- Sensation-seeking individuals can find conspiracy theories exciting and entertaining.
- Belief in conspiracy theories can harm people's mental and physical health.
- Some people enjoy feeling privy to secret information they deem to be more accurate than public information.
When I was a youngster, a conspiracy theory captured the imagination of many of my friends. My friend Lois, whip-smart and street-smart, told me that our favorite band, The Beatles, was covering up the death of singer-songwriter Paul McCartney, substituting him with a lookalike. Fans worldwide uncovered clues in album cover art, song lyrics, and band behavior that “proved” Paul was dead.
Lois and I used my record player to play the song "Revolution Number 9" backward. She was convinced she heard “turn me on, dead man” and that the song "A Day in the Life" described the car crash that killed Paul.
Fueled by a satirical radio show, listeners looked for clues and shared them on radio, television, publications, and in neighborhoods everywhere. Clues found in lyrics like, “The walrus was Paul,” or the cover of the album Abbey Road showing Paul barefoot and out of step with the others proved, to believers, he must be dead. Before the internet, the Paul-is-dead phenomenon went viral. In response to the fan frenzy, Life magazine invaded the musician’s privacy to snap a picture of him with his family for a cover.
The Paul-is-dead conspiracy was relatively harmless. While Paul and the Beatles faced harassment over it, as far as I know it didn’t lead to violence. For many young people, it became an entertaining, obsessive time waste.
Conspiracy theories are ideas or beliefs that assume the collusion of multiple individuals or groups for a bad purpose (Holoyda, B. 2022). A conspiracy known as “Pizzagate” alleged that Democratic officials were running a child sex-trafficking operation out of a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor. After Russians hacked the emails of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, Wikileaks released the emails. Conspiracy theorists saw references to “cheese pizza” in Podesta’s emails as code for child pornography (FBI, 2021).
Edgar Welch, 26, traveled from North Carolina to Washington, D.C., armed with three weapons, including an AR-15. Welch entered a pizza parlor he believed had rooms where children were killed and sexually exploited. Terrified customers and employees fled while Welch searched but never found evidence of the imagined crimes. He was arrested and sentenced to four years for assault and weapons charges.
Today, conspiracy theories proliferate at the highest levels of government. Between October 2017 and October 2019, former President Trump promoted posts drawing on elements of QAnon conspiracy threads 265 times; some right-wing media amplified the messaging even further. Some QAnon conspiracists have engaged in violent and disruptive behavior, leading to hundreds of arrests and convictions (Rubin, O. et al., 2021).
Conspiracy theories can be physically and psychologically harmful; for example, when people believe false rumors over scientific concepts and medical practices. Many who refused COVID-19 vaccines suffered severe health consequences, and some died. So, if believing in harmful conspiracy theories leads to anxiety and needless suffering, why are they so common, and popular?
People can feel a lack of control and anxiety during times of uncertainty, societal crisis, and change. Conspiracy theories offer simple explanations for complex problems and a feeling of being clever for figuring it all out. Believers get a two-for-one special: an ego boost and a ready explanation for distressing events.
A group of researchers from the Netherlands proposed another explanation for the appeal of conspiracy theories: Psychologists recognize that people differ in their desire for high-intensity sensations—some like taking risks and enjoy the appeal of a bit of danger. Some seek out a good mystery, an action movie, or a spy story. The gamification of conspiracies arouses excitement and a sense of adventure (van Prooijen, J.W. et al., 2022).
These psychologists performed five studies in the United Kingdom to test their hypotheses. They found that conspiratorial explanations for current events were more entertaining and exciting. Subjects formed stronger conspiracy beliefs about an election in response to entertaining political stories rather than boring stories. They also found that belief in conspiracy theories is highest in sensation-seeking individuals or those who enjoy the thrill of dangerous stories (van Prooijen, J.W. et al., 2022). It’s fun to play detective and feel the satisfaction of solving a puzzle.
