Why We Believe in Conspiracy Theories
From chemtrails to the Illuminati, here's how conspiracy theories take root.
Posted Jul 29, 2020
A conspiracy theory is a non-mainstream explanation for something about our society that involves secret, powerful, and often sinister groups. It’s unsubstantiated, meaning it’s not based on verified facts and it’s often complex. It usually includes negative and dubious beliefs about an “other.”
Importantly, a conspiracy theory is not falsifiable—any evidence against the theory would be chalked up to a cover-up, paradoxically reinforcing the theory. When scientists try to reassure people that chemtrails consist only of normal water vapor, a hardcore chemtrail believer might conclude that the government had paid off the scientists to lie to people.
Whether they're true or not, the psychology behind why we believe in conspiracy theories is fascinating.
Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?
Psychologists who specialize in conspiracy theories note that there are three main motivations people have for believing in a conspiracy, though they’re not always aware of said motivations.
1. The need to reduce uncertainty and make sense of the world. The world is often a scary and overwhelming place, one filled with seemingly random events. There are gaps in our understanding of how injustices and disasters come about. For all of us, there are days when nothing seems to make sense.
When a conspiracy theory pops up, claiming to make sense of the insensible, it can be pretty appealing.
Research shows that when people feel a strong sense of uncertainty, they’re more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. This is especially true for those who have a high need for cognitive closure—in other words, they feel deeply distressed if they don’t get answers.
2. The need to feel safe and in control. Similar to the need to make sense of the world, humans also have a desire to feel safe and in control of our environment.
Conspiracy theories can offer a psychological life raft when we’re treading water. They provide concreteness when we feel defenseless about something in our lives. Perhaps someone’s child has a medical issue doctors can’t seem to solve. Accepting a conspiracy about how pharmaceutical companies are purposely using vaccines to make people sick might seem appealing for desperate parents. Deciding to refuse vaccines gives them some sense of control.
Similarly, people who feel like they’re flailing in a specific area of their life—be it employment, finances, or social standing—may also feel like they don’t have a safe or valued space in the world. In fact, people who feel like they have low socio-political control are more susceptible to believing in conspiracies. And this checks out—conspiracy theories offer the opportunity to reject official narratives, affording some small comfort.
3. The need to cultivate a good self-image. Another reason people who feel left behind or left out are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories is that these unfounded beliefs offer a way to maintain a positive self-image.
Conspiracy theories make people feel good about themselves. Say you struggle to hold down a job long-term. Isn’t the idea of a secret plot within the government purposely keeping unemployment high to control an upcoming election an easier pill to swallow than the idea that your skills may no longer be marketable?
Perhaps this is why people on the losing side of the political process are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. It allows people to blame others when things go wrong, rather than take a look at their campaign.
How do conspiracy theories take root?
As we’ve discussed, there are a few factors that make people more susceptible to believing in conspiracy theories. But how do specific theories take root in people’s minds?
The answer is complex, but psychological science has found some hints.
1. We all have confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is our brain's tendency to look for information that supports what we already believe. This can lead us to talk with people we already agree with or only follow people on Twitter with the same views we have. Or it could find us scanning a Google search results page and clicking only on the links that show what we were looking for. If I already think the Illuminati is controlling the world’s banks and I search for “Illuminati banks,” my eyes will be drawn to the link that says “every bank CEO is an Illuminati member.”
We’re also not good at remembering where our conspiracy ideas came from. Do you remember when you first heard about the possibility of the moon landing being staged? A study showed that when people read persuasive conspiracy theories, they’re prone to falsely recalling that they had believed in the conspiracy all along.
2. It’s not about the specific content. You may think how well a conspiracy theory takes root in someone’s mind depends on how credible the theory is, but content really isn’t that important here. Whether someone adopts a conspiracy theory or not depends more on their overall proneness to believe in conspiracies in the first place.
A study showed that the more someone believed Princess Diana faked her own death, the more the same person believed she was murdered. The more someone believed that Osama bin Laden was already dead by the time his compound was raided, the more the same person believed that he was still alive.
In other words, the act of believing in conspiracy theories is its own fuel. The more we believe in one, the more likely we are to believe in others, even if they're contradictory.
3. A sleep disorder can cause hallucinations about an alien abduction. Conspiracy theories don’t only take root through Google search rabbit holes—sometimes, it comes from very real perceptual experiences that your brain creates while you’re in the twilight zone between sleep and wakefulness.
Sleep paralysis, documented since the 1600s, is the strange experience of being completely unable to move even as you're conscious of your own body and surroundings. This tends to happen as you hit that spot between sleep and wakefulness. Not only is it terrifying to feel paralyzed, but sleep paralysis often comes with feeling a heaviness on your chest, a racing heart, other panic attack sensations, and even pain.
You may also have hallucinations during sleep paralysis, often in the form of seeing figures in the room or even looming over your bed. There's good documentation that people who believe they've experienced alien abduction are actually describing an episode of sleep paralysis. Often, their traumatic memories of the experience evolve over time as their brains try to make sense of the insensible. The vague, shadowy figures they hallucinated take on the features of the aliens we talk about in popular culture—large heads, little grey bodies, dark elongated eyes.
While this only accounts for a small portion of all conspiracy theories, it’s fascinating that our brains can mix sleep disorder symptoms with cultural imagery to produce this phenomenon. It goes to show that far-out ideas can grow from biological roots and then spread through our collective consciousness as conspiracy theories.
What are the psychological consequences of believing in conspiracy theories?
As I've already mentioned, a deep longing for safety and control can motivate someone to believe in conspiracy theories. But unfortunately, this approach isn't helpful. In fact, it may have the opposite effect.
Research shows that when people are exposed to conspiracy theories, they immediately feel less like they’re in control. And it’s not just about feeling bad—believing in conspiracy theories makes people distrustful of government even when the theories aren’t related to the government. It also causes disenchantment with public health authorities and scientists. This disconnect becomes a real-world problem when authorities try to convince people to follow public health guidelines—like social distancing during a pandemic—especially if doing the wrong thing increases everybody’s risk.
In many ways, conspiracy theories are designed to be appealing to our brains in stressful times. Instead, we can utilize our wise minds—acknowledge our anxiety, but also weigh the facts so we can be empowered with useful knowledge in the face of uncertainty.
A version of this post, titled "Chemtrails, Aliens, and Illuminati—The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories," originally appeared on Quick and Dirty Tips.