Why do people believe conspiracy theories?

Conspiracy theories are not new. Covid-related conspiracies may be new, but conspiracy theories about pandemics and contagious diseases have been around for centuries. Anti-vaccination hysteria goes back decades. The specific group of theories known as QAnon may be new (or maybe not really?!), 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.

QAnon flag epitomizes modern-day conspiracy theories
Image credit: Anthony Crider

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.
  • Low self-esteem — folks who lack confidence in their own abilities may even be unsure about their own ability to determine facts from fiction. Whether consciously or subconsciously, they may opt for the path of least resistance in getting to a simple answer that “feels” right quickly, in order to relieve the stress of having to expend considerable effort figuring it out and defending it to others.

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