Everything You Wanted to Know About Conspiracy Theories

Belief in conspiracy theories is normal, but potentially dangerous.

Posted May 07, 2020

Tumisu/Pixabay
Source: Tumisu/Pixabay

Documentary filmmakers reached out with a long list of questions about conspiracy theories. Here are my answers: 

Please tell us a little about yourself.

I’m a clinical and academic psychiatrist interested in why we believe what we believe, and especially why we believe things that aren’t true. In addition to publishing academic papers, I write a blog called Psych Unseen where I often discuss that theme.

What do you think about conspiracy theories?

Conspiracy theories have a certain allure to most of us and a lot of allure for some. About 50% of the population believes at least one conspiracy theory, so I view them as normal a phenomenon, not evidence of people being "crazy" or mentally ill. Of course, sometimes conspiracy theories turn out to be true, which is one factor that fuels belief in them more generally.

On a psychological level, why do people believe in conspiracy theories? Are there people who are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories than others? Why?

By way of brief explanation, psychology research has revealed a long list of what I call “cognitive quirks” that are associated with belief in conspiracy theories. These include needs for closure, certainty, and control (which is especially relevant to the observation that conspiracy theories tend to arise during times of society upheaval or crisis—like now—when people are feeling threatened and are looking for answers); teleologic bias (believing that things happen for a reason, or have some ultimate or higher cause) and other kinds of cognitive biases; lack of analytic thinking and higher “bullshit receptivity” (this is actually a measurable psychological variable); and suspiciousness or paranoia. These are psychological quirks that we all have to some degree.

I like to explain belief in conspiracy theories (somewhat apart from conspiracy theories themselves) within a “socio-epistemic” framework with two components. The first component is mistrust and a rejection of official explanations. The second is biased misinformation processing. The basic idea is that when we mistrust people or official accounts for one reason or another, we become vulnerable to believing misinformation. Because conspiracy theories offer a kind of antithesis to official accounts, they're appealing to some. Confirmation bias is an important factor when people are looking for information, especially on the internet, where digital forces (filter bubbles, YouTube recommendations, etc.) can amplify confirmation bias (as I like to say, the internet creates a kind of “confirmation bias on steroids”).

What makes a particular theory invoke belief from those who hear of it? Why are some theories more popular than others? 

While research suggests that some people are drawn to conspiracy theories in a general fashion, where belief in one conspiracy predicts belief in another, even if the theories contradict each other, that’s not always the case. Looking more closely, we see that particular conspiracy theories appeal to particular people. For example, conservatives in the U.S. these days may endorse a variety of conspiracy theories that are aligned with their political ideologies, but belief in other types of conspiracy theories don’t fall along political lines and some align with more liberal ideologies. People with lower scientific literacy tend to find conspiracy theories related to science more appealing, but not necessarily other kinds of conspiracy theories. So, I think belief in specific conspiracy theories is more about a match between certain themes with certain people.

But often pivotal traumatic events—like the death of JFK or 9/11—demand commensurately grand explanations. A lone gunman, a mundane group of terrorists, or an explanation that basically says that “sh*t happens” or that things happen randomly, due to chance, aren’t very satisfying to a lot of people. And so, conspiracy theories that address such events tend to have broad appeal.

What separates believing in conspiracies from believing in other things, such as religion? Is there a difference?

Belief in religious doctrine is often a matter of “faith,” which arguably means belief based on lack of objective evidence. Belief in conspiracy theories, as I suggested, requires a rejection of official explanations or evidence. Both types of belief typically involve looking for answers and finding them somewhere—in cultures or families where we grow up, or these days, on the internet.

Is believing in conspiracy theories inherently harmful?

My position is that belief in misinformation always has the potential to cause harm. Often harm is predicted by one’s degree of belief conviction (the opposite of "cognitive flexibility") or when our beliefs become so entwined with our identities that we feel threatened by people with other beliefs to the point of feeling we need to defend ourselves.

Some CTs also involve themes of racial prejudice or frank racism. These can be especially destructive.

Even when faced with the truth, people tend to cling onto their belief in theories. Why is that?

Some people have more cognitive flexibility than others, but we tend to hold on to most of our beliefs. It’s tautological to say that the more strongly we believe something, the more resistant we are to relinquish that belief. Confirmation bias, the Dunning Kruger Effect, and the way we interact with the internet these days (e.g., knowing that we have access to information is associated with a false confidence that we know information) helps to explain why we’re often confident about beliefs that might not be true. As I mentioned, sometimes beliefs become entwined with our identities. Giving up our beliefs means giving up our identity, which is a kind of existential threat that we feel the need to defend.

