Conspiracy theories lurk all over the internet and cover a dizzying range of topics — from the idea that the moon landings were faked to the belief that Earth is flat. Often, believers will readily dismiss any and all evidence that contradicts such claims, and suggest that witnesses or experts who dispute the ideas are simply part of the conspiracy.
As a general rule, people don't like being unable to make sense of things; we are curious, and we want to understand the world around us. In the past, science couldn't explain many of the phenomena humans encountered, and so the easiest and most efficient response to an unanswerable question was to credit an omnipotent, omniscient higher power. Science is now able to answer many of the questions that once stumped us, and while we don't always have the answers, now, more than at any point in our history, we have the capacity to accurately explain and understand all manner of phenomena.
With that in mind, why do people believe in conspiracy theories, even when there is a mountain of evidence to show that they are incorrect? Why are conspiracy theories so prevalent today — and what exactly is a conspiracy theory?
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"A conspiracy theory is a belief that two or more actors have coordinated in secret to achieve an outcome, and that [exposing] this conspiracy is of public interest," Karen Douglas, a professor of social psychology at the University of Kent in the U.K., told Live Science in an email.
This interpretation is supported by Hugo Drochon, a professor of political theory at the University of Nottingham in the U.K..
"At its core, a conspiracy theory is a belief that there is a small group of shadowy people who control everything in the world. This is why we get conspiracy theories about climate change being a 'hoax': it's because [conspiracy theorists believe] this nefarious group wants to control us," Drochon told Live Science.
So, how do such theories grow and prosper? What makes someone — or a group of people — adamant that they are being lied to, and that they are being deliberately misled by a cabal of concealed truth-twisters?
Conspiracy theories "begin with us trying to understand complex events," Daniel Jolley, a University of Nottingham professor of social psychology, told Live Science in an email. "Conspiracy theories arguably offer simple solutions to complex problems."
Douglas suggested that such notions often flourish when people need answers in times of stress.
"Conspiracy theories tend to emerge when important things happen that people want to make sense of," she said. "In particular, they tend to emerge in times of crisis when people feel worried and threatened. They grow and thrive under conditions of uncertainty."
Douglas added that "it is difficult to argue all conspiracy theories are malicious," and said that more often than not conspiracy theories stem from people wanting to try to make sense of difficult situations.
"Unique ingredients" make conspiracy theories spread
In terms of what makes a particular theory spread, Jolley explained that a number of elements need to be in place.
"To achieve popularity and longevity, a conspiracy theory requires some unique ingredients coming together. The event or overarching issue needs to be significant, the conspirators need to be realistic (i.e., a tightly formed group), and the ground needs to be fertile."
Simply put: a conspiracy theory needs to appeal directly to people who will be willing to believe it, exactly at a time when they're most likely to believe it, and there needs to be a group or organization to blame.
"Take COVID-19 as an example," Jolley continued. "It is a significant event that people are trying to understand. The ground was fertile because COVID bred feelings of uncertainty and anxiety. These aspects meant conspiracy theories grew and thrived."
Jolley noted that conspiracy theories about 5G's purportedly detrimental impact on human health have existed for a while, but in 2020, the theory went from "a fringe to a mainstream belief when the narrative was applied to COVID-19." According to Jolley, this is a perfect example of a conspiracy theory existing for some time, but only being able to flourish when people are feeling vulnerable and are open to believing something they might otherwise dismiss.
In April 2020, an article in The New York Times reported that "baseless" theories about 5G and COVID resulted in "more than 100 incidents" in a month in the U.K. alone, which included a wireless tower in Birmingham being set ablaze.
Of course, nobody can be expected to take everything they read or hear at face value, so what distinguishes a conspiracy theorist from someone who is merely skeptical?
"We can all be a bit paranoid at times, especially if we're down or feeling a bit vulnerable. It's part of human nature," Drochon said. "But the difference for conspiracy theorists is that no amount of new information will challenge the core belief. Have you ever tried convincing a conspiracy theorist that 9/11 was not an inside job?"
Confirmation bias and echo chambers
But why do people fall for — and ultimately cling to — certain conspiracy theories? What is the allure of believing in something that is outlandish or implausible, even in the face of contradictory evidence?
"We desire to feel in control, feel certain, and feel close to those similar to us, and a conspiracy theory can enable this," Jolley said.
Research suggests that a majority of people (65%) regard themselves as having "above average" intelligence, something researchers attribute to people's "tendency to overrate one's cognitive abilities." This lack of self-awareness, as well as confirmation bias and exposure to echo chambers, could also play a role, Jolley suggested.
"Once a belief forms, people are keen to defend it," Jolley said. "They are likely to digest content that supports that belief and seek to discredit information that is not supportive. Coupled with a worldview centered on distrust towards others, you can see how someone can find themselves down the rabbit hole."
Are there certain groups of people who are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories? Or are we all at risk of becoming staunch supporters of outrageous hypotheses?
"You'll find conspiracy theorists across all walks of life, but there are some who are more susceptible," Drochon said. "It's about exclusion, or a feeling of exclusion; maybe not having a job or being single, for example," he added.
"Sometimes we say religious people are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories because they adopt a Manichean view of the world — good versus evil — but it's more complicated than that," Drochon said. "It's often about being in a minority position, so if you are highly religious in a secularized world you're more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, but if you're highly atheist in a religious world, you will also be susceptible."
According to Douglas, we all have the potential to fall foul of conspiracy theories if the conditions are right.
"Research suggests people are attracted to conspiracy theories when one or more psychological needs are frustrated," Douglas said. "The first of these needs are epistemic — related to the need to know the truth and have clarity and certainty. The other needs are existential, which are related to the need to feel safe and to have some control over things that are happening, and social, related to the need to maintain our self-esteem and feel positive about the groups that we belong to."
Because of this, no one is entirely immune from the lure of a conspiracy theory, Douglas said.
"Anyone can fall prey to conspiracy theories if they have psychological needs that are not being met at any particular time."
Originally published on Live Science.
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Joe Phelan is a journalist based in London. His work has appeared in VICE, National Geographic, World Soccer and The Blizzard, and has been a guest on Times Radio. He is drawn to the weird, wonderful and under examined, as well as anything related to life in the Arctic Circle. He holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Chester.