What follows below are some of the questions and my answers in written form that served as the basis for the interview. This is Part One, featuring the first half of the interview.
Why do you think some people latch onto conspiracies that are so clearly against commonly held beliefs? What’s the psychology behind that?
There are many findings from psychology research that suggest that people who believe in conspiracy theories are more likely to have a variety of cognitive quirks.
But the question touches on exactly how I like to think about conspiracy theories, which is that they begin with a rejection of authoritative accounts and generally accepted beliefs.
That makes conspiracy theories different from, for example, religious beliefs that are grounded in faith and arguably a wish to believe. Conspiracy theories, in contrast, start with disbelief in conventional wisdom in favor of a kind of secret, malevolent, “real story” that’s being hidden from the public through some cover-up. There’s good evidence that this disbelief is rooted in mistrust, although I think that’s an underappreciated aspect of how conspiracy theories arise.
What does it really mean to believe in something on a psychological level?
That’s a great question. The reality is that it’s hard to find a consistent definition of what a belief is in psychology.
I like to define a belief as “a cognitive representation of the nature of reality that includes our inner experiences, the world around us, and the world beyond.” Just don’t ask me to define “cognitive representation.”
But when we talk about the act of believing, it can be helpful to break it down into components. For example, one important dimension of believing is conviction, which is the degree to which we hold onto beliefs in the face of different opinions or evidence to the contrary. The extent to which we believe something varies widely depending on a specific belief or a specific individual. And it’s these differences in conviction that are often more psychologically relevant than differences in the content of beliefs.
How can understanding beliefs help us understand those that believe in unpopular ideas?
I often think of it in a kind of reverse way. That is, as a psychiatrist, I think that understanding pathological forms of beliefs such as delusions can help us understand certain types of normal beliefs like conspiracy theories that we might describe as “delusion-like.”1
There are some commonalities across the spectrum of delusion-like beliefs, but also important differences.
Delusions are loosely defined as strong beliefs in things that aren’t true. The key difference between delusions and conspiracy theories is that delusions are by definition false and not shared by others. They often have a self-referential aspect, meaning that the believer is part of the delusional story. Conspiracy theories, on the other hand, are by and large shared beliefs that usually lack a self-referential quality. And of course, also unlike delusions, sometimes conspiracy theories turn out to be true.
I also like to point out that conspiracy theorists often aren’t so much theorists as they are conspiracy theists. That is, people who believe in conspiracy theories aren’t usually so much theorizing and coming up with explanations on their own as they are hearing them from other people or finding them online.
Is there a specific kind of personality or person that’s more likely to buy into a false belief than others?
First of all, let me say that the idea that normal, well-functioning people don’t have false beliefs is a complete myth.
All of us hold a variety of false beliefs—such as so-called “positive illusions,” like unwarranted optimism about the future—that are extremely common and even healthy.
One of the most striking things about conspiracy theories is just how common they are. Surveys consistently show that about 50% of the American public believes in at least one conspiracy theory and often more than one. So, to be clear, even though I’m a psychiatrist, I’m not talking about conspiracy theories as if they’re a symptom of mental illness.
That said, as I mentioned earlier, psychology research has revealed a number of cognitive quirks that people who believe in conspiracy theories tend to have. For example, a “need for certainty” or a “need for closure” or what psychologists call a “teleologic bias”—the desire to believe that everything happens for some greater purpose. These kinds of quirks might help to understand why the assassination of JFK or the death of Princess Diana attracts so many conspiracy theories. There’s a desire to come up with an explanation for tragedies that give some larger meaning to the event.
Conspiracy theories have also been found to be more likely in people who tend not to think analytically or have a need for uniqueness, which might make them attracted to some hidden secret narrative that no one else knows about.
But to be clear, these are all traits or cognitive quirks that we tend to have in degrees. So, it’s less about a personality type as it is about something more subtle or on a continuum of normalcy.
How has the internet affected the spread of conspiracy theories? Do you think the internet promotes the spread of conspiracy theories?
There’s little question that the internet can help spread false beliefs including conspiracy theories. And research has shown that misinformation tends to spread faster and more widely than factual information. So the internet is clearly a fertile breeding ground for conspiracy theories.
That said, there is no good evidence that conspiracy theories are necessarily more common now than they have been at other points in history. Researchers at RAND have found evidence that the proliferation of false beliefs and the blurring of opinions and facts—something they refer to as “truth decay”—has accompanied each major technological advance in media such as newspapers, radio, and TV over the past century. Something similar seems to be happening now with the internet.
What is somewhat unique to the internet is the way it’s very design—through a click-based revenue model along with the creation of filter bubbles—can foster echo chambers and confirmation bias that strengthens conviction in our pre-existing beliefs. As I like to say, searching for information online is often like “confirmation bias on steroids."
You can read the second half of this interview here: Understanding the Psychology of Conspiracy Beliefs, Part 2.
1. Pierre JM. Integrating non-psychiatric models of delusion-like beliefs into forensic psychiatric assessment. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law 2019; 47, 171-179.