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The Psychology Behind Conspiracy Theories

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Uncertain times are a breeding ground for misinformation.

10’000 Hours / Getty Images

It may seem like you’ve been inundated with conspiracy theories lately.

Whether it’s COVID-19 or election fraud, they seem to be everywhere. Social media, television, and even conversations with friends and loved ones seem saturated with misinformation.

A May 2020 online survey of 2,501 adults in England found that 25 percent of respondents believe unproven COVID-19 conspiracy theories.

A January 2021 poll of 1,239 U.S. voters found that 77 percent of Republican respondents believe there was widespread election fraud, despite courts ruling otherwise.

The truth is, conspiracy theories are nothing new.

In 2003, 40 years after the death of former President John F. Kennedy, an ABC News poll showed that 70 percent of people still believed the assassination was the result of a larger plot, and that convicted assassin Lee Harvey Oswald wasn’t acting alone.

Soon after the 1969 moon landing, theories began circulating that the whole thing was staged.

But as we saw with the riot on Capitol Hill on January 6, conspiracy theories aren’t just unproven (or disproven) ideas.

Allowing conspiracies to circulate can have deadly consequences. Five people, including one police officer, died when insurrectionists attempted the coup on the Capitol.

It’s natural and understandable to feel angry, frustrated, or saddened by these events. Experts urge us to take a step back and consider why people believe conspiracy theories and to examine our own vulnerabilities, particularly during uncertain times.

“When people feel threatened and out of control, it’s natural to want to feel more control and bring order to the randomness by resorting to conspiracy theories,” says John Cook, PhD, founder of the website Skeptical Science and co-author of “The Conspiracy Theory Handbook.”

That doesn’t mean we should enable conspiracy theories to continue or that people who break the law in the name of these theories shouldn’t face consequences.

But experts say that by stepping back and evaluating what makes these theories seem plausible to certain people, we can engage in a more productive dialogue.

We can also protect ourselves from engaging in conversations about conspiracy theories at the expense of our mental health.

Why do people believe conspiracy theories?

Certain life experiences and personality traits make people more likely to buy into fraudulent claims.

Here’s what the data and experts say about factors that contribute to unproven or disproven narratives.

They believe they benefit from the conspiracy theory

Do you ever want something to be true so badly? We all do from time to time. But for some people, believing a lie is better than facing reality.

A 2017 research review found that people who buy into conspiracy theories believe they benefit socially and existentially from them.

For example, someone may strongly prefer that a certain political candidate win an election because they think that person will keep them physically and financially safe. Other people may not want to believe climate change is real because they work or invest in the coal industry.

“They want to believe in their cause and fight for their cause even if their rational mind tells them it’s not something they believe in,” says Carla Marie Manly, PhD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in fear, media, and the psychological impact of issues such as conspiracy theories on the psyche.

“Sometimes, people get behind a theory because they agree with the underlying cause,” she says.

They may also find a social connection with like-minded people, which feels like another benefit. This is sometimes referred to as “in-group” versus “out-group” differences. People have a tendency to identify with ideas held by those they see as similar to themselves.

“We have this tribal mentality where we want to be part of a group,” Manly says. “On a very primitive level, it makes us feel safe… we feel like we aren’t alone and part of something greater than ourselves where people understand us, and we understand them.”

One problem is that believing in a conspiracy theory often backfires and harms a person socially and existentially. Politicians on both sides of the aisle condemned the rioters on Capitol Hill, for example.

Despite this, people may remain committed to believing the theory.

“For some people, it’s a matter of pride,” Manly says. “There are certain people who, until the bitter end, will hold onto something that is not true because they don’t want to believe they’re wrong.”

They want to feel smart

Having information or knowledge that no one else has can naturally make us feel unique. A 2017 study indicates that people who believe in conspiracy theories need to feel unique by knowing “scarce information.”

“You’ll see that [desire] to be superior,” Manly says. “You have a sense that you’re elevated above other people, that you know something more. It’s the idea of, ‘I’m in the know, and you are not in the know.’”

Manly believes this is a learned behavior. This means that people can learn over time that holding these beliefs makes them feel important. This reinforces the tendency to buy into similar beliefs in the future.

“A father may have always needed to be right,” Manly says. “That child will learn from that parent they will be elevated if they have scarce information.”

A person’s education level may play a role in whether they’re more likely to believe a conspiracy theory, according to a 2016 study. It found that lower levels of education correlate to a greater likelihood of believing in conspiracy theories.

“Ideally, one of the things we learn in higher education is critical thinking,” Manly says.

On the flip side, people with postgraduate degrees believe and push conspiracy theories too. They may even be harder to reason with because they’re overconfident in their position.

Attorneys Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani defended and perpetuated election fraud claims, for example.

Cook believes that the more educated a person is, the more difficult it may be to bring them back to reality or even have a healthy conversation with them about their beliefs.

“It’s not driven by knowledge or intelligence; it’s driven by ideology, beliefs, and identity,” he says. “What that means is that as a person gets more educated, they develop more skills to be able to deny more skillfully.”

They may have a different moral compass

Some people feel participating in COVID-19 mitigation efforts such as wearing a mask and limiting contact to people in your household is a moral obligation to keep one another safe.

Some may also feel that taking measures to halt climate change, including reducing fossil fuels usage, is also a moral obligation to make the world safer for future generations.

On the other hand, some people value individual freedoms as a moral imperative. This may lessen their sense of responsibility toward collective concerns.

A 2020 study of 245 Romanians indicated that people who were experiencing conspiracy theory ideation about physical distancing measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 experienced more moral disengagement and intolerance of uncertainty.

A strong sense of individualism has been a major predictor in those who don’t believe COVID-19 is a problem and don’t take recommended precautions, Cook says.

