Everything there is to know about the psychology of conspiracy theories


Conspiracy Theories

The psychology of conspiracy theories is fairly complex. It’s not just about how it makes you feel, or even the people who are behind it. Conspiracy theories are also fueled by the media, so the more someone watches these conspiratorial shows on TV, the easier they are to fall under this spell.

How do these delusions originate? What’s behind the psychology of it all? Let’s look at what makes some of us believe in these conspiracies and why we may need to restrain their influence over us.

The psychology of conspiracy theories is a topic that has been studied a lot in recent years, and there are a lot of different theories as to why we’re so vulnerable to them. Research has shown that people who are more trusting and those with low self-esteem tend to be the ones who see conspiracies everywhere, suggesting that it’s likely not an issue with our cognitive skills but rather what we believe to be true about ourselves.

There’s also research showing that we can gradually teach ourselves how to identify these faulty thought patterns and reduce the power they have over us. One study found that after participants were given training in fact-checking and other logical thinking methods, their susceptibility towards conspiracy beliefs was cut in half.

Other research has suggested that we shouldn’t blame the people who believe in conspiracy theories, but rather we should focus on those who spread these beliefs. According to this study, it’s best to try and limit the spread of conspiratorial ideas by giving people the right information and asking them to consider alternative explanations for events.

So whether you’re part of the 9% or not, it would be best to keep your mind open about conspiracy theories. After all, how do we know which ones are real and which ones aren’t? The best thing we can do is keep ourselves informed and be careful of those who seek to manipulate us with such ideas.

Psychology of conspiracy theories

A close up of a hand

Psychologists have been studying the psychology of conspiracy theories since World War II. In 1947, a man named Hadley Cantril wrote a book called “The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic” where he described how fear can spread through rumors and stories as it did during the 1938 radio broadcast of H.G. Wells.

Cantril’s book was the first to describe the psychology of fear and how it can spread quickly through society.

Cantril went on to conduct research showing that people who are less educated were more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, which he attributed to their lack of knowledge in critical thinking. This study showed that there is a correlation between education levels.

Cantril’s research led him to suggest that conspiracy theories can develop when people experience a “crisis of authority,” which happens when people feel like the government, media and other institutions aren’t trustworthy.

As we’ve seen in recent years, politicians and other leaders have the potential to use the crisis of authority for their benefit.

Conspiracy on Covid-19

A close up of a tattoo

The FAT epidemic is a more localized sequel of sorts to the pandemic that has been going on for years. Although it’s smaller, this new virus has already infected close to 90% of all humans. While vaccination is not as readily available as before due to scarcity and logistical problems, medical professionals continue their efforts to save lives and protect people from potential.

This research looks at how exposure to and trust in information sources, as well as anxiety and depression, are linked with conspiracy and misinformation beliefs across eight countries/regions during the COVID-19 epidemic.

An online survey was taken between May 29, 2020, and June 12, 2020, resulting in a global representative sample of 8,806 adults.

Exposure to more traditional media (television, radio, newspapers) is linked with decreased conspiracy and misinformation ideas, whereas exposure to politicians and digital media, personal contacts, and social networks are connected with increased conspiracy and misinformation beliefs.

Only exposure to health professionals was linked to lower conspiracy beliefs. Feelings of sadness were also associated with more conspiracy and misinformation thinking. We discovered important distinctions in terms of social groups and countries as well. The significance of these findings is discussed.

Understanding conspiracies

Humans’ propensity to identify patterns and accept information that fulfills security and belonging needs is a driving force behind many popular false ideas, according to psychological studies.

According to a recent poll, approximately half of Americans believe in at least one debunked conspiracy theory (Oliver, J. E. & Wood, T. J., American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 58, No. 4, 2014), with QAnon being perhaps the most provocative among them. COVID-19 is a hoax and also considered a conspiracy.

Motivation to believe

Conspiracy theories are popular for a variety of reasons—to explain inexplicable events, to feel special or different, or to satisfy a need for social belonging. To name a few.

In a series of studies, Douglas and Jan-Willem van Prooijen, Ph.D., an associate professor of social and organizational psychology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, found that our propensity to see illusory patterns—to connect stimuli that aren’t connected—is part of the cognitive machinery behind irrational beliefs such as conspiracy.

Some QAnon followers believe that since Q is the 17th letter in the alphabet, President Trump is communicating with them through numbers like 17.

People who have been misled may benefit greatly from getting accurate information from reputable sources, which can assist them to avoid being drawn into conspiracy theories and provide a sense of stability. On the other hand, misinformation from a trusted source might be extremely hazardous.

The origin of a false concept has little bearing on the deluded. It may be useful, however, to point out why a conspiracy theory is incorrect and to highlight inconsistencies within it when discussing misinformation reduction.

According to a study published in the “Psychological Science” journal last August, false news has been all too common recently.

Types of conspiracies

Explaining that the government is responsible for something might typically be considered a baseless claim, yet that hasn’t stopped it from being believed. The more implausible a conspiracy theory sounds, the more likely people are to believe in it.

According to research by Viren Swami and Adrian Furnham from the University of Westminster’s Psychology Department, there are five main types of conspiracy theories that people believe in. These include the ‘New World Order, government surveillance schemes, chemtrails, celebrity cover-ups, and finally, assassinations.

‘New World Order – A popular conspiracy theory that claims the global political and financial elite are planning to establish an authoritarian one-world government. This would involve a single dominant power controlling everything, without any national sovereignty or personal freedoms.

Why do people believe in them?

According to Jan-Willem van Prooijen, an associate professor of social and organizational psychology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, people believe in conspiracy theories because believing in them makes them feel safe.

“People may suspect that they are not being told the whole story about important events – like plane crashes or terrorist attacks. By filling in the gaps, and considering and even constructing alternative explanations, people may feel safer,” he said.

“For example, according to a [study], some [people] believe that the [9/11 attacks] on September 11, 2001, were not carried out by al-Qaeda terrorists but that the US government engineered it for its purposes.”

“People may suspect that they are not being told the whole story about important events – like plane crashes or terrorist attacks. By filling in the gaps and considering and even constructing alternative explanations, people may feel safer.” – Jan-Willem van Prooijen.

Conspiracy theories are formed in multiple ways. Sometimes they are formed because people do not have all the information about a certain event, so they fill in the gaps by searching for pieces of evidence that fit into their beliefs. Conspiracy theories can also be formed when an individual cannot accept that something bad has happened.

Or it might be because the individual wants something to be true. “People who do not feel in control of their lives are more inclined to believe that events are covertly manipulated by mysterious forces,” said van Prooijen. “Like many conspiracy theories, belief in these theories relieves feelings of helplessness.”

How do conspiracy theorists form opinions?

People who believe in conspiracy theories tend to attribute everything that happens around them to a secret, interconnected plan. Conspiracy theorists form their opinions by searching for information that supports their claims and ignoring all the evidence against them.

An example of this would be when people use Facebook as a source of information instead of looking up more credible sources online. People who do not feel in command of their lives are more likely to suspect that events are covertly manipulated by mysterious forces.

One study found that conspiracy theorists tend to seek out information that supports their ideas, and not to look for evidence against them.

In this article, we have explored the psychology behind conspiracy theories. It’s important to understand how these delusions form to prevent them from happening again and again.

Subscribe to our monthly Newsletter
Subscribe to our monthly Newsletter