Why People Believe in Conspiracy Theories—and How to Reason with Them
The pandemic has—understandably—created a great deal of uncertainty and fear. And with that: conspiracy theories. You may have witnessed it firsthand, watching the viral documentary Plandemic; maybe you’ve seen the reported uptick in online antivaccination communities.
This emergence of conspiracy theories makes sense, says social psychologist and researcher Daniel Jolley, PhD, who tells us that uncertainty plus fear creates the perfect conditions for them to spread. Anyone can be susceptible to them, because they sometimes present logical and convincing narratives—narratives that are often easier to accept than messy, difficult, and not-yet-fully-understood realities.
Jolley reminds us that these sorts of conspiracy theories, though their narratives may be tempting, can be very real threats to public health. And educating ourselves on how to prevent them from spreading is an important service to our communities.
A Q&A with Daniel Jolley, PhD
Conspiracy theories arise in moments of crisis in society—it could be rapid political change or a terrorist attack. These theories bloom in periods of uncertainty and threat, when we feel anxious and like we need to understand what is happening inside of this chaotic world.
There are other things that can also cause conspiracy theories to thrive—for example, psychological biases, like proportionality bias, which is when we assume that big events must be explained by something equally big. This can be found in almost every significant event in history: 9/11, the moon landing, vaccines, climate change, and of course, the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The conspiracy narrative helps people understand what is happening with the world and cope with it. But these theories are false and inaccurate.”
In essence, people want to understand the world. And when they ask questions, the conspiracy narrative appears, at least temporarily, to address these needs: Believing that conspirators are acting in some way that is secret and shady may be an easier way to address our needs than coming to terms with the fact that something is that large and difficult to understand.
It’s hard to grapple with the fact that terrorists have killed large numbers of people or that there is a virus going around the world that has been caused by animals and we’re not yet sure how to stop it. Coming to terms with this real version of the world can actually make you feel more anxious and upset. So the conspiracy narrative helps people understand what is happening with the world and cope with it. But these theories are false and inaccurate.
We have demonstrated in many different studies that conspiracy theories impact the individual and society broadly. People who believe in conspiracy theories often do not follow recommended advice because such recommendations often come from the government. This could mean that individuals avoid using vaccines or antibiotics, which could have real health consequences. At the extreme, it could mean death from diseases that are entirely preventable with modern medicine. These people may choose to follow alternative medical advice that is unproven and ineffective.
Research has also shown that people who believe in conspiracy theories are also more accepting of violence toward those whom they perceive to be conspiring. If someone is already an aggressive or angry person, believing in conspiracy theories may provoke them further. Conspiracy theories can concern the government, but they could also concern groups of people such as immigrants, which could become problematic if the conspiracy theorists choose to inflict harm in a hostile and violent way against this group based on this inaccurate information.
Anyone is susceptible to conspiracy theories if they are in the perfect conditions for those theories to breed, such as moments of crisis. Some personality quirks also come into play—if you’re narcissistic, for example, you may be more drawn to conspiracy narratives because they are often about an “other” group and those who are different from you.
Believing in these theories can affirm your self-esteem. In American politics, for example, there are always conspiracy theories in one political party about the other political party, whether that be Democrats or Republicans. With COVID-19, there have been conspiracy theories about China that have been endorsed by Americans and theories about Americans that have been endorsed by the Chinese. It’s very much about affirming yourself. If you see yourself in a grand way, you are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. Also, if you have a desire to feel unique and different, you’re more drawn to conspiracy narratives.
Critical thinking abilities are also important. We know that people who can think more critically are less likely to believe in conspiracy theories. This is one way that we can potentially address conspiracy theories: by giving people the skill sets to ask questions and use evidence.
In our research to date, we’ve only been able to focus on those who believe in these conspiracy theories and want to spread them. The more interesting dynamic to understand may be those who perhaps don’t believe in the conspiracy theories but still spread them. We know people who believe in conspiracy theories are doing it as a way to understand the world. But maybe some people also spread them for other reasons—maybe financial or political reasons or potentially even just for the sake of spreading false information.
