Why do people believe conspiracy theories?

Conspiracy theories are not new. The specific group of theories known as QAnon may be new, but conspiracy theories themselves are a tale(s) as old as time — or at least time as we know it, from the start of recorded history.

A large body of psychological research has shown that there are some deep cognitive reasons that conspiracy theories tend to resonate with us, and especially in particular types of people, or people in certain types of circumstances.

We are fundamentally wired to be storytellers. It’s intuitive why this ability might be hard-coded into our brains, as it so clearly relates to survival, self-preservation, and our ability to navigate and succeed in a complex world. We need to be able to understand cause and effect in an environment of many rapidly shifting variables, and storytelling is a framework for weaving coherent narratives that reduce our anxiety about the great uncertainties in the environment around us.

Conspiracy theories tap into psychological needs

Conspiratorial thinking is far more common than we think, and can ebb and flow in populations based on prevailing conditions. Our ability to see patterns in randomness and dissemble stories on the spot, along with numerous other cognitive and psychological biases, make us vulnerable to belief in conspiracy theories.

All of the following common human desires make us vulnerable to believing in conspiracies:

  • Desire for simple solutions
  • Desire for relief from the anxiety of uncertainty
  • Desire for understanding and certainty
  • Desire for control
  • Desire for safety and security
  • Desire for a positive self-image
  • Desire for a positive group image
  • Desire for belonging
  • Desire to offload responsibility to others

Structural properties of conspiracy theories

These persistent myths have different narratives, but structurally and linguistically they have elements in common. All conspiracy theory narratives include:

  • The Villains: Target a specific group that is supposedly conspiring in secret to deceive or do harm to society (The Outgroup)
  • The Heroes: A separate group of people, the believers, who are clued in to the conspiracy theory and heroically trying to expose it (The Ingroup)
  • Emotional storytelling: The language and narratives are loaded with trigger words and grand concepts in an attempt to elicit an emotional response from the readers or listener. This is used as a way of bypassing the rational, logical cognition mechanisms that would otherwise tend to raise a red flag at the outlandishness of the claims.

For more on the language and terminology of these addictive belief systems, check out the conspiracy theory dictionary.

Who is vulnerable to conspiracy theories?

There are certain types of people who are likely to essentially always be susceptible to conspiracy theories, and some types of circumstances that might make someone of a less prone personality type temporarily more vulnerable to conspiratorial messaging.

Traits that increase vulnerability to conspiracy thinking

  • Narcissism — individuals with a narcissistic and extreme need for uniqueness tend to be drawn in by the idea of gaining immediate and secret access to the “green room” of all the world’s events.
  • Intolerance — people who have a low tolerance for uncertainty will naturally gravitate towards ready-made solutions that seem simple and feel good. They will seek cognitive closure more strongly than individuals who can tolerate ambiguity, or take interest in it. Conspiracy theories are one way of providing “off the shelf” cognitive closure, by offering a complete explanatory system that removes all the uncertainty. They squeeze out any anxiety about not knowing what is going to happen in the future. Put another way — bigotry and conspiracy go hand in hand.

Circumstances that increase almost anybody’s vulnerability to conspiratorial messaging

  • Challenging times of great uncertainty and instability
  • Times of loss — a recent breakup, a death in the family, loss of a job, or other major life event could leave one open to appeals from a whole new belief system.
  • Feelings of anxiety and powerlessness
  • Being on the losing side of a political contest

Why are conspiracy theories so ‘sticky’?

Why is it so hard to pierce through the solipsistic “logic” of a conspiracy theory and get someone to evaluate falsifying information again? Why do people often seem to cling harder and go deeper down their rabbit holes each time disconfirming events transpire?

Conspiracy theory can seem a lot more “fun” than the sometimes harsh light of actual reality. Escapism is one of many appeals, as well as an easily-memorable picture of what’s going on that others around you in your tribe seem to share — bringing you closer together in a way that feels intoxicating. Some of the uncertainty of daily life seems bolstered by these clear, simple messages and stories that seem to explain everything in a neat and tidy way.

