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Conspiracy Theories

What Makes Rational People Believe Irrational Things?

Some insights into the conspiratorial mind.

Key points

  • Conspiracy claims are lies disguised as truths.
  • Conspiracy theories impute highly antisocial and cynical motives to other individuals.
  • Conspiracist can’t tolerate ambiguity, dissent, or criticism.

An acquaintance of mine has warned me many times of impending doom and gloom. He warned, for instance, “On March 3rd, Biden will nationalize all the banks. You will lose all your money in Canada and the US.” March 3rd came and went. No such thing happened. John, (not his real name) assured me that the event had been postponed but would occur soon.

What I find puzzling, and in a way frightening, is that no matter how often such forecasts do not materialize, he never wavers in his beliefs and sources. John has never met a conspiracy claim he did not instantly subscribe to. He never questions their veracity or reliability and vigorously resists my doing so. Yet, he is a smart man, educated, and holds a good white-color job. When not plugging his most recent conspiracy theory, he appears and acts like the next person. Normal.

Conspiracy theories describe secret plots by powerful and malevolent groups. They share the conviction that information is being concealed from the majority of people to harm, impoverish, and subjugate them.

Conspiracy theories are widespread, can significantly affect people’s lives, and are largely driven by negative emotions. The profusion of sympathetic websites and the sheer number of credulous user posts dealing with a particular conspiracy topic reinforce the impression that a credible claim has been made. As Robert Caldini, puts it in his excellent book, Influence: Science and Practice, “we determine what is correct by finding out what other people think is correct.”

Conspiracy claims like Pizzagate, in 2016, when proponents claimed that Comet Ping Pong, a pizzeria in Washington, D.C., was a meeting ground for satanic ritual abuse, find a receptive audience with people who subscribe, often quite unconsciously, to nativism, racism, and xenophobia. They believe that big government, big media, and elites represent excessive authority and threaten democratic values.

People turn to conspiracy theories when important psychological needs for social belonging, certainty, and security are not being met, says Karen Douglas, professor of social psychology, at the University of Kent.

Those findings help explain why many Americans, including QAnon supporters, have turned to extreme explanations for the COVID-19 pandemic. Survey data collected by psychologist Daniel Romer, research director at the University of Pennsylvania, suggest that nearly a third of U.S. adults think the coronavirus is a bioweapon created by the Chinese government. “Conspiracy theories make people feel as though they have some sort of control over the world,” Romer says. “They can be psychologically reassuring, especially in uncertain times.”

Researchers at Emory University reviewed 170 studies, encompassing 158,473 participants, and found that the strongest correlates of conspiratorial ideation pertained to five identifiable traits: perceiving danger and threat in their world, following their gut instincts, having odd beliefs and experiences, being antagonistic, and acting superior. Conspiracy followers were also more likely to be insecure, emotionally volatile, impulsive, suspicious, withdrawn, manipulative, egocentric, and eccentric.

Julia Aspernäs at Linköping University, Sweden, investigated the relationship between susceptibility to misleading information and the conviction that the truth is relative. The results clearly show that those who believe that the truth is subjective are more likely to believe conspiracy theories and to hold on to their beliefs even when faced with facts that contradict them. They also have a greater tendency to find profound messages in nonsense sentences.

A very different approach to understanding conspiracy proponents and believers is offered by David Batchelor in his 2000 book Chromophobia. David Batchelor argues that a chromophobic impulse — a fear of corruption or contamination through color — permeates much of Western culture. It continues to manifest itself in white supremacist groups and movements like QAnon, the infamous torchlight march in Charlottesville, the bitter resistance to removing Confederate monuments, and the like.

Times of economic uncertainty, AI, terrorist attacks, climate change, millions of refugees flooding Western countries, and the growing influence of people of color all create uncertainty, in the sense that the world one grew up in and knows is changing. In this atmosphere, people’s fears rise, and they tend to revert to the old “circle the wagons” mentality, characterized by a fear of the “others.”

Researchers at Union College in Schenectady, New York have linked conspiracy theory belief to a personality trait known as "schizotypy," which is characterized by eccentricity and suspicion of others. The researchers also found that people who see the world as a dangerous place and those prone to think meaningless information is profound are also more likely to embrace such narratives.

Source: Viarami/pixabay

The majority of conspiracists are quite fanatical in their beliefs. They will not acknowledge they were mistaken even if a claim is shown to be untrue; instead, they will come up with an explanation that amounts to yet another conspiracy theory. In that respect, I find the 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s insights on how to fight fanaticism quite instructive. Some stories, according to Nietzsche, have a powerful effect and have the power to profoundly transform who we are. He suggests that narratives of resentment, in particular, are adept at fostering fanaticism. For instance, adherents of groups like the Proud Boys or ISIS perceive feminism, liberalism, or those who oppose their beliefs as the root cause of their suffering. When one's identity is intertwined with grievances, such narratives promote a hostile attitude toward the perceived oppressors, absolving individuals of personal responsibility for their problems. Any leader who knows how to exploit these fears can get his or her followers to believe what he or she tells them.

Conspiracy theory beliefs are linked to a number of negative social outcomes, such as illiberal political movements, vaccine refusal, and bias and violence against marginalized communities. They have implications for social and political debates and policies. Our ability to discredit them will only increase as we gain more knowledge and comprehension of them.


Cialdini, Robert B. 2009. Influence: Science and Practice. New York: Pearson.

Douglas, K. M., Sutton, R. M., & Cichocka, A. (2017). The psychology of conspiracy theories. Current directions in psychological science, 26(6), 538-542.

Hart, J., & Graether, M., (2018). Psychological Predictors of Belief in Conspiracy Theories. Journal of Individual Differences, Vol. 39, No. 4.

Bowes, S. M., Costello, T. H., & Tasimi, A. (2023). The conspiratorial mind: A meta-analytic review of motivational and personological correlates. Psychological Bulletin

Aspernäs, J., Erlandsson, A., & Nilsson, A. (2023). Misperceptions in a post-truth world: Effects of subjectivism and cultural relativism on bullshit receptivity and conspiracist ideation. Journal of Research in Personality, 104394.

Katsafanasis, Paul. (2023). How Nietzsche’s insights can help fight fanaticism. Psyche Newsletter

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