The Secrecy Heuristic
Psychologist Mark Travers and colleagues at the University of Colorado Boulder performed experiments showing that people weigh “secret” information—such as government documents that have been labeled "top secret"—as more accurate than public information. Too few people pause to realize that files marked “secret” or “top secret” are subject to the same human error as any news report (Travers, M. et al., 2014).
Secret government files contain interviews with unreliable sources, intelligence translated from foreign assets, incorrect dates, imperfect recordings, etc. Yet many assume it must be true if it’s a secret government file. Those files may have been kept private to protect confidential sources or national security interests. This doesn’t make them more accurate than those written by journalists and published in mainstream newspapers. Few of us would want our secret diaries exposed to the public. If you’ve ever kept a journal or diary, youve likely entered plenty of errors and inconsistencies because memories are flawed, and perceptions of others contain bias. Human error spans public and private domains.
How to Immunize Yourself From Conspiracy Theories
We can all do our part to tamp down the frenzy of conspiracy theories with a few simple steps:
- Don’t assume that “secret” information is more accurate than public information. The information we get from newspapers and news magazines often requires fact checks and editorial reviews before publishing. Such reports may prove more accurate because of its need to withstand public scrutiny.
- Examine the emotional payoff you get from going down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories. Do you find it an exciting way to bond with friends? Is it engrossing and entertaining, like an exciting game? Ask yourself if the payoff is worth the agitation and feelings of fear that follow (Wilbur, D. et al., 2021).
- Think like a scientist by looking for evidence against the conspiracy. Examine evidence from credible sources: peer-reviewed journal articles and books, for example, or mainstream news outlets with a professional, bylined editorial staff. Non-credible sources may include social-media posts without named authors or cited sources of information. The more extreme and outrageous the claim, the more evidence should be required.
It can be fun to explore clues to a mysterious conspiracy, like my friend Lois and I did with the Paul-is-dead phenomenon. However, you could save yourself a lot of anxiety and stress by choosing other forms of entertainment. I recommend a good puzzle, escape room, or murder-mystery party.
Holoyda, B. J. 2022 QAnon: A Modern Conspiracy Theory and the Assessment of Its Believers, Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online January 2022, JAAPL.210053-21; DOI: https://doi.org/10.29158/JAAPL.210053-21
Travers, Mark, et al. “The Secrecy Heuristic: Inferring Quality from Secrecy in Foreign Policy Contexts.” Political Psychology, vol. 35, no. 1, 2014, pp. 97–111. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43785861. Accessed 25 Sept. 2023.
Kaplan, A. Trump has repeatedly amplified QAnon Twitter accounts; the FBI has linked the conspiracy theory to domestic terror. Media Matters for America [Internet]. 2020 Oct 30. Available from: https://www.mediamatters.org/twitter/fbi-calls-qanon-domestic-terror-threat-trump-has-amplified-qanon-supporters-twitter-more-20.
Rubin, O, Bruggeman, L, Steakin, W. QAnon emerges as recurring theme of criminal cases tied to US Capitol siege. ABC News [Internet]. 2021 Jan 19. from: https://abcnews.go.com/US/qanon-emerges-recurring-theme-criminal-cases-tied-us/story?id=75347445.
United States Department of Justice. North Carolina man sentenced to four-year prison term for armed assault at Northwest Washington pizza restaurant [Internet]. 2017 Jun 22. Available from: https://www.justice.gov/usao-dc/pr/north-carolina-man-sentenced-four-year-prison-term-armed-assault-northwest-washington.
Van Prooijen, J. W., Ligthart, J., Rosema, S., & Xu, Y. (2022). The entertainment value of conspiracy theories. British Journal of Psychology, 113(1), 25-48. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjop.12522
Wilbur, D., Kennon M., Sheldon & Glen Cameron (2021) Autonomy supportive and reactance supportive inoculations both boost resistance to propaganda, as mediated by state autonomy but not state reactance, Social Influence, 16:1, 1-11, DOI: 10.1080/15534510.2021.1908910