Some other reasons conspiracy theory is so sticky include:

  • people bolster their social identity with them (white supremacy, e.g.)
  • people use them to assert uniqueness in a “conformist” society
  • it’s a common human habit to put down reason and rational thought just for the sake of doing what feels good
  • Simplicity is seductive
  • Emotion is a key component to our most important memories. It’s our ancient brain’s “hack” for dealing with the reality of limited storage, by triaging the most intense experiences and deprioritizing the rest.
  • Storytelling literally syncs our brainwaves with our social group, forming a kind of psychological bond.
  • Listening to a story can change our neurochemical processes, and are some of the most powerful mechanisms we know of to motivate people to change beliefs and to act on a large scale.
  • Their mechanisms can be neurochemically seductive — and even potentially addictive — in that they valorize the self and one’s in-group while scapegoating and projecting all negativity onto The Other and the out-group, where it can be excised and/or exterminated.

How to protect yourself

  • be skeptical, but not too skeptical
  • gauge your emotions upon reading a piece of news, and be aware of how bias may creep in as a result
  • fact check anything new, ideally in at least 3 independent sources
  • learn more about conspiracy theories, cults, and thought reform

Famous conspiracies throughout history

If we’re likely to believe in one conspiracy, we are also more than likely prone to belief in others. Even before the QAnon surge made the widespread nature of conspiracy theories obvious by putting them front and center in our politics, up to half of all US citizens professed belief in one or more of these viral myths.

Conspiracy cults like QAnon can be a way to declare loyalty to a group and seek inclusion and social reciprocity from other members — without having to espouse any particular ideology. For the followers, there is instant gratification and very little intellectual effort to be done to begin to reap the rewards. For the elites promulgating it, this makes for a glorious tabula rasa or blank slate in which conspiracy proprietors can write whatever they wish and count on the zealotry of the followers to latch on.

  • QAnon
  • Blood libel
  • global cabal
  • Lost Gospel of Philip — 3rd century rumour that Jesus and Mary Magdalen were married. Later echoed in The Da Vinci Code.
  • Slave insurrection rumours
  • The Illuminati
  • Jewish global economic denomination / global cabal theory — these conspiracy theories flourished for hundreds of years before erupting violently in the Nazi regime and World War II. Numerous white supremacists in the U.S. still believe this today.
  • JFK assassination and the Warren Report
  • NASA faked the Moon landing
  • Supposed death of Paul McCartney
  • the government is controlled by Lizard People — everyone knows this one is true, obv
  • Holocaust deniers
  • political correctness and “cultural Marxism
  • New World Order
  • 9/11 Trutherism
  • Zionist Occupational Government (ZOG)
  • Anti-vaxxers — cluster of beliefs around vaccines being harmful
  • climate change denialism
  • Birtherism
  • celebrities still alive — Elvis, Tupac, etc.
  • Flat Earthers
  • coronavirus denial
  • the deep state
  • Antifa

Right-Wing Authoritarianism

It’s not just here at home in the US that fascism seems to have taken root in the population. There are many burgeoning nationalist movements resurrecting right-wing populism around the world, and as per many experts’ warnings, right-wing authoritarianism is on the rise around the globe.

Many of the right-wing populist thatches that have sprung up are at least in part, seeds planted by Vladimir Putin in his quest for Russian revanchism against the West following the end (or so we thought…) of the Cold War. Rumoured to be the richest man in the world by far, the former KGB agent was working in East Germany when the Berlin Wall fell, and has been pursuing his Lost Cause grievance ever since.

see also:

The right-wing authoritarianism movement is global

Given how seemingly easy it is for Charles Koch to buy American elections as the 15th richest person in the world, imagine what someone far wealthier and less provincial could accomplish. Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France took campaign cash directly from The Kremlin, Viktor Orban’s Hungary is Vladimir Putin’s strongest ally in the EU, the Belarusian dictator is propped up by Putin, who still occupies Ukraine’s Crimea, and the UK’s Brexit campaign acted as the canary in the coalmine for later disgraceful invasions of other nations’ sovereignty — perhaps most notably, election interference in the 2016, 2018, and 2020 US elections.