Is there a way to change someone’s beliefs? How hard is it to do so?

As the psychiatrist joke goes, the lightbulb has to want to change. With regard to conspiracy theories, I think there are three general strategies for mitigation. The first is to cultivate or regain trust in people, especially by institutions of authority. The second is to counter misinformation with good information, or to admit ambiguity when it’s present. We should, as a society, also promote analytic thinking and better science education. The third, and most controversial, is to limit the spread of misinformation online, requiring careful consideration of Constitutional rights to free speech and the risk of a “backfire” effect when information is censored.

From a moral standpoint, should we try to change people’s beliefs?

I don't consider myself a moral authority, but I think that promoting accurate information over misinformation is a social good. I think that believing in things that are true is healthy and it’s clear that conspiracy theories—and as I said, misinformation more generally—can be dangerous. Overall though, promoting cognitive flexibility—the ability to consider that we’re wrong and that other people’s views may be right—is a more worthwhile goal than changing beliefs per se.

How do we protect ourselves from being susceptible to misinformation and conspiracy theories that become popular? 

“Inoculation strategies”—warning people in advance that they might be exposed to misinformation—are some of the most effective ways to combat belief in misinformation and conspiracy theories. As mentioned though, we also need to make everyone better consumers of informational sources, especially online, by promoting analytical thinking, teaching people how to recognize misinformation and bias (see callingbullshit.org), and providing better science education.

What does the widespread nature of conspiracy theories say about our society? 

As a psychiatrist, widespread belief in conspiracy theories says more about individuals than societies. Despite arguably having the most sophisticated brains on the planet, human beings are vulnerable to a wide variety of false beliefs. That’s just a feature of how our brains work. The idea that human beings always think rationally is a huge myth.

But there’s no doubt that conspiracy theories tell us something about society as well. According to my “two component model,” they tell us that mistrust is rampant. I also agree with those that suggest that the internet—by “democratizing knowledge” and contributing to the “death of expertise”—has created a kind of “petri dish” where conspiracy theories now flourish. As mentioned, conspiracy theories are also a reflection of the current societal upheaval that we’re all experiencing. Conspiracy theories are also clearly linked to populist political movements and are used as weapons of propaganda, which are especially relevant in today’s world.

How does the internet play a role in the spread of conspiracy theories?

I like to say that the term “conspiracy theorist” is something of a misnomer, because most people who believe in conspiracy theories aren’t theorizing. There’s coming from a place of mistrust, looking for answers, and finding them when they fall “down the rabbit hole” looking for explanations that differ from official accounts. In that sense, “conspiracy theorists” are really “conspiracy theists,” stumbling upon narratives that they find appealing that are boosted through confirmation bias.

The internet provides a mechanism for this to happen that’s unprecedented. In the old days, if you talked about CT among your friends or at the local bar, you might very well get laughed at. With the internet now, it’s very easy to find someone out there who agrees with us, or believes a conspiracy theory much more strongly than we might.

What does a “post-truth world” mean and are we living in one?

A post-truth world is one where opinions, intuitions, and subjective feelings are treated on equal grounds as expert consensus, facts, and objective truths to the point of thinking that those things don’t even exist. It’s debatable whether that best describes the state of the world today, but it’s hard to deny that it’s increasingly looking like it does. Note that the deliberate erosion of truth is a well-known political tool designed to breed mistrust in institutions of authority.

How can we tell if something we see on the Internet (or anywhere) has any truth to it or not? 

The short answer is that it’s hard. The reality is that that’s not really how we consume online information—thinking carefully about whether something is true or not. We consume it through the lens of confirmation bias, gravitating towards and being fed answers that match our preexisting opinions and intuitions. This is why I think mistrust, or trust, is key. We tend to believe things from trusted sources. Not infrequently these days, trusted sources are wrong. Deciding which ones are wrong often becomes a matter of opinion with endless debates that create the very environment that allows conspiracy theories to flourish.

For more on the psychology of belief in conspiracy theories:
► What Makes People Believe in Conspiracy Theories?
► Understanding the Psychology of Conspiracy Theories: Part 1
► Understanding the Psychology of Conspiracy Theories: Part 2
► Delusions, Conspiracy Theories, and the Internet