Research shows that people believe in conspiracy theories for many reasons, but the authors of “The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories” separate these causes into three groups of: “epistemic, existential, and social.”
Epistemic motives arise from conspiracy theorists’ need for causal explanations. This helps them to understand the world, slake their curiosity, and alleviate the “uncertainty and bewilderment” that they can feel as the result of their encountering conflicting information or the apparent meaninglessness induced by random events. Such beliefs also valorize them and the others in their group.
Existential motives support conspiracy theory believers’ needs to “feel safe and secure and to exert control over their environment.” Finally, social motives stem from conspiracy theorists’ need to belong and maintain a positive image of themselves and their groups, partly by blaming “negative outcomes [on] others” who are unscrupulous enough to sabotage the conspiracy theorists’ views.
What’s the harm in believing that dangerous chemtrails are chemical or biological agents, nameless, faceless elites control the world behind the scenes, government agencies have established concentration camps to incarcerate their fellow citizens, or the moon landing was nothing more than footage shot in a film studio? Besides the erosion of trust, whether of government, experts, or news media, such beliefs can also result in, broken personal relationships, social ostracism, “a false sense of security,” sleep problems, substance abuse, depression, and paranoia.
It’s worth understanding, in more detail, why some people believe in conspiracy theories. This list pinpoints some of the most common and powerful motives involved in such belief.
10 The Need to Understand Complex Situations
The world is a complex place, as are many daily life events. Such complexity can result in feelings of helplessness and alienation. At the same time, a search for information that connects the dots, bringing order out of apparent chaos, may be a much-needed, comforting solution. People want to know. They want to understand. According to author and educational consultant, conspiracy theorists want consistency. Information that seems contradictory or inconsistent can be overwhelming. As a result, some people seek the truth among what they perceive to be “underlying causes [that] are hidden from public view.” Then, they know who or what is really behind the appearances, and they can guard against hidden agendas and attempts to deliberately deceive them.
Traumatic events also give rise to conspiracy theories, observes Kelly M. Greenhill, a political science professor and director of the Tufts International Relations Program. Such events create a need “to process and impose a sense of order on frightening and seemingly inexplicable occurrences.” In this sense, conspiracy theories are similar to rumors or other information not based on facts. However, believers accept incomplete or misleading information as actual truth to fuel their need to be in the know. By “filling in holes in people’s knowledge and providing psychic relief,” these conspiracies allow people to “cope with fear and uncertainty by generating shared explanations.”
9 Thrilling Gameplay
Despite the complexity of life, existence can sometimes be boring, especially when science has already explained much of the natural world. Being in the know when most others are unaware of the “truth” behind unusual events, especially nefarious ones, can be exciting in itself. Still, the thrill of such insider knowledge might offer the added “thrill of a game,” as the QAnon conspiracy theory did for many of its subscribers.
As authors Sandra Silva Casabianca and Traci Pedersen point out in an online psychology article, conspiracy theorists exhibit a number of common personality traits. These characteristics include paranoid or suspicious thinking, eccentricity, low trust in others, a strong need to feel special, believing that the world is a dangerous place, and perceiving “meaningful patterns where none exist.” In addition, they may experience schizotypy, a condition marked by behaviors that range from magical thinking and dissociative states to disorganized thinking patterns and psychosis. They may also be narcissistic, disagreeable, Machiavellian, and open to experience.
Such individuals also find thrill in the hunt or gameplaying, a trait which, the authors suggest, made the QAnon conspiracy theory especially popular. Followers of this conspiracy theory believe that an anonymous government insider, known as “Q,” often drops mysterious clues and riddles to expose the “deep state apparatus” operating in secret. This allows followers to participate in discovering the truth by decoding Q’s cryptic messages and exposing their enemies, against whom their champion, Donald Trump, they believed, was secretly fighting. The authors suggest that participation in the conspiracy theory might have given QAnon followers the dopamine rush of “unlocking levels in a video game.”
8 The Sense of Belonging to a Special Group
In communities where people can live next door to neighbors they’ve never met or seldom see or in a society where individuals and groups feel alienated from others, loneliness and social isolation can weigh heavily on the emotions. As an online article indicates, recent research reveals that such persons, like members of disempowered groups, can seek to form their own understanding of realities rather than accept the worldview common to their larger communities. This tendency is echoed by online communities as well. In doing so, such individuals forge aof their own that gives them a sense of belonging. Such affiliation may be further supported by the positive self-images of the group’s members and of the group itself.
The need to belong is often influenced by the human tendency to want to associate with others who share views and opinions similar to one’s own, an inclination that causes a separation of like-minded groups from others. According to the author of a University of Cambridge online article, this effectively partitions conspiracy theorists from a diversity of world views. The same is true of Internet communities, which create, in effect, an echo chamber that excludes points of view that differ from the group’s own beliefs. Such a situation can create, maintain, and heighten an adversarial attitude of “us” against “them,” frustrating dialogue and debate while reinforcing the group’s adherence to its own point of view.
3 A Lack of Trust and Heightened Anomie
Lack of trust is also a key reason for people’s belief in conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theorists often doubt news media, suspect politicians of having hidden agendas, and discount or ignore experts. Such sources, conspiracy theorists believe, may have ulterior motives for contradicting the “truth,” offering false narratives, or suggesting alternative views concerning what the conspiracy theorists themselves believe or, in their own minds, know to be “true.”
Related to such distrust, which can become as extreme as paranoia, is anomie, described by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Ph.D., as the feeling that things are generally getting worse. Indeed, things may get worse because of the actions of people deliberately denying, evading, and falsifying the truth. The problem with such distrust is that it is fallacious, mistaking correlation for causation. Such deep, groundless suspicion can also become part of a vicious circle in which a lack of trust leads to “conspiratorial beliefs,” which, in turn, occasions additional suspicion.
