Why do people believe conspiracy theories? The same reasons anyone subscribes to any ideologically-charged belief. If you were looking for differences in cognition, IQ, psychosis, paranoia, susceptibility to certain biases or persuasive methods, then you would be disappointed. One study included in its predictive profile of a conspiracy theorist the tendency to leap to conclusions from scant evidence. But this was just one component among many such as mistrust of others, dislike of authority and alienation from society. The tendency to leap to conclusions is neither sufficient nor necessary to predict if someone is a conspiracy theorist.
Certain people tend to dismiss whatever someone says if they disagree with them, and ignore or reinterpret evidence to maintain their belief (Confirmation Bias), and even maintain multiple contradictory beliefs as long as they fall under their worldview (Doublethink). Their pattern recognition is hyper-active, and picks up on unrelated coincidences and assigns causal significance to them (Apophenia and Pareidolia). They live in a world full of meanings and intentions and control, where the cause is not the circumstances of the situation, but the character and dispositions of the people involved (Fundamental Attribution Error). They are likely to react defensively to any incoming information that threatens their identity, or their belonging to a social community. They will search for a reason to reject such information and stop as soon as they find one reason, whereas if the information affirms their identity and social cohesion, they won’t even look for flaws in it (Motivated Reasoning). And this type of person that I’m describing isn’t the conspiracy theorist. It is your average human. Many of the articles I read mentioned that these things are true of conspiracy theorists, but all of these things are also true of most people whenever the subject matter is something ideologically-charged such as political issues, or cultural values.
Jennifer Faust in a philosophy paper titled, “Can religious arguments persuade?” explained that we want “to do the least damage to our standing [belief] set, which typically means revising at the periphery rather than within the core.” Humans are lazy. It is no surprise that we are much more partial to information that can be easily assimilated than to information that requires radical restructuring of our worldviews.
So to my disappointment, there isn’t an answer that I can find that definitively explains conspiracy theorists in terms of a unique problem with the way they think or a lower IQ. But there is plenty of evidence of multitudinous problems with the way we all think. Instead, the best answers to why people believe in conspiracy theories are more about personality than about cognition.
Traits associated with belief in conspiracy theory are:
- Suspicion and antagonism: Lack of faith in people as generally good-natured and fair to each other
- Mistrust of media
- Anomia: the belief that the situation of the average person is getting worse, that it is hardly fair to bring a child into today’s world.
- Cynicism and pessimism with respect to politics
- Alienation from society
- Disconnection from politics
- High curiosity
- High imagination
- Magical thinking, superstition, and belief in the paranormal
- Insecurity about employment
- Low self-esteem
- External locus of control: Feeling of powerlessness
- Authoritarian: Desire for strong leaders to follow, and for structure and order in life
- Willingness to engage in a conspiracy if deemed necessary
- Mere exposure to conspiracy theories increases chances of believing conspiracy theories
- If you already believe a conspiracy theory, you are much more likely to believe other, new conspiracy theories that you encounter.
But once again, the psychology research cuts both ways. A good predictor for belief in climate change is simply political ideology. If you vote for left-wing candidates you are more likely to believe in climate change than someone who doesn’t.
Low self-esteem and powerlessness predict belief in conspiracy theories, but that doesn’t really say anything about the theories themselves, except that they fulfill a psychological need in those people. Just like the fact that left-wing ideology predicts belief in climate change, but that doesn’t say anything about whether or not climate change is true. It just tells us that humans are often eager to believe something that is convenient to believe and already fits with their worldview. When it does not fit, we experience that very unpleasant sensation known as cognitive dissonance.
It is also worth pointing out that, while conspiracy theorists may generally be more cynical and pessimistic than the average person, the average person is overly optimistic and overconfident in their abilities. Depressed people actually give more accurate self-assessments than the average person (Depressive Realism), which is a depressing thought. Which prompts the question, “Is the average person too optimistic about things like government?”
