspiracy thinking is ridiculous on its face. But not to some people. Why do people believe in such bizarre ideas in the first place? They actually believe it. It’s easy to dismiss people that believe in t conspiracy theories as “wacky” or “kooks”. The beliefs are indeed kooky. But rather than dismiss people, I think it’s better to understand why. There are some distinct patterns and people who buy into conspiracy theories actually process information differently than those who don’t. It’s not as simple as different personalities, but rather different ways of processing information and cognitive biases.

At times when large-scale transformational events happen, especially when they provoke intense fear and there are few clear explanations, conspiracy thinking spreads. Belief in conspiracy theories is nothing new, and some conspiracy theories actually are true. Consider the Tuskegee experiment, where the US government actually was doing experiments with black men injecting them with syphilis. The Iran Contra conspiracy turned out to be true. When people believe in conspiracy theories that are not true however, it can actually be dangerous.

3 main factors drive the belief in conspiracy theories:

·  A need for understanding and consistency (an epistemic need)

·  A need for control (an existential need)

·  A need to belong or to feel special (a social need)

And two other factors increase belief in conspiracies:

·  Situations involving large-scale events where simple explanations seem inadequate.

·  Situations where people experience distress over uncertainty.

Think about it; both of these factors are in abundance during our present-moment shared experience.

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Epistemic needs:

When the world seems a confusing, dangerous and chaotic place, people want to understand what’s happening and look for ways to explain things. This helps them create a consistent understanding of how the world works. When people get conflicting information, it’s natural to look for explanations to help connect the dots. Think about how fractured our culture has become. We live in a culture of confirmation bias on steroids. Algorithms funnel information to people that already confirms their cognitive biases and many people seek out their own sources of information that do more of the same. To make things worse, some people and even some corporations profit from spreading disinformation because it serves their own interests, either politically or financially. You can start to see why people go down rabbit holes and can’t get out.

One study showed that people who feel psychologically and socio-politically disempowered are more prone to belief in conspiracy theories and another found that anxiety drives believe in conspiracy theories.

Existential needs: 

When people feel threatened in some way, they look for sources of danger as a coping mechanism. The problem is that belief in conspiracy theories doesn’t help people feel more control or autonomy but does just the opposite. They feel more disempowered than ever before.

Social needs:

Believing in a conspiracy theory that portrays the outgroup as the opposition, makes some people feel better about themselves and their own social group. They feel that they are the “heroes” of the story and other people conspiring against him or “the enemy”. This also reflects peoples black-and-white thinking and a lack of analytical thinking.

People tend to believe in conspiracy theories when:

·  They are on the losing side of a political issue

·  They have a lower social status due to income or ethnicity or feel their status threatened

·  They have felt socially ostracized

·  They hold a prejudice against “enemy” groups that they perceive as powerful

Blaming others, “those people” improves conspiracy believers views of themselves.

Collective narcissism is the belief that your own social group is better, but not appreciated by other people.

Rather than fulfilling people’s needs, belief in conspiracy theories destroys peoples trust in institutions, leaders and government. It destroys trust in science and in research itself. People who already feel socially isolated feel even more isolated. They tend to see people that don’t want to join them in their rabbit hole as part of the conspiracy and the enemy camp. This all leads to deepening cycles of distrust and disempowerment.

Believing in things that are not true can be dangerous and have a ripple effect in society. Trying to explain rationally why the beliefs are not true further reinforces the believer’s belief. It is actually counterproductive to attempt to have a rational discussion about these types of beliefs because they are not rational.

So what can help overcome belief in conspiracy theories? One factor is feeling in control. Fostering belief in people that they have the power to control their future, something called “promotion-focused” belief can help people believe their future is based on their actions and help them feel a sense of agency and control, rather than feeling victim to secret plots and nefarious plans. But many people are “prevention-focused”, meaning they are more focused on protecting what they already have than on achieving new empowering goals. This mindset actually further reinforces conspiratorial thinking because people believe some enemy “wants to take what I’ve got”. And so, the cycle spirals even deeper.

Especially in these scary and confusing times, promoting messages focused on realistic things people can do to take control of their own health is most helpful. This helps build an action-oriented mindset. As we live through COVID-19, doing simple things like wearing a mask and practicing social distancing helps build a sense of control, even if only in a small way. It would be pleasing and reassuring to say that “we are all in the same boat”, going through this together, but we are not. We are all going through the same storm, but in many different boats. Right now, the best things we can do are to find ways to empower ourselves and each other, and to  understand each other. 

Reach Out When You're Ready.