The truth behind the lies of conspiracy theories

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COVID-19 is a hoax; 5G is infecting us; the Royal family have been replaced by shape-shifting lizards. All are examples of real conspiracy theories and they seem to be everywhere at the moment, with a recent survey reporting that 60% of the participants at least partly believed in one or more conspiracy theories1,2. Although some may seem comical and relatively harmless, conspiracy theories often have real life consequences and can morph into something far more insidious, with research linking conspiracy theories to increased violence, terrorism, racism and anti-Semitism3.

Of course, it is important to go through life with a healthy dose of scepticism – we shouldn’t just take everything at face value. So, what makes a sceptic become a conspiracy theorist?

The appeal of conspiracy theories is thought to be because they satisfy three main psychological needs. The first need is the desire for understanding and certainty – in other words, we want to know why things happen and why the world is the way it is. However, the world is messy and does not always provide easily digestible answers, which can make people feel overwhelmed and powerless.

In search of answers to these questions, it is our nature to look for patterns in events, as this allows us to increase our feeling of certainty in an uncertain world. However, the brain is easily fooled and will readily find patterns that do not exist, a phenomenon referred to in psychology as illusory pattern perception. Illusory pattern perception is at the heart of conspiracies, as conspiracies will reduce all world events to a single common denominator. In doing so, there are no coincidences, and everything has a deeper meaning, thus helping to satisfy the first psychological need. The link between illusory pattern perception and conspiracy theories has been reported in numerous psychological studies. For example, van Prooijen et al. reported that survey participants who were able to find patterns in random coin tosses were also more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, compared to those who did not report a pattern4. It is the interplay between these this innate human behaviour and our desire for understanding that provides the ideal environment for conspiracy theories to manifest and grow.

In addition, finding answers in times of uncertainty can provide a sense of control and security, satisfying the second psychological need. There is substantial evidence that conspiracy theories empower their believers, allowing them to feel like autonomous individuals, rather than being controlled by external factors. These external forces of control are often perceived to be officials and higher organisational powers, which are often seen as untrustworthy and colluding against normal people. This is exemplified by a recent study by the University of Cambridge which reported that 77% of Britons did not trust the media, and 76% did not trust government officials1,2. A part of taking back the feeling of control comes from rejecting these official narratives and branding them as ‘fake news’, allowing people to feel like they have not been deceived. Instead, they propose ‘alternative facts’ which become part of the conspiracy and are often seen to be the truth that organisations are attempting to hide. ‘Alternative facts’ are able to spread rapidly, especially in our technological age, because we are far more trusting of people we know, with 87% of people trusting their friends, and 89% of people trusting their family1,2. This combination of lack of trust in officials but trust in those we know means that it is more important than ever that we ourselves do not fall into the trap of spreading misinformation.

The final psychological need is the desire to belong to a group, and to maintain a positive image of the group. Being a part of a group of conspiracy theorists allows people’s fears to be validated and reassured, providing a sense of ‘power in numbers’. Further, being a part of the group allows the blame for negative outcomes to be passed onto external forces and as such, conspiracy groups often view themselves as morally superior to those not in the know. In short, it is much easier to blame others for failures, rather than accept responsibility for them. This desire to maintain a positive image of the group may explain why it is so hard to reason with a conspiracy theorist, as  they believe that everyone else is trying to undermine or sabotage the group. As a result, any evidence that goes against the theory merely becomes a part of the conspiracy itself.

Investigating the psychological factors underlying conspiracy theories can provide an insight into why so many are drawn to them. Focusing more on the factors driving belief in conspiracies can allow us to develop more effective methods for combating the spread. For example, it is now thought that exposing people to the evidence against conspiracy theories early on is more effective than exposure once people are fully emersed. Due to the fundamental psychological needs that conspiracy theories play on, it is unlikely that they are going to disappear anytime soon. Indeed, conspiracy theories have been documented throughout the centuries. Instead, our focus needs to be mitigating the spread of misinformation and providing people with answers early on, before they are drawn in to conspiracies.

References:

  1. YouGov-Cambridge globalism project. Retrieved from https://yougov.co.uk/topics/yougov-cambridge/survey-results
  2. Addley, E. Study shows 60% of Britons believe in conspiracy theories. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/nov/23/study-shows-60-of-britons-believe-in-conspiracy-theories
  3. Douglas, et al. Understanding conspiracy theories. Political Psychology 40 (2019).
  4. van Prooijen, J. et al. Connecting the dots: Illusory pattern perception predicts belief in conspiracies and the supernatural. European Journal of Social Psychology 48, 320-335 (2018).

image credit: “Small anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists protest. Coronavirus (COVID-19) Sheffield, UK” by Tim Dennell is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0