The absolutely real truth about conspiracy theories
Updated: Sep 2, 2021
What’s in vaccinations, and do they do more harm than good? Is the New World Order trying to control us all? What about 5G and the recent coronavirus? Who actually shot President Kennedy? Who really orchestrated the events of 9/11? And are Hillary and Bill Clinton part of a conspiracy to cover up a large number of assassinations? Or maybe it’s Pizzagate, that somehow includes various US restaurants, sex trafficking and a paedophile ring. Also, let’s not forget the aliens who drive so many theories. These conspiracy theories and many others circulate at rapid speed around the internet and, in particular, social media.
What is a conspiracy theory? Richard Hofstadter described it as a “vast, insidious, preternaturally effective international conspiratorial network designed to perpetrate acts of most fiendish character”. Which is another way of saying “They’re out to get me” or “They are always trying to control me in everything”. It’s Us and Them.
Let’s be clear: some conspiracies DO exist! If you believed during the 1940s that a large totalitarian country was exterminating millions of people you would have been correct. If you believe that a major religious organisation has tried to cover up thousands of cases of sexual abuse you would also be correct. The difference between these beliefs and others is certifiable evidence. Where, for example, is real evidence that Bill Gates owns the patent to a virus? I’m talking about real evidence, not something that somebody, somewhere said. Or they made a video about it. Or wrote a book about it (hello Illuminati).
There appear to be two types of people involved in circulating conspiracy theories. There are those who, for political, malevolent, or even whimsical or other self-serving reasons, create them. These include professional conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones and David Icke. These people have a strong personal interest in conspiracy theories. They obviously have something to gain. It might be to discredit a political opponent, it might be to promote a particular belief, or it might even be to further a financial investment. It might be as simple as having malicious intent. Increasingly the reasons appear to be for self-aggrandisement. Research has shown a positive association between conspiracy beliefs, narcissism, and self-esteem (Goreis & Voracek, 2019).
And then there are those who choose to believe them and then promulgate the theories. I’m referring to those with a willingness to believe a theory without any scientific evidence whatsoever. It might be to substantiate their own pre-existing biases. For most believers in conspiracies the sub-text is “They are always trying to control me in everything”. Former president of the American Psychological Association Martin Seligman in his book Learned Optimism – How to Change Your Mind and Your Life writes that we have two ways of explaining events in our lives. These can be broken down into three dimensions: permanence, pervasiveness, and personalisation. In other words, whether things always appear to be a certain way and whether one should take the result personally. The more a person believes that things are ‘always like that’ and their personal control over everything has been taken away, the more pessimistic they will be. (Seligman goes on to say that the more pessimistic a person is, the more susceptible they are to physical ill-health and mental health issues, especially depression.) A statement such as “They are always trying to control me in everything” fits perfectly into the model of a highly pessimistic (and possibly depressed) person.
The big question, of course, is "why do people choose to believe in conspiracy theories?". As it happens, there are a number of theories as to why people believe in conspiracy theories. Numerous studies (eg. Douglas, Sutton, & Cichocka, 2017) have found that people appear to be drawn to conspiracy theories when they promise to satisfy psychological needs, especially when they feel the need for more security and control in their lives. This is especially true in conditions of uncertainty, like the current times, in particular if they feel that their existential needs are threatened (van Prooijen & Jostmann, 2013). Holding onto a conspiracy theory for people who lack control and agency helps them to reclaim some sense of control by rejecting official narratives and allowing them to feel that they know better and they then feel special, thus boosting their self-esteem.
Sometimes it’s simply the desire for understanding. Douglas et al. (2019) state that conspiracy theorists are attempting to understand the essential causes of significant social and political events, and that they do this with claims of secret plots. For some people, perhaps more sceptical or cynical, a simple explanation is just…well, too easy. Obviously there needs to be a more complicated reason for it. Libertarians, too, are alert to any form of control over them, either overt or covert.
Lower intelligence, lack of education, and lower incomes also play roles. Stahl and van Prooijen (2018) found that lower levels of analytic thinking predicted conspiracy beliefs. Vitriol and Marsh, (2018) state that people who overestimate their ability to understand complex causal phenomena are prone to conspiracy beliefs. Conspiracy beliefs have also been linked to factors such as nonclinical delusional thinking (Dagnall, et al., 2015) and paranoid schizotypy (Barron, Morgan, Towell, Altemeyer, & Swami, 2014).
