What Makes People Believe in Conspiracy Theories?

The psychology of flat earthers, antivaxxers, and truthers

Posted Apr 23, 2019

Public domain
Chemtrail or contrail? Adrian Pingstone (2007)
Source: Public domain

With the recent DVD release of Behind the Curve, a documentary about flat earthers in which I appear as an expert, Melissa Matthews from Men's Health magazine reached out for an interview for her article about conspiracy theories. Below is a transcript of our entire conversation.

Why are people drawn to conspiracy theories? What are they seeking when they first go down the rabbit hole? Are there specific personality types that are more prone to conspiracy theories than others?

There's been a lot of recent work in psychology attempting to figure out why some people are particularly drawn to conspiracy theories. For example, research has found that people who believe in conspiracy theories tend to have a greater need for cognitive closure1 (the desire to find an explanation when explanations are lacking) and to be unique.2 They're more likely to have a cognitive bias called hypersensitive agency detection3 or teleologic thinking4 (whereby events are overattributed to hidden forces, purposes, and motives). Some research has also found that conspiracy beliefs are associated with lower levels of education3 and analytic thinking.5

That said, studies have also revealed that half of the US population believes in at least one political or medical conspiracy theory.6,7 So belief in conspiracy theories is far more “normal” than many of us might think. 

The popularity of films like JFK, The Manchurian Candidate, and Conspiracy Theory illustrates how many of us can be drawn to a good conspiracy theory. Over the two past years, half of the country has been anxiously expecting that the Mueller report would reveal one of the biggest conspiracy plots in American history, while the other half believes that the conspiracy was the Mueller investigation itself. And of course, occasionally conspiracy theories turn out to be true! 

What role do companies like YouTube and Google play in spreading conspiracy theories?

In the "old days," people sought information from books, print newspapers, major network TV news, and experts. That has shifted dramatically since the internet, where most of us now seek out information online where there are many, many more sources of information than ever before. One result has been that expertise is now devalued and knowledge has been democratized.

Just how much the internet is increasing belief in conspiracy theories isn’t clear, but we do know that for many people these days, “going down the rabbit hole” is primarily an online experience. With something like the belief that vaccines cause autism, it’s harder to distinguish between reliable information and misinformation when you’re trying to find answers from social media.

The nature of search algorithms is such that once you click on something related to a conspiracy theory, you’re more likely to see something else related to a conspiracy theory. All of us are susceptible to confirmation bias—the tendency to reinforce pre-existing beliefs when we look for information. With the amount of information available online that's tailored to our interests and preferences, we’re now living in an era of “confirmation bias on steroids.” 

Are flat-earthers any different from people who believe in other conspiracies?

Yes and no. In general, I think it’s a mistake to lump “flat earthers” into a homogenous group. The recent documentary Behind the Curve does a good job of highlighting that flat earthers are not a monolith. Within the larger flat earth movement, there are some that are “dilettantes looking for answers" who are skeptical of mainstream teaching, and others that are far deeper down the rabbit hole. 

But research has shown that belief in one conspiracy theory predicts belief in others.8 The general psychological make-up of those who believe in conspiracies therefore appears to be shared across different conspiracy theories.

Why shouldn’t we mock people who believe the earth is flat? What is a better way to deal with people who believe in conspiracies?

Ridicule and argument don’t appear to be effective strategies if you’re trying to change hearts and minds. At their core, conspiracy beliefs are often rooted in lack of trust in institutions. So, when conspiracy theories are related to science like with flat-earthers or anti-vaxxers, it means that science educators have to revamp our efforts, being mindful of what works and what doesn’t.

Empathic listening is usually the best place to start. The greatest potential lies in reaching out to the “dilettantes looking for answers," such as flat earthers or anti-vaxxers who are trying to resolve the disparities between mainstream scientific knowledge and what they’re seeing on YouTube.

For those who are so far down the rabbit hole that they’re putting out those videos themselves, with their identities (and sometimes incomes) depending on them, it’s not clear what it might take to get someone to back down. When beliefs are tightly tied to identity, they can be highly resistant to change. 

To read more about flat earthers and other conspiracy theorists, see my other blog posts below.

"Flat Earthers: Belief, Skepticism, and Denialism"

"Behind the Curve: The Science Fiction of Flat Earthers"

"Antivaxxers and the Plague of Science Denial"

References

1. Marchlewska M, Cichocka A, Kossowska M. Addicted to answers: Need for cognitive closure and the endorsement of conspiracy beliefs. European Journal of Social Psychology 2018; 48:109-117.

2. Lantian A, Muller D, Nurra C, et al. "I know things they don't know!" The role of need for uniqueness in belief in conspiracy theories. Social Psychology 2017; 48:160-173.

3. Douglas KM, Sutton RM, Callan MJ, et al. Someone is pulling the strings: Hypersensitive agency detection and belief in conspiracy theories. Thinking & Reasoning 2016; 22:57-77.

4. Wagner-Egger P, Delouveé S, Gauvrit N, et al. Creationism and conspiracism share a common teleologic bias. Current Biology 2018; 28:R847-R870.

5. Swami V, Voracek M, Stieger S, et al. Analytic thinking reduces belief in conspiracy theories. Cognition 2014; 133:572-585.

6. Oliver JE, Wood TJ. Conspiracy theories and the paranoid style(s) of mass opinion. American Journal of Political Science 2014; 58:952-966.

7. Oliver JE, Wood T. Medical conspiracy theories and health behaviors in the United States. JAMA Internal Medicine 2014; 174:817-818.

8. Goertzel T. Belief in conspiracy theories. Political Psychology 1994; 15:731-742.