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Why Do People Believe in Conspiracy Theories?

5G waves caused COVID. The moon landing was fake. The government is run by lizard people, and Bush did 9/11.

These are all conspiracy theories ranging in outlandishness, but many individuals hold each of these theories as truths despite being confronted with evidence disputing their claims. What causes people to believe in these things that most of the population finds ridiculous?

While certain traits have been found to predispose people into believing in conspiracies, anyone is susceptible. According to social psychologist Dr. Karen Douglas, it is adaptive to be suspicious about the actions of others. This suspiciousness stems from three psychological motives: epistemic, existential, and social.

The epistemic motive drives the need for information and certainty. An event occurs (for example, COVID), and the explanation is often unsatisfying to people who want to understand what happened. When this is the case, people turn to more satisfying – albeit potentially outlandish – explanations. Consequently, conspiracy theories are more compelling to people with lower levels of education, who lack the tools to discern between credible and incredible sources leading them to stumble into misinformation.

Next, existential motives for conspiracy theories result from the need of an individual to feel safe and in control in their world. When a large-scale event occurs, like COVID or the moon landing, people go to conspiracy theories to explain their lack of control and find something on which they can place blame.

Last is social motives. Social motives encompass the desire to fit in and feel good about one’s standing in social groups. This motive ties into why narcissism has been associated with a higher tendency to subscribe to conspiracy theories. Those with narcissistic traits enjoy standing apart from the crowd by having information others do not possess; that sense of individuality causes people to feel better about themselves. Information accuracy does not seem to matt[1]er.

In addition to these psychological motives, doctoral candidate Cameron Kay at the University of Oregon identified traits associated with higher levels of belief in conspiracy theories among undergraduates at the University of Oregon. These traits, known as "the Dark Tetrad," include Machiavellianism (manipulativeness and cynicism), narcissism (vanity and self-obsession), psychopathy (impulsivity and callousness), and sadism (cruelty and abusiveness). Kay attributes these associations to “the tendency of disagreeable personalities to hold odd beliefs, be fatalistic, and distrust others” (Christie).

Not everyone who believes in conspiracies possesses these Dark Tetrad traits, however. Many fall victim to biases that affect almost everyone, and those coupled with the aforementioned psychological motives can lead people to even the most out-there conspiracies. One such bias is the jumping to conclusions bias, which is, as the name suggests, the tendency of a person to make up their mind about things quickly without consulting evidence (Rogers and Mithani). Another factor is illusory pattern perception, where people pick out patterns in situations where there are none. While most people experience both of these biases at least once in their lives, conspiracy theorists do so more frequently than non-conspiracy theorists (Rogers and Mithani).

Yet another factor that leads to the subscription of conspiracy theories is exposure. Even dismissing a conspiratorial idea at first introduction is not permanent, behavioral scientist Gordon Pennycook explains, and beliefs can seep in with repeated exposure.

With all of these factors associated with conspiracists, combatting beliefs in false information is a daunting task. The most effective method is to inoculate people against misinformation. Like with viral inoculations, scientists can give people a weak piece of misinformation. If the initial exposure to the information is unconvincing, that facilitates resistance to more harmful and convincing misinformation.

Unfortunately, once people fully commit to their conspiracy, convincing them of anything otherwise is challenging. They adopt these ideas into their core personality. From there, any attack on those ideas becomes an attack on themselves, leading to a defensive reaction. In some cases, neutral presentation of the facts contradicting their belief has been effective, but that has been far from a foolproof solution (Douglas). The best bet to discouraging misinformation is to take a preventative approach.


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