As such, it would be foolish not to see what’s happening here in America as part of a broader wave of right-wing populism and authoritarian fever that is very dangerous. We need to find out a lot more information about how all these puzzle pieces fit together, and get to the bottom of the real conspiracy clearly going on — if we can find it through all these smokescreen conspiracy theories clogging the propaganda waves.

Here’s a list of some of the extreme right-wing parties on the rise around the globe:

CountryFlagPartyAbbreviation
Austria๐Ÿ‡ฆ๐Ÿ‡นFreedom PartyFPO
Belgium๐Ÿ‡ง๐Ÿ‡ชFlemish BlockVB
Britain๐Ÿ‡ฌ๐Ÿ‡งUK Independence PartyUKIP
Britain First
National Front
Czech RepublicFreedom and Direct DemocracySPD
Denmark๐Ÿ‡ฉ๐Ÿ‡ฐDanish People's PartyDPP
Finland๐Ÿ‡ซ๐Ÿ‡ฎTrue Finns
France๐Ÿ‡ซ๐Ÿ‡ทNational FrontFN
Germany๐Ÿ‡ฉ๐Ÿ‡ชAlternative for GermanyAfD
Patriotic Europeans Against Islamization of the WestPegida
Greece๐Ÿ‡ฌ๐Ÿ‡ทSyriza
Hungary๐Ÿ‡ญ๐Ÿ‡บMovement for a Better HungaryJobbik
Fidesz
Italy๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡นNorthern League
National Alliance
Japan๐Ÿ‡ฏ๐Ÿ‡ตNippon Kaigi
The Netherlands๐Ÿ‡ณ๐Ÿ‡ฑParty for FreedomPPV
Liveable Netherlands
Pim Fortuyn's ListLPF
Norway๐Ÿ‡ณ๐Ÿ‡ดProgress Party
The Philippines๐Ÿ‡ต๐Ÿ‡ญ
Poland๐Ÿ‡ต๐Ÿ‡ฑLaw and Justice party
Portugal๐Ÿ‡ต๐Ÿ‡นPopular Party
SerbiaSerbian Radical PartySRS
Spain๐Ÿ‡ช๐Ÿ‡ธ(Catalonian secession)
Sweden๐Ÿ‡ธ๐Ÿ‡ชSweden Democrats
Switzerland๐Ÿ‡จ๐Ÿ‡ญSwiss People's PartySVP
United States๐Ÿ‡บ๐Ÿ‡ธRepublican PartyGOP

paleologic

In paleologic thinking, logical arguments flow from a false premise. Typically this premise is something emotional, religious, and/or mythical, and believed very strongly by their ingroup.

The logic goes, “because I feel strongly about this, it must be true” — which, of course, can lead one down any number of rabbit holes or garden paths.

It relates closely to magical thinking, where the childlike sense of imagination carries darkly into adulthood to fester Machiavellian dreams of power and revenge.

Paleologic in politics

Professor Jerrold Post wrote about the paleologic of the paranoid personality disordered in his 1997 book, Political Paranoia: The Psychopolitics of Hatred. The nature of paranoia itself lends greatly to its role in American politics over the centuries — profound social distrust is simply bad for the fabric of a nation.

Our country has been under the fraying sway of distrust and bitter partisanship for so long. One way to avoid going further over the edge is to find a way to reduce the temperature, and commit to self-examination of our society, our culture, and our language along with our laws and our lawmakers.

