The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories

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Conspiracy theories have been with humanity since hunter-gatherer times. There are certain psychological personality traits that make some people more prone to believe them. What is the impact of conspiracy theories on one’s mind – and the world?

Who runs the world - conspiracy theory
Who runs the world - conspiracy theory

The world is full of conspiracy theories – elaborate stories about world-controlling entities, mass-eluding organisations, and government secrets. With the advent of the internet, an environment was created for conspiracy theories to gain more proponents. What is so tempting about conspiracy theories and why are so many people willing to believe them?

Flat Earth model true or myth
Flat Earth model true or myth

Faked moon landing, flat Earth, UFO – you name it – there are entire communities of like-minded people who observe the reality surrounding us and see it as a web of secret, outlook-controlling systems. The world wide web and the rise of fake news allows conspiracy theories to spread and develop at a pace never-before-seen.

The recent COVID-19 outbreak only strengthened the impact of such stories. There are so many articles and YouTube videos on pandemic-related conspiracy theories that the world seems divided, as people no longer know what or who to believe.

Some see them as laughable, others are dead-serious about their message. Why are people prone to believe in conspiracy theories? What is the psychology of a conspiracy theorist’s mind?

 

Origins of Conspiracy Theories

According to educated experts, conspiracy theories may in fact be a major threat. One-third of Americans believe that climate change is a hoax, and the anti-vaccine community is spreading as well. A plethora of these stories aren’t fact- or science-based and often lack evidence, yet they offer a simplified version of reality.

Misinformation and distrust towards the governments’ intentions drive people to fall for conspiracy theories, strengthening their beliefs the deeper they dive into the web. Nevertheless, conspiracy theories aren’t a novel invention. For centuries, many prejudiced stories circulated the world.

Among other things, they could tighten the tribal bonds of communities and deepen negative feelings towards a certain target group. When humans lived in small hunter-gatherer tribes, conspiracy theories helped us identify who the enemy was and create distrust or even hatred towards the other tribe. These beliefs were often utterly bogus, yet they granted the survival of our tribe.

Adolf Hitler created the myth of the Jew
Adolf Hitler created the myth of the Jew

It’s easier to control and rule over masses of people if we show them exactly who the enemy is. For this reason alone, the Inquisition in the 14th century would hunt for ‘witches’ based on made-up accusations and hear-say gossip. A similar trick was used by Hitler, who created the myth of the Jew who was responsible for all failures of and evil suffered by the German nation in the 1930s and 1940s. Of course, these conspiracy theories had no real evidence and were used solely for ideological unification for political benefits.

Mass conspiracy theories can lead to a tragedy. Dictators and totalitarian leaders often use propaganda of similar character to take control over their people’s minds. Yet, more often than not, people fall for conspiracy theories on their own, without the intervention of any third party. Why is it that we’re so interested in conspiracy theories?

 

The Psychology of a Conspiracy Theorist

Our brains have evolved to see patterns and correlations between various phenomena and, hence, look for a logical explanation to avoid confusion. Often, we see interdependencies when there are none or when the evidence is rather scarce.

Conspiracy theorists have been on the front of psychologists’ minds. As they have found many a time, conspiracy theories often come in bundles: climate change deniers are usually of the belief that the moon landing was faked too, etc. There are certain personality traits that make people prone to believe in conspiracy theories of all kinds.

The desire to find an explanation
The desire to find an explanation

First of all, those with a greater need for cognitive closure, or the desire to find an explanation, are more likely to believe these stories. People with a strong desire to be unique also tend to have hypersensitive agency detection, a cognitive bias that makes one more inclined to believe that some secret or hidden forces are in control of things.

Another research has found that falling for conspiracy theories can be associated with lower education. Nevertheless, among the more educated individuals holding high posts, including a myriad of politicians, we could find a fair share of conspiracy theorists.

Analytical thinking is yet another personality trait that makes one more likely to believe that the Earth is flat and AIDS was a US-government-run program to kill ethinic minorities. Quite obviously, an over-thinker is more prone to search for hidden motives and forces than one who is more careless about such matters.

Those who believe in conspiracies are also likely to be overconfident and impulsive. They are sure that they’re the ones who know the truth and call to others to give up on their naivety.

Informational detox
Informational detox

Social media can only strengthen our conspiracy-related beliefs. The algorithms of social media platforms are designed to show us things that we might like, enjoy, or agree with. Therefore, they create a sterile environment full of people who share our thoughts and views. It becomes next to impossible to come across somebody who would challenge our beliefs.

In a way, some of us are more likely to fall for conspiracy theories. Though this psychological hard-wiring is not always voluntary, one can try to learn critical thinking and look at the world with a different lens. What do conspiracy theories result in?

 

Repercussions

Still, some of us may see conspiracy theories as pure laughing stock, unworthy of giving it a deeper think. However, as statistical studies showed, half of the US population believes at least one medical or political conspiracy theory. These stories of hoaxes and secret forces are far more common than some of us used to believe, and they’re all slowly but surely emerging from the depths of the internet – and people’s imaginations.

Political polarisation seems to be evolving – deepening – along with conspiracy theories. In fact, politicians are more and more willing not only to call their opponents names, but also accuse them of being a part of this or that conspiracy theory.

Such actions lead to the aforementioned outcome – tribalism. Whatever side you’re on, demonising the other side and associating them only with negative traits and lack of reason, you’re sure to strengthen your own views and tighten the community bonds with like-minded people.

Unfortunately, however, this also results in the inability to have a rational political dialogue and try to find a way forward together, showing not only tolerance but also respect to other points of view. In hunter-gatherer times, such a narrow way of thinking might have been a necessity for a tribe to survive. Today, especially in politics, we should try to go beyond what divides us and focus on what unites us to create a better future – no matter what one does or does not believe in.

Conspiracy theories have been with us since the advent of humanity. Their pivotal role was to keep a tribe together and spark up hatred towards a common enemy. Nowadays, the internet and social media have become an environment for conspiracy theories to develop.

There are a few personality traits that make one especially prone to falling for a conspiracy theory. Individuals who tend to be analytical thinkers look for interdependencies and connotations between factors, often lacking evidence, yet providing them with a clear answer. The case is quite similar with people with greater.

Photos: Shutterstock / Edited by: Martina Advaney


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