To some degree, pareidolia, the tendency to see meaningful patterns in random events, as in connecting “stimuli that aren’t related,” may account for the formulation of conspiracy theories by some individuals whose psychological needs for certainty and security are not being satisfied. Author Zara Abrams further states that by explaining such events, if only to their own satisfaction, such individuals feel in control rather than helpless.
Those who put their trust in such theories tend to have the traits identified by Casabianca and Pedersen, especially with respect to schizotypy. As examples of pareidolic perceptions, Abrams cites a Washington Post article that points out the fact that “QAnon followers think that because Q is the 17th letter of the alphabet, President Trump is sending them messages when he mentions the number 17.”
5 Confirmation Bias
Interpreting information in such a way that it verifies beliefs one already holds reinforces these views. According to a Psychology Today article, this tendency, known as confirmation bias, also explains why conspiracy theorists believe accounts of events and behaviors that the majority of others, including experts, reject. This stems from the idea that people only “see” things that confirm what they already believe or think, only searching for and accepting “evidence” that supports that belief while ignoring anything contradictory. This is why people gravitate to online sites that match their preexisting beliefs and prejudices.
4 Political Ideology
Political ideology is behind some conspiracy theories, including the view that Barack Obama was not born in the United States and faked his birth certificate and that hybrid lizard-humans govern the U.S. (and possibly other countries), writes Sandy Bauers in an article for The Philadelphia Inquirer.
She interviewed two of the four co-authors of Creating Conspiracy Beliefs: How Our Thoughts Are Shaped. , University of Pennsylvania professor Dolores Albarracín and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, shared the ideological intent of conspiracy theories based on politics and the reasons for the success of many of them.
According to Jamieson, news media that favor particular candidates often promote and “legitimize the conspiracy theory” because it aligns with their audience’s own political orientation. The biggest reason for belief in such conspiracy theories is the desire to be socially accepted, Albarracín points out. However, “a source of social influence” is also critical for such belief, she says, citing major news media as one such type of social influence. The alleviation of anxiety also promotes belief in conspiracy theories.
3 Uncritical Acceptance
Despite a total lack of evidence to substantiate the claims of those who support the chemtrails conspiracy theory, people who persist in believing it often ignore not only the lack of supporting evidence but also disregard the presence of facts that may refute their views.summarized their beliefs: “A large-scale secret program to spray materials from aircraft” is underway. However, the Research Group’s author advises that the conspiracy theorists ignore the facts that the conduct of such an enterprise would require a large operating program to manufacture, load, and disperse materials as well as thousands or perhaps tens of thousands of people. With that, it would be next to impossible to keep it a secret, especially if the conspiracy was intended to harm others. Instead, it appears that the conspiracy theorists prefer simply to distrust their government.
In addition, subscribers to the chemtrail conspiracy theory make observations without attempting to determine the significance, if any, that these observations may have regarding their own beliefs. For example, they say that chemtrails look “different” but make no attempt at a comparative analysis to determine whether the chemtrails’ allegedly “different” appearance is, in fact, different than those of other streams of jet exhaust. And if so, what, if anything, such differences in appearance might signify.
In short, subscribers to this (and other) conspiracy theories tend to accept the theories’ claims uncritically, at face value, regardless of conflicting facts or evidence.
Emotion, rather than reason, might also explain why such individuals hold fast to their views even when there is no evidence to support their doing so. Joe Pierre, M.D., explains that psychologists have found that people who believe in conspiracy theories exhibit a “need for certainty” or a “need for closure.” Psychologists call this a “teleologic bias”—the desire to believe that everything happens for some greater purpose.”
Michael W. Austin, Ph.D., is not an expert in psychology, but, as a philosophy professor at Eastern Kentucky University, he may bring a novel perspective concerning reasons people believe in conspiracy theories. He also may have a “cure” for such behavior. Austin suggests that people who have an exaggerated perception of their own intellectual prowess are likely to fall victim to a belief in a conspiracy theory because they “fail to appreciate their intellectual limits.”
Instead of assuming that they know it all, especially when the topic under consideration is complex, highly technical, or scientific, such individuals should ask themselves why they, as laypersons, are “intellectually capable of discerning that some outliers in a particular field are correct, rather than the overwhelming consensus of experts” and whether their own opinions on the subject reflect confirmation bias and their own political, ethical, and religious beliefs.
In addition, people can prevent themselves from falling for conspiracy theories, Austin says, by adopting an attitude of intellectual humility in appreciation of their own intellectual limits. They might also defer to experts in matters that require expert knowledge.
1 Evolutionary Byproducts
If evolutionary psychologists are right, those who believe in conspiracy theories might not be responsible for their beliefs at all. To paraphrase William Shakespeare, the fault may not be in themselves or, for that matter, the stars, but in the evolutionary pathway of Homo sapiens. In other words, we can blame Mother Nature.
First, a distinction is in order. According to an article, “evolutionary psychologists draw a distinction between adaptations and by-products as different results of evolutionary processes.” The former are functional solutions to problems of survival and reproduction that evolved through natural selection. In contrast, the latter do not solve adaptive problems and have no functional properties but are carried along with other mechanisms that do have adaptive features. An example of an adaption is the umbilical cord; the navel exemplifies a related by-product.
The cultural world apparently evolved in a like manner, as it may be possible that conspiracy theories are mere “by-product beliefs.” Although the pattern recognition, agency detection, and threat management abilities on which conspiracy theories are based have undeniable survival value, these by-products may make people “susceptible” to conspiracy theories. In humanity’s ancient past, conspiracy theories may have originated because being “suspicious of powerful, potentially hostile coalitions” had survival value. Today, however, the premise that these by-products of human evolution continue to have adaptive significance seems debatable, to say the least.