The Conservative Mind

A growing body of psychological and cognitive research is showing that the conservative mind has the following in common, indicating a profound challenge for American democracy in years to come:

  • are low in the “openness” trait — seek comfort and familiarity, and avoid novelty or challenge
  • dislike change and difference
  • rigid and dogmatic thinkers; close-minded
  • have a strong need for closure
  • have a high tendency to jump to conclusions while exuding self-righteous conviction
  • are high in conscientiousness, but low in conscience — many see life as a game to win at all costs, especially the social dominators
  • value loyalty
  • more likely than liberals to engage in motivated reasoning
  • more likely to have strong religious beliefs
  • more likely to engage in magical thinking
  • more likely to believe in conspiracy theories
  • more likely to exhibit authoritarian personality traits
  • more likely to harbor aggressive tendencies

See also:

Conspiracy Theory

Conspiracy Theory Dictionary: From QAnon to Gnostics

In half a decade we’ve gone from Jeb Bush making a serious run for president to Marjorie Taylor Greene running unopposed and winning a House seat in Georgia. QAnon came seemingly out of nowhere, but taps into a much deeper and older series of conspiracy theories that have surfaced, resurfaced, and been remixed throughout time.

Essentially, QAnon is a recycling of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion conspiracy theory that drove the Nazi ideology and led to the genocide of over 6 million Jews, gypsies, gays, and others who made Hitler mad. It’s riddled with the kind of conspiratorial paranoia that led to the deaths of over 75 million people in World War II.

The spread of the QAnon conspiracy theory greatly benefits from historical memory, getting a generous marketing boost from sheer familiarity. It also benefits from an authoritarian mentality growing louder in America, with a predilection for magical thinking and a susceptibility to conspiratorial thinking.

Conspiracy theories have been around much longer even than the Protocols — stretching back about as long as recorded history itself. Why do people believe in conspiracy theories? In an increasingly complex world brimming with real-time communication capabilities, the cognitive appeal of easy answers may simply be stronger than ever before.

TermDefinitionNotes
4chanA notorious internet message board with an unruly culture capable of trolling, pranks, and crimes.alt-Right
8chanIf 4chan wasn't raw and lawless enough for you, you could try the even more right-wing "free speech"-haven 8chan while it still stood (now 8kun). Described by its founder Frederick Bennan as "if 4chan and reddit had a baby," the site is notorious for incubating Gamergate, which morphed into PizzaGate, which morphed into QAnon -- and for generally being a cesspool of humanity's worst stuff.alt-Right
9/11 truthersPeople who believe the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City in 2001 were either known about ahead of time and allowed to happen, or were intentionally planned by the US government.
alien abductionPeople who claim to have been captured by intelligent life from another planet, taken to a spaceship or other plane of existence, and brought back -- as well as the folks who believe them.UFOs now real, nbd
American carnageEvocative of "immense loss" in the Nazi mythology
AntifaAntifa is anti-fascism, so the anti-anti-fascists are just fascists wrapped in a double negative. The real cancel culture -- and a dangerous one.
Anti-SemitismOne of history's oldest hatreds, stretching back to early biblical timesReferred to as "the oldest hate," anti-Semitism is also inherently anti-feminist, because Jewish societies wereย once matrilineal.
Biblical inerrancy
birtherismOne of Donald Trump's original Big Lies -- that President Barack Obama wasn't born in the U.S. and therefore, wasn't a "legitimate" president.
Black Lives Matter
blood libel
child trafficking
Christian Identity
climate change denial
The Confederacy
contamination
cosmopolitanismAnother term for globalist or internationalist, which are all dog whistles for Jewish people
Crossing the Rubicon
cultural MarxismAnti-semitic conspiracy theory alleging that Jewish intellectuals who fled the Hitler regime were responsible for infecting American culture with their communist takeover plans and that this holy war is the war the right-wing fights each day.
deep state
DVEdomestic violent extremism
fake news
GamerGate
George Soros
Hollywood
Illuminati
InfoWars
JFK assassination
John Birch SocietyThe QAnon of its day (circa 1960s), this extreme right-wing group was theoretically about anti-communist ideals but espoused a host of conspiracy theories and outlandish beliefs
lamestream mediaDerogatory term for any media that isn't right-wing media.
leftist apocalypse
Makers and Takers
micro-propaganda machineMPMthe โ€œmicro-propaganda machineโ€ โ€” an influence network that can tailor peopleโ€™s opinions, emotional reactions, and create โ€œviralโ€ sharing (๏ฟฝ๏ฟฝLOL/haha/๏ฟฝ๏ฟฝRAGE) episodes around what should be serious or contemplative issues
motivated reasoning
New World Order
nullificationA constitutional "theory" put forth by southern states before the Civil War that they have the power to invalidate any federal laws or judicial decisions they consider unconstitutional. It's never been upheld by the federal courts.
One World Government
PizzaGate
post-truth
PRpublic relations
propaganda
Protocols of the Elders of ZionForged anti-semitic document alleging a secret Jewish child murder conspiracy used by Hitler to gin up support for his regime.
PsyOpsPsychological operations
QAnon
Q Drops
reactionary modernism
Reichstag fire
Rothschilds
sock puppets
"Stand back and stand by"
The Storm
WikiLeaks
ZOGZionist ---- Government

