Conspiracy theories are as old as time but it’s only in more recent years that psychologists have begun to unravel the belief that some people have in them. According to researcher Goertzel (1994), conspiracy theories are explanations that refer to hidden groups working in secret to achieve sinister objectives.
Whether it’s the killing of a U.S. President (Kennedy), a mass-shooting involving a seemingly-normal older white, adult male (Las Vegas), or the Charlie Hebdo murders, conspiracy theories are never far behind. Even climate change has a conspiracy theory attached to it (the U.S. government is to blame, naturally).
What drives people’s belief in these “out there” explanations for significant events? Let’s find out.
The Psychology Behind Conspiracy Theories
Researchers have been hard at work examining why a small minority of the population believe, and even thrive, on conspiracy theories.
Lantian et al. (2017) summarize the characteristics associated with a person who is likely to believe in conspiracy theories:
… personality traits such as openness to experience, distrust, low agreeability, and Machiavellianism are associated with conspiracy belief.
“Low agreeability” refers to a trait of “agreeableness,” which psychologists define as how much an individual is dependable, kind, and cooperative. Someone with low agreeability is an individual who is usually not very dependable, kind, or cooperative. Machiavellianism refers to a personality trait where a person is so “focused on their own interests they will manipulate, deceive, and exploit others to achieve their goals.”
Lantian et al. (2017) continue:
In terms of cognitive processes, people with stronger conspiracy beliefs are more likely to overestimate the likelihood of co-occurring events, to attribute intentionality where it is unlikely to exist, and to have lower levels of analytic thinking.
None of this should be surprising, because once you start to analyze a situation with demonstrable facts, it usually — and quite thoroughly — will break down the conspiracy theory into its component parts, none of which make sense standing on their own.
Take, for example, the theory that there were two shooters at the 2017 Las Vegas massacre, the largest mass-shooting in modern U.S. history. The theory — believed by tens of thousands of people around the world — rests on the “evidence” of two grainy, hard-to-hear videos from eyewitnesses.
These videos suggest that somehow a second shooter was able to shoot from the 4th floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel — despite the fact that there were no broken windows on the 4th floor, and police searching the building floor-by-floor heard no such shots. ((The conspiracy theorists apparently don’t realize that all of Mandalay Bay’s windows do not open, like in most Vegas hotels. If there was no broken window, there was no way a person could shoot from the 4th floor. And independent police departments as well as individual officers and first-responders suddenly become a part of the whole government conspiracy.))
What is the purpose of the second shooter? Proof that the official narrative is false, as the second shooter points to some “new world order” plot that is intent on taking over our government and society. Or something like that. The rationale for a second shooter requires a suspension of your belief in reality and simple critical thinking.
With zero evidence, conspiracy theorists need to invent a reason for a second shooter, to match what they see as “facts.” But once a person starts inventing a narrative out of thin air, you can see very little critical thinking occurring.
Conspiracy Theories Make a Person Feel Special
Lantian et al.’s (2017) research examined the role of a person’s need for uniqueness and a belief of conspiracy theories, and found a correlation.
We argue that people high in need for uniqueness should be more likely than others to endorse conspiracy beliefs because conspiracy theories represent the possession of unconventional and potentially scarce information. […] Moreover, conspiracy theories rely on narratives that refer to secret knowledge (Mason, 2002) or information, which, by definition, is not accessible to everyone, otherwise it would not be a secret and it would be a well-known fact.
People who believe in conspiracy theories can feel “special,” in a positive sense, because they may feel that they are more informed than others about important social and political events. […]
Our findings can also be connected to recent research demonstrating that individual narcissism, or a grandiose idea of the self, is positively related to belief in conspiracy theories. Interestingly, Cichocka et al. (2016) found that paranoid thought mediates the relationship between individual narcissism and conspiracy beliefs.
The current work suggests, however, that need for uniqueness could be an additional mediator of this relationship. Indeed, previous work has shown that narcissism is positively correlated with need for uniqueness (Emmons, 1984) and here we showed that need for uniqueness is related to conspiracy belief.
People Who Believe in Conspiracy Theories are Likely More Alienated, Socially Isolated
Moulding et al. (2016) also dug into the characteristics of people who believe in conspiracy theories in two studies.
It has been noted that individuals who endorse conspiracy theories are likely to be higher in powerlessness, social isolation and anomia, which is broadly defined as a subjective disengagement from social norms.
Such disengagement from the normative social order may result in greater conspiratorial thinking for a number of related reasons. First, individuals who feel alienated may consequently reject conventional explanations of events, as they reject the legitimacy of the source of these explanations. Due to these individuals feeling alienated from their peers, they may also turn to conspiracist groups for a sense of belonging and community, or to marginalised subcultures in which conspiracy theories are potentially more rife.
People who feel powerless may also endorse conspiracy theories as they also help the individual avoid blame for their predicament. In this sense, conspiracy theories give a sense of meaning, security and control over an unpredictable and dangerous world. Finally, and most simply, conspiracy beliefs — which imply a level of Machiavellianism and power enacted by those without fixed morality — are most likely to resonate with people who feel powerless and believe that society lacks norms.
The Internet has amplified the abilities of these like-minded people to come together to share and expand on their conspiracy theories. It took only hours after the Las Vegas massacre for a conspiracy Facebook group to appear with more than 5,000 members.
In their study, Moulding et al. (2016) found that, consistent with their hypotheses, “endorsement of conspiracy theories related moderately-to-strongly with the alienation-related variables — isolation, powerlessness, normlessness and disengagement from social norms.”
Researcher van Prooijen (2016) also found that self-esteem instability resulting in self-uncertainty also is a characteristic associated with a greater likelihood to believe in conspiracy theories. People who don’t feel like they belong to any one group — a trait psychologists refer to as belongingness — are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories.
Conspiracy Theories Are Driven by People, Not Facts
You can’t really argue with people who believe in conspiracy theories, because their beliefs aren’t rational. Instead, they are often fear- or paranoia-based beliefs that, when confronted with contrarian factual evidence, will dismiss both the evidence and the messenger who brings it. ((“Fake news” they’ll say, as though that is a rational, mature, and cohesive argument in reply.)) That’s because conspiracy theories are driven by the people who believe and spread them and their own psychological makeup — not on the factual support or logical reasoning of the theory itself.
Conspiracy theories aren’t going away, for as long as there are people who have a need to believe in them, they will continue to expand and thrive. The Internet and social media sites such as Facebook have only made such theories even easier to spread. Save your breath arguing with people who believe in them, as no amount of facts will dissuade them from their false belief.