Conspiracy theories have been around for a very long time—probably since the start of time. It’s just that the communication structures have now changed. Back in the JFK era, there were conspiracy theories around the moon landing, which all occurred and spread without the internet. People would write letters to the newspapers or discuss these theories in person. Today, with the internet, conspiracy beliefs may be as popular as they were, but the channel to discuss them has changed.
The internet has made information more accessible than ever, and it accelerates people’s discussions about their beliefs to create movements, like the antivaccination movement that we see now. People remain in their echo chambers. Even though the internet is vast and full of so much information, people stay in bubbles with those who are similar to them. This means that if you believe in conspiracy narratives, you’re going to be discussing them in the context of people around you who also believe in them. This is called confirmation bias, in which people like to affirm their own beliefs while ignoring and not engaging with things that discredit their beliefs.
On the other hand, with the internet being so widespread, this gives experts the opportunity to counteract conspiracy material more readily than ever before. From the research, we know that giving people factual information can reduce their beliefs in conspiracy theories. Creating a landscape full of facts could offer one solution to this problem and is something that would not have been possible before the advent of the internet.
Thinking about how we engage with deceivers and conspiracy theorists online is a challenge for tech companies, scholars, and everyone alike because removing content from the internet will reaffirm that there’s not a place to discuss questions.
As a skeptic and critical thinker, you need to be able to ask questions. There needs to be a forum for people to ask questions. There also needs to be a place for those questions to be looked into and for the scientists or experts to say, “No, that is false.” Things that are shown to be false should be discouraged and removed without being pushed into the mainstream. Tech companies could do this by fact-checking with experts and removing what is untrue and potentially harmful, while flagging things that are unproven or may be false but are not yet known to be true or false.
It’s not just on the tech companies; it’s also on the individual to ensure they are not spreading false information in the first place. People need to have the skill set to evaluate evidence and check sources. Engaging in critical thinking before sharing or believing information that has been shared can stop the spread of misinformation.
“Engaging in critical thinking before sharing or believing information that has been shared can stop the spread of misinformation.”
Ask yourself the following questions when you are exposed to something that you read or see online that evokes a strong reaction inside you and an urge to share:
• Can the person writing this particular tweet or news article be trusted? Are they credible?
• What is the landscape of this particular topic? Is it politically motivated?
• What is the general coverage of this topic? Are other trustworthy news sources saying the same thing? If they are, it certainly indicates that this is likely to be an accurate piece of information.
Take twenty seconds to do a quick search to see what others are saying. Stop and think. It can be a real challenge to determine what is true and what is false on the internet because some of these things look really legitimate.
People need education around critical thinking skills when it comes to online information. Having these skill sets taught in school is something that we may begin to see because the internet is going to be with us forever and people need to understand how best to engage with it and the information that they are exposed to online.
First, it’s important not to come at them with anger or try to pull them out of their beliefs in an aggressive manner. This will cause them to disengage straightaway. Instead, become a trusted messenger by engaging with their beliefs and their mindset from the perspective of you both appreciating that you are just trying to understand the world around you. Their beliefs may seem irrational to you, but they believe that they’re asking rational questions as a way to make themselves feel better in this chaotic world.
We know that people who believe in conspiracy theories may feel that they are critical thinkers who like to think outside the box, but they often fall victim to confirmation bias, discrediting anything that goes against their beliefs. If we can affirm their values based on critical thinking—saying something like, “I know it’s really important that we ask questions, but can you think about the source, the coverage, and the biases in this theory?”—this can direct their critical thinking back to their own beliefs and encourage them to critique those beliefs and their view about the world in a different way. Of course, this type of dialogue is a challenge, and it is very difficult to do.
Editor’s note: For more information, The Conspiracy Theory Handbook, written by psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky, PhD, is an informative evidence-based guide to the research on conspiracy theories as well as how to effectively debunk them and talk to a conspiracy theorist.
Daniel Jolley, PhD, is a social psychologist and senior lecturer at Northumbria University. His research addresses the consequences of conspiracy theories and tools to address their impact.