January 6 Attack: Donald Trump stormed the Capitol to stay in power

January 6: A Day that will live in ignominy. The day Capitol riots broke out when an angry mob, following instructions from Donald Trump, stormed the halls of Congress and came within minutes of a potential hostage situation or worse: a massacre.

I’m still processing the events of Wednesday, as are many. Even though I fully anticipated something horrifying given the utter obviousness of the confrontation brewing, I did not have a particular picture in mind of what that thing was going to be.

Despite having steeled myself for the past 4+ years, I wept many times at some of the imagery and video footage. The defilement of the people’s halls by a violent armed mob who took selfies with Capitol Police was just not something I could have conceived of.

There must be accountability

This was one of the darkest days of our nation. Even during the Civil War the Confederates never stormed the US Capitol, so to see the Confederate flag waving in Congress was a desecration. It twisted me up to have such a raw display of America’s deepest gash of white supremacist history taken symbolically and literally to the nation’s capital.

This event was broadcast around the world, to our allies and to our enemies. We received rebukes from Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran. We — the supposed bastion of democracy. The country that lectures other nations around the world on how to do democracy better. We have been humiliated for the entire planet to see.

We need answers about what happened here. The people deserve to know who planned this, who helped this along, who looked the other away, and perhaps most importantly: who still agrees with it (Hawley and Cruz, for one — they must go).

We must stop fascism in America

The rot of fascism has been allowed to spread to the point where a violent mob of white supremacists, QAnon conspiracy nuts, MAGA faithful and a demon’s host of all stripes came within minutes of taking hostages inside the chambers of Congress. Five people lost their lives and already are being made into martyrs.

This did not begin with Trump, but he certainly amplified the signal at a much more psychotic rate than under previous administrations, certainly of my lifetime. We are now at a dangerous precipice: in a time of staggering wealth inequality, a once in a century health crisis largely being ignored by the right wing, deeply bitter partisanship played out over decades, the creep of authoritarianism around the world — and now at home.

Wednesday’s Capitol Riots did essentially mark the “crossing of the Rubicon” that the Trump cult begged him to do — it was a coming-out day for fascism. It was the President of the United States instructing an armed mob to walk up to the Capitol where lawmakers were certifying the election for the guy who won it, and telling them to “take our country back” and give it to him — by force if necessary. Which, of course, was necessary.

That is the Rubicon — the Rubicon is the willingness to use political violence when you have exhausted all other legal, shady, illegal, and hideously criminal means. That is the fascist twist. If we do not react now; if we do not censure, remove, and allow justice to hold these individuals accountable — both inside and outside of the government — they will take it as permission to try again and again until we deal with this.

We must hold the insurrectionists accountable — if we are to keep this republic.