Conspiracy theories are explanations that attribute hidden motives and secret plans to powerful groups or individuals who are allegedly behind certain events or phenomena.
Some examples of conspiracy theories are that the moon landing was faked, that JFK was assassinated by a secret cabal, that COVID-19 was engineered by China or Bill Gates, or that the 2020 US presidential election was rigged by widespread fraud.
Conspiracy theories are not new, but they have become more prevalent and influential in recent years, thanks to social media platforms that allow them to spread quickly and widely. They can have serious consequences for public health, democracy, and social cohesion, as we have seen with the Capitol riot on January 6th 2021.
But why do people believe in conspiracy theories? What psychological factors make them appealing and convincing? Here are some of the main reasons:
- People want to make sense of a complex and uncertain world. Conspiracy theories provide simple and coherent explanations for events that are otherwise hard to understand or accept. They also offer a sense of control and agency by implying that someone is behind everything that happens . This can reduce anxiety and confusion in times of crisis or change.
- People want to protect their self-image and worldview. Conspiracy theories can help people maintain their beliefs and values when they are challenged by contradictory evidence or information. They can also boost their self-esteem by making them feel superior to others who do not know the “truth” or who blindly follow the mainstream narrative . This can increase confidence and motivation in pursuing one’s goals.
- People want to belong to a group and feel validated. Conspiracy theories can create a sense of community and identity among those who share them. They can also provide social support and validation for one’s opinions and emotions . This can enhance well-being and reduce loneliness.
These psychological factors do not mean that people who believe in conspiracy theories are irrational or crazy. They are human beings who have cognitive biases, emotional needs, and social influences like everyone else. However, these factors also do not justify believing in false or harmful claims without sufficient evidence or critical thinking.
How can we deal with conspiracy theories then? Here are some suggestions:
- Be aware of our own biases and motivations. We should question our own assumptions and sources of information before accepting or rejecting any claim. We should also be open-minded and respectful of different perspectives, even if we disagree with them.
- Seek reliable evidence and logical arguments. We should evaluate the quality and credibility of the evidence and arguments presented by any claimant, whether it is a conspiracy theorist or a mainstream source. We should also look for alternative explanations that account for all the facts without resorting to unfounded speculation or distortion.
- Engage in constructive dialogue with others. We should try to understand why others believe what they believe, without dismissing them as ignorant or evil. We should also try to communicate our own views clearly and respectfully, without attacking or ridiculing them. We should aim for mutual understanding rather than persuasion.
Conspiracy theories may be tempting but they are often misleading
There are several reasons why people believe in conspiracy theories, including:
- A desire for control: Conspiracy theories often provide a sense of control over a chaotic or unpredictable world. Believing in a conspiracy theory can make people feel like they have a better understanding of what is really going on and can take action to protect themselves.
- Confirmation bias: People tend to seek out information that confirms their existing beliefs and ignore information that contradicts them. Conspiracy theories often provide a way for people to explain events or situations that don’t fit their worldview.
- Distrust of authority: Some people are skeptical of authority figures, such as government officials, and believe they are hiding something. Conspiracy theories can be a way to explain why those in power may not be acting in the best interests of the people.
- Psychological needs: Believing in conspiracy theories can fulfill psychological needs, such as the need for belonging, meaning, and purpose.
- Information overload: In today’s world, we are inundated with information from multiple sources. Some people may find it difficult to discern what is true and what is not, and conspiracy theories can offer a simplified and coherent explanation of complex events.
It’s important to note that not all conspiracy theories are baseless or unfounded. In some cases, evidence may exist to support a particular theory. However, it’s also important to approach these theories with a critical and open mind, and to verify information before accepting it as true.