There have been some hypotheses as to emotional motivations to believe in conspiracy theories, but as far as I’ve seen these are just hypotheses without much experimental support. One is that people dislike lack of control, and conspiracy theories transform the world from a meaningless and unpredictable world into one where there are people to blame and problems to fix. Another is that people have a very linear, narrative-like conception of how causality works, and that if something massive and dramatic happens, it must have a similarly massive and dramatic cause behind it. Others have argued that it creates a dramatic narrative in which the conspiracy theorist is the hero, the noble warrior of truth, the underdog against the system. And finally, there is identity protection and community cohesion. But of course this last one doesn’t really explain why people become conspiracy theorists, only why they remain conspiracy theorists, and once again, it applies to all humans not just conspiracy theorists.
Someone whose identity is a ‘critical thinker’ or ‘truth seeker’ is more likely to be receptive of confronting information than someone whose identity is ‘conspiracy theorist’, or ‘underdog fighting the system’. Similarly, someone whose community is scientists is more likely to be receptive than someone whose community is political activists.
In the documentary “I Can Change Your Mind About Climate”, a person from each side of the fence went to meet a psychologist who explained what confirmation bias was. But then they said, “That’s not either of us, no,” and they all laughed it off. Yes it is you! We are all biased! If you laugh it off when it is suggested you might have perfectly normal human flaws in your reasoning, you are drastically overconfident in your intellectual abilities. You are in denial and you are part of the problem (Bias Blind Spot).
On the other hand, I was discussing conspiracy theory belief with someone when they stopped and said, “Am I being paranoid?” If you are willing to seriously consider you might be crazy, or biased, or paranoid, then you probably are much more reasonable than you think. If this possibility doesn’t even occur to you, or you don’t give it very serious consideration, then you are much more likely to be one of those crazy or dogmatic people.
See also the Dunning-Kruger Effect: Incompetent people often lack the competence to notice their own incompetence, resulting in overconfidence (and conversely, competent people often give others too much credit, and think themselves about average).
Yes, the percentage of people who believe in conspiracies is alarmingly large. But the same is true of belief in horoscopes. There are plenty of people who believe that life was created fully-formed without evolution, that the Earth is flat, or that the free market will fix everything. These people aren’t crazy. They are perfectly normal, flawed humans. Why do people believe in conspiracy theories? Probably the same reasons you have the values that you do, and vote the way you do. Because this is just business as usual for humans. Critically analysing our worldview is not a natural tendency.
Interview with a psychologist summarising why people believe conspiracy theories:
Articles summarising the research:
Lewandowsky, S., Oberauer, K. & Gignac, G. E. NASA faked the moon landing therefore (climate) science is a hoax: An anatomy of the motivated rejection of science. Psychol. Sci. (in the press). http://websites.psychology.uwa.edu.au/labs/cogscience/documents/LskyetalPsychScienceinPressClimateConspiracy.pdf
Goertzel, T. (1994). Belief in Conspiracy Theories . Political Psychology, 15(4), 731-742. http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/3791630?uid=2&uid=4&sid=21104561846827
Collins, Nathan. (23/09/2015). “Conspiracy Theorists Aren’t So Different From the Rest of Us”. Retrieved 25/09/2015, from http://www.psmag.com/health-and-behavior/patterns-in-the-noise-but-not-conspiracy
Documentary about the psychology of conspiracy theories (most of the detail is in the conclusion starting about 34min):
Explanations about cognitive dissonance cut both ways as well:
Documentary about trying to persuade conspiracy theorists out of their beliefs:
Interview with a former conspiracy theorist:
Skip to 3:30. Interview with a psychologist about the psychology of paranoid delusion and normal beliefs:
Locus of control is a concept relevant to conspiracy theory belief. Discussion of explanatory style starts about 2:08 in this video:
“Could it be coincidence?” Yes:
Motivated reasoning is not unique to conspiracy theorists, it is quite normal:
McNerney, Sam. (2013). “The Bias Within the Bias”. Retrieved 25/06/2013, from: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/mind-guest-blog/2013/05/15/the-bias-within-the-bias/
ABC. (2014). “I Can Change Your Mind About Climate”. Retrieved 26/08/2014, from: http://www.abc.net.au/tv/changeyourmind/
Interview with Anthony Leiserowitz about rates of climate change belief and denial: http://www.abc.net.au/tv/changeyourmind/webextras/anthonyleiserowitz_transcript.pdf