Why do people believe conspiracy in theories that sound stupid to others but not to the conspiracy theorists themselves? Conspiracy theorists such as:
Shapeshifting reptilians are ruling our world, the earth is flat, and the moon is an abandoned spaceship. Aliens tripping on marijuana (which cures everything) draw crop circles in fields to communicate with us and 9/11 was an inside job.
Psychology of conspiracy theories
There are several psychological drives that cause people to believe in conspiracy theories. In fact, conspiracy theorists are not very different from the rest of the population when it comes to biased thinking.
In other words, we’re all prone to behave like biased conspiracy theorists unless we exercise careful reasoning. The cognitive biases that make conspiracy theorists behave the way they do are built in the psyche of all human beings.
Following are the main psychological drives that seem to govern the behaviour of conspiracy theorists…
1) Need for control
The need for control is a fundamental human need. Look how we’ve moulded our environment to suit our needs and how we’ve tamed the forces of nature to serve our ends. Control feels good and facilitates our well-being. Loss of control makes us psychologically unstable.
Not understanding the major events of the world makes us feel powerless and without control. When we explain things, we restore power and control.
This is why many conspiracy theories revolve around events for which there are no clear explanations. The human mind cannot tolerate leaving things unexplained. Explaining things, no matter how ludicrous the explanations, help us restore control and psychological balance.
In the words of Ronald T. Kellog, author of The Making of the Mind:
A long line of research in cognitive science has documented that people make causal attributions about events as a means of maintaining personal control. It is the feeling that things are spinning out of control that motivates the human brain to find a pattern in events and try to predict what happens next.– Ronald T. Kellog
2) Coping with tragedy
If you look at when conspiracy theories have cropped up throughout history, you’ll notice a recurring trend: They mostly emerge when a population group faces a major tragedy or loss.
Be it a financial crisis, terrorist strikes, wars, epidemics, natural disasters or high-profile deaths, conspiracy theories help people to cope with these times of uncertainty and fear by reassuring them that bad things don’t happen randomly. Instead, they have structure and perpetrators.
By exposing the perpetrators and punishing or overthrowing them if they’re in power we can prevent bad things from happening to us. We’re not responsible for our predicaments, they are. Bad things don’t happen randomly and to anyone. That’s scary. Someone must be behind them.
3) Ego boost and heroism
It always feels good to be the old wise goat in a flock of sheep. Many conspiracy theorists often accuse others who don’t believe in their theories as being deluded and brain-washed. In a way, they see themselves as heroes who’re on a mission to pull out mankind from their depths of ignorance toward the light of truth.
Also, convincing you that ‘they’re watching us’ or ‘we have been fooled’ makes them feel like saviours on a rescue mission. As you can see, this gives them a major ego boost.
It also seems to me that conspiracy theorists tend to piggyback on major political and global events to feed their need to feel special. Talking about big things makes us feel big. The bigger the conspiracy we unearth, the more special we feel.
Also, if our beliefs are contradictory to mainstream ideas that most people subscribe to, that too can give us the special feeling of being the ‘chosen ones’.
Next time something big happens, for example, we send a human to Mars or find the cure of AIDS, be prepared to be bombarded by alternate narratives of conspiracy theorists who’re always on their toes, scrutinizing major events of the world to steal attention from.
4) Exaggerating trivialities
If there is some confusion or ambiguity surrounding a fact or an event, conspiracy theorists use it to their advantage by making a mountain out of a molehill.
Often, they start with reasonable doubt about an ambiguity, trying to capture the listener’s attention and then go from there to make ridiculous claims. For example, flat-earthers will question the way in which NASA showed some images and then go on to claim that all NASA scientists are Satanists.
A 2011 study published in the British Journal of Social Psychology suggested that people who’re more likely to conspire are also more likely to believe in conspiracy theories.1
In other words, we see the world as we are. This is called projection.
Conspiracy theorists project their own attitudes and ways of thinking to the people they accuse of conspiring. Because we behave and act in certain ways, we think others behave and act the way we do too.
An important caveat
It’s essential to note here that just because conspiracy theorists may be satisfying some ulterior psychological motives doesn’t mean their claims are necessarily false. There are some conspiracy theories that did turn out to be true or are likely to be true.
Take, for example, the long-held belief that countries intervene in civil wars of other countries for oil.2
So, instead of outrightly dismissing the claims of conspiracy theorists, it’s a much better strategy to try and engage with them rationally. Mocking them can lead to the backfire effect- they end up holding on to their views more strongly.
Appealing calmly to their sense of logic and reasoning has a better chance of working out.
Hi, I’m Hanan Parvez (MBA, MA Psychology), founder and author of PsychMechanics. I’ve published one book and authored 300+ articles and on this blog (started in 2014) that have garnered over 4 million views. PsychMechanics has been featured in Forbes, Business Insider, Reader’s Digest, and Entrepreneur. Feel free to contact me if you have a query.