“It’s similar to what we see with climate denial. They value the individual over the community,” he says.

For example, people want to eat at their favorite restaurant without the government telling them they can’t. They may also be frustrated by financial hardship as a result of job or business loss.

The 2020 study mentioned above suggests stressing physical distancing as morally relevant may help people get on board with mitigation efforts.

If someone believes COVID-19 is a hoax, this becomes more difficult, especially when you remember that people who trust conspiracy theories over facts often want to feel smart and unique.

“Come from a paradigm that says, ‘I feel this way. These are my beliefs. I understand your beliefs, but when we are together, do you mind coming a little more toward mine so that I feel safe and secure? I’m not saying you’re wrong, but I feel more comfortable if you are wearing a mask,’” Manly says.

This approach may help your loved one feel like they’re doing you a favor. If they care about you, they may be more inclined to budge. It also avoids arguments about what is true or not.

For instance, saying “Research says mask wearing helps reduce the spread of COVID-19” may put the other person on the defensive by making them feel like you’re trying to outsmart them.

Other ways to handle conspiracy theories in your life

Times are uncertain, making the world ripe for the spread of conspiracy theories.

Social media also gives people a platform and makes you more prone to seeing and learning that someone you know believes false ideas. It’s tempting to want to correct the person, especially if you care about them.

Before you engage with someone to convince them that their claims are baseless, ask yourself what you’ll get out of it.

“Look at the situation and the payoff,” Manly suggests. “What do you hope to gain?”

Perhaps you want to visit with a parent who disagrees with the severity of COVID-19, but you don’t feel comfortable if they refuse to sit outside and wear a mask.

Maybe a high school acquaintance is posting claims of election fraud on Facebook, and you want to at least provide credible counter sources in case someone else who may be considering these beliefs is scrolling past.

If you’ve decided to proceed and engage the person in a dialogue, experts suggest catering your approach based on your relationship with the person.

Regardless of how close you are with someone, the experts suggest going into the conversation knowing you likely won’t change their mind.

“Once people start going down the rabbit hole and believing conspiracy theories, one of the results of that is they develop such an overriding suspicion of information, particularly from mainstream sources, that any information that disproves their conspiracy theory is interpreted as being part of the conspiracy theory,” Cook says.

For example, people may say, “The mainstream media wanted Trump to lose, so of course they’re not reporting about voter discrepancies.”

Going into a conversation with low expectations can help your mental health. Cook does this when a climate change denier asks him a question or makes a comment during his presentations.

“I will answer their question, but I also acknowledge mentally the sheer unlikelihood of changing their mind,” he says. “It gives you a Zen calm. Trying to change a person’s mind whose mind cannot be changed can be frustrating and lead to you being angry.”

If it’s a family member or close friend

If you already have an established and trusting relationship with someone, try leaning into that when opening the dialogue.

Manly suggests saying something like:

“I feel concerned that I saw this post [or involvement]. It worries me because _____. If you’re interested, how about I send you some research I found? We can talk about it, or you can just consider it.”

Manly likes this approach because it’s not challenging and leaves the ball in the other person’s court if they want to continue to discuss it. You’re not calling them “dumb,” “crazy,” or anything that may shut down the conversation.

“It’s very light-handed,” she says. “The more flexible they are, the more likely they are to embrace a conversation about it.”

If it’s a Facebook friend you don’t speak with regularly

Social media can help us stay connected with old friends and acquaintances. It also opens the door for us to see their thoughts on current events and conspiracy theories.

You’ve likely scrolled past a few or seen long threads where people argue back and forth. Manly suggests not going that far.

“To try to change someone’s mind, particularly in a public forum, is not going to go well,” she says. “Now they are in public, and the stakes are higher on being proven wrong. We have a hard enough time as human beings admitting we make mistakes in private. In public, it’s harder, particularly if they have low self-esteem.”

Manly recommends saying, “Thank you for sharing this with me. I beg to differ because of XYZ.”

“Leave it at that,” she advises.

When to cut people off

Times are stressful. Fundamentally disagreeing with family and friends on what reality means can make things worse. If a loved one’s beliefs are negatively affecting your mental health, you can set limits.

“If there’s something that’s a hot topic, you have the right to say ‘I am not comfortable talking about that issue, so can we please put it aside and talk about our plans for the year?’” Manly says.

“Don’t make it about them, make it, ‘It is not healthy for me.’ By sticking to that, you are working on your own boundaries and modeling, unbeknownst to them, healthy boundaries,” she says.

If they cross the line, Manly says it’s up to you to decide how many chances you want to give. Every person has different limits. You also don’t have to give them any chances at all, particularly if their beliefs are causing harm to you or others.

“If it feels in any way unsafe to you or that it has crossed your boundaries, you can absolutely [cut them off],” Manly says. “We all need to know our own moral compass.”

She suggests saying, “That is so difficult for me to embrace. I really need to take a step back from you.”

Takeaway

Conspiracy theories aren’t new, but it may feel like they’re everywhere right now. Uncertain times provide a breeding ground for this kind of misinformation.

People are more likely to believe conspiracy theories if they believe they benefit socially or existentially from them. Even if they don’t benefit from them, pride may get in the way of being able to consider other perspectives.

People who want to feel unique or who are morally disengaged in mitigating a problem may also buy into unsupported claims, even if they have a high education level.

Before engaging with someone who believes conspiracy theories, ask yourself whether it’s worth it. If it is, cater your approach based on how well you know them, and understand you probably won’t change their mind.

It’s OK to set boundaries or completely cut someone off if their beliefs hurt your mental health and make you or someone else feel physically or emotionally unsafe.


Beth Ann Mayer is a New York-based writer. In her spare time, you can find her training for marathons and wrangling her son, Peter, and three furbabies.

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