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The things we do: Why do conspiracy theories thrive?

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Girl receiving oral polio vaccine in IndiaIndividuals who believe in conspiracy theories are often disregarded as 'paranoid' and 'irrational', but social science research indicates that they engage in psychological processes that we all do. The difference lies their unusual distrust of authority.

Conspiracy theories abound!  Rumors are whispered, discrepancies in a story are seized upon, and the official version of events is discredited.  Then, an alternate explanation is proposed and evidence is gathered to support it.

While there is no formal, generally-accepted understanding of a ‘conspiracy theory’, they are usually considered to be an explanation for an event that is not the most plausible account and which postulates unusually sinister and competent conspirators carrying out the conspiracy.  Conspiracy theories are usually based on weak evidence, are self-insulating from fact, and sensationalize the actors or the implications of the event.

Contrary to what we might think, many of the people who follow conspiracies aren’t crazy.  They are actually skeptics, they just happen to be selective with their doubt.   According to research, individuals that believe in conspiracy theories tend to favor a worldview in which people are prone to misbehave (or behave downright evil) and in which elites exercise omnipotence.

In a study from 1999, university students in the U.S. were asked whether they agreed with statements like “Underground movements threaten the stability of American society” and “People who see conspiracies behind everything are simply imagining things.”  The authors found that the strongest predictor of whether an individual would believe in conspiracies was a “lack of trust.”

In another study that approached the topic in a slightly different manner, students were asked whether they agreed with statements that people tend to treat others generously, fairly and sincerely.  In contrast to the earlier study that sought to understand the intellectual underpinnings of conspiracy theorists, the survey in this second study sought to measure the social dimension. The results, however, confirmed the intellectual study and found that distrust was a major factor contributing to the belief of conspiracy theories. 

Ten years later, two separate studies- one concerning Malays and one concerning Germans- found that the key ingredient to believing in conspiracy theories was a healthy dose of political cynicism. Belief in a conspiracy is associated with a sense of alienation from mainstream politics and defiance of authority, leading individuals to question the veracity of widely held opinions and official narratives.  
There are two psychological processes at play here.

Firstly, the process by which individuals ascribe the behavior of others to personality and motivation while ignoring the role of situational factors and chance is known as the fundamental attribution error.  When this occurs we tend to emphasize the objectives of an individual and their personality traits over and above their luck, timing, or environment.  For example, when someone fails to return a phone call or reply to an email, we may presume that they are inconsiderate instead of considering that they may have health issues, computer failure, or some other situational issue.

Secondly, people who are vulnerable to these theories tend to discount information that is inconsistent with their preferences and accept information at face value that is compatible with their preferences.  This tendency is known as “motivated skepticism.”  In relation to conspiracy theories, attribution error contributes to an individual’s ability to accept an implausible scenario instead of a more plausible one.  In fact, the cumulative implausibility of conspiracy theories, ironically appeals to conspiracy theorists and contributes to their cumulative plausibility. As a theory becomes more outrageous or far-fetched, its appeal also increases.

Conspiracy theories, however, have a serious side.  The Government of South Africa formerly embraced denialism of AIDs from 1999-2008, which is estimated to have contributed to around 365,000 deaths as people delayed or ignored their symptoms. 

Similarly, there are numerous conspiracy theories around the world that suggest vaccines are a Western conspiracy to sterilize Muslims.  When asked about their opinions of health systems and programs in their country, people in the UK, Nigeria, India, Pakistan, and Georgia revealed a high correlation between confidence (or lack thereof) in health systems, in health programs, in family planning programs in immunization programs.

Global warming continues to be questioned by many.  Just recently, an advisor to the Prime Minister of Australia reiterated a popular theory that global warming is actually a hoax from the United Nations to establish and control a new world order. 

So, for some, the official narratives on these stories will never stack up. Their distrust of authority and media and their cynicism of mankind encourages them to expect maleficence and collusion on the part of others.  The intention and agency of people is assumed and the randomness or causal complexity of life is ignored.

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Photograph by CDC Globa via Flickr

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