Somewhat ironically, conspiracy theorists like to stick together. This may provide validation for their own beliefs. It’s also possible that believing in a theory can be a social experience, even if it’s just on Facebook. Let’s face it, believing in any theory can make a person feel like they’re part of a community. What is curious is the passion and vehemence with which theories are defended. So much so that, when presented with scientific evidence from professional fact-checkers, they will say that the fact-checkers are “controlled”, “censored”, or just plain wrong. And, of course, they know better because…well, just because.
The world which I partly inhabit is the world of ‘spirituality’. It is a part of me that I love, and I love my friends who are part of this world. However, there appears to be a very strong crossover in that community with people who often believe in some very strange theories. They never seem to fact-check, and it often appears as though the more outlandish the theory the stronger their belief. Ward and Voas (2011) discuss a hybrid of conspiracy theory and alternative spirituality – which they term ‘conspirituality’ – that has appeared on the internet. This is a coincidence of beliefs in that nothing happens by accident, is as it seems, and everything is connected. This is not to say that everyone who holds alternative spiritual beliefs is a conspiracy theorist. Nor that all conspiracy theorists hold alternative spiritual beliefs. Far from it; many conspiracy theorists belong to conservative, traditional religions and, of course, many are also from the radical Right, with their ranting anti-this-that-and-the-other, especially anti-Black, anti-Moslem and antisemitism. Nevertheless it does seem as though those who choose alternative spiritual ways also choose alternative theories.
To be fair, there are also people who deny the possibility of any conspiracy, and their closed minds are as dangerous as the closed minds of conspiracy theorists. We live in a world where Cambridge Analytica can sell metadata. We also live in a world where Google, Facebook, and other apps can track our movements. Are these conspiracies? I don’t think so. They are capitalism at work. Just as Big Pharma is all about business, and business is, by nature, manipulative. But that does not mean that there are secret plots to control our lives against our will. It is certainly worth fact-checking for verifiable evidence and veracity regarding all unusual theories while maintaining an open mind, rather than blindly subscribing to the theory for some subjective reason. Until then, however, I guess the internet will remain polarized and we will have to agree to disagree, and live in mutual respect.
Barron, D., Morgan, K., Towell, T., Altemeyer, B. & Swami, V. (2014). Associations between schizotypy and belief in conspiracist ideation, Personality and Individual Differences, 70, 156–159.
Dagnall, N., Drinkwater, K., Parker, A., Denovan, A., & Parton, M. (2015) Conspiracy theory and cognitive style: A worldview. Frontiers in Psychology, 6.
Douglas, K. M. & Sutton, R. M. (2011). Does it take one to know one? Belief inconspiracy theories is influenced by personal willingness to conspire, British Journal of Social Psychology, 50, 544–552.
Douglas, K. M., Sutton, R. M., & Cichocka, A. (2017), The psychology of conspiracy
theories. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26, 538–542.
Douglas, K.M., Uscinski, J.E., Sutton, R.M., Cichocka, A., Nefes, T., Ang, C.S. & Deravi, F. (2019), Understanding Conspiracy Theories, Advances in Political Psychology, 40I.
Goreis, A. & Voracek, M. (2019), A systematic review and meta-analysis of psychological research on conspiracy beliefs: Field characteristics, measurement instruments, and associations with personality traits, Systematic Review, 1 10,doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00205.
Hofstadter, R. (1966). “The paranoid style in American politics,” in The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays, ed R. Hofstadter, New York, NY: Knopf, 3–40.
Seligman, M (2006), Learned optimism – How to change your mind and your life, New York, Vintage Books.
van Prooijen, J.-W., & Jostmann, N. B. (2013), Belief in conspiracy theories: The influence of uncertainty and perceived morality, European Journal of Social Psychology, 43, 109– 115.
Vitriol, J. A. & Marsh, J. K. (2018). The illusion of explanatory depth and endorsement of conspiracy beliefs, European Journal of Social Psychology, 48, 955–969.
Ward, C., & Voas, D. (2011), The emergence of conspirituality, Journal of Contemporary Religion, 26, 103-121