Why people believe in conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories have been around for as long as we can remember. From the “Flat-Earth-Society”, denial of the moon landing, crop circles to climate change denial. We are all searching for answers to events that shape our society. Especially for the ones which are not sufficiently explained yet. Since the outbreak of Covid-19, not only has there been a particular increase in conspiracy theories, but also an increased belief in them. They have quietly found their place in our everyday lives, creeping into our private conversations, conquering the front pages of print media, and littering the Internet and social media. But what are conspiracy theories? Where do they come from and why do we believe in them?

It is probably most helpful to begin with a definition of this looming phenomenon. Researchers K. M. Douglas, R. M. Sutton, and A. Cichocka of the School of Psychology at the University of Kent provide the following definition:

Conspiracy theories are: «explanations for important events that involve secret plots by powerful and malevolent groups”.[1]

They illustrate, for example, the condemnation and distrust of an individual or group towards the activity of the government. History shows that predominantly in times of crisis and periods of uncertainty, people adopt a more critical stance and desperately seek answers. Thus, it is not surprising that no-vax theories and COVID-19 denial are gaining increasing support. But what makes people believe in such seemingly absurd theories? We want to get to the bottom of this.

So, why do we believe in conspiracy theories?

To reveal the reason behind the phenomenon and break down its complexity, it must be analyzed from a psychological perspective. We are attracted to conspiracy theories because they satisfy deep psychological needs. Based on these needs, three dominant motives can be identified that provide an explanation for the tendency to believe in conspiracy theories.

  • The epistemic motive addresses the human desire for knowledge and certainty. During major events that shake our society, people look for the why behind them. It is a natural pursuit to find a truth and a sense of security. Times of great change and uncertainty particularly evoke this need in many people.
  • The existential motive is the answer to a need for power and control. People do not like to feel powerless. In times of crisis, conspiracy theories provide the missing information here and give back a sense of control and autonomy in order to feel powerful and secure.
  • The social motive illustrates the classic psychological need to feel good about oneself. On an individual level, this means feeling confident through access to information that others do not necessarily have. When people believe they know the truth, they feel superior and unique. This is exactly what increases their self-esteem and makes them feel good about themselves. Such a dynamic can be observed not only in individuals but also in groups.[2]

To illustrate these motives, let’s take the example of a very dominant conspiracy-theory group: QAnon, also known as “Q”.

QAnon

QAnon is a U.S-based group that has been spreading conspiracy theories since 2017, often with a far-right political undertone, and that has grown in popularity in recent months. The group’s central claim is that a Satanic elite of pedophiles is kidnapping children, murdering them, and creating a rejuvenation drug on their extracted blood. Their goal is to fight this global elite, which they call “The Deep State” or “The Cabal.” They support a Republican political leadership under Donald J. Trump and believe in the notion that Democratic politicians like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are plotting a coup to turn the U.S. into a dictatorship, thereby threatening U.S. representative democracy. The information this group believes in supposedly comes from “Q”, a mysterious figure who posts cryptic clues online. QAnon is partly responsible for the conspiracy theory on “Pizzagate”.[3]

In order to better understand this grouping and its background, its intentions can also be examined in terms of the three motives mentioned above.

First, its members exhibit an epistemic motive in that they appear to provide protection from this global elite and state that they are fighting them to prevent the demise of U.S. democracy.

Although the identity of Q is unknown, QAnon supporters are convinced that Q is an individual or individuals who have access to highly sensitive data that reveals the truth. Q’s audience is encouraged to piece together and interpret important information from the few encrypted messages that are published, which have numerous gaps. This creates the dangerous illusion that Q is providing valuable information when in fact very little is being revealed. This the conspiracy’s existential motive: give its followers the feeling of being superior and of having more information and thus more security and control.

Additionally, there is a social motive within the group dynamic. QAnon uses the acronym WWG1WGA, which stands for “Where We Go One, We Go All”, as well as the proclamation “We save the children”. With these wordings, they are stating a humanitarian cause and seeking support. Their signature phrase “Trust the Plan” also speaks to the deep psychological need to believe in something given and to feel safe. This gives Q extreme power and entices many people to join the grouping. It is therefore important to recognize the group’s motives and intentions in order to better assess its intentions and information.

Who believes in conspiracy theories?

We are currently living in an age of information overload. One can find a supposed explanation everywhere and for every topic. However, assessing this information correctly and differentiating between reliable and deceptive sources is not always easy. Education helps us to better assess such sources. In fact, less-educated people who have a lower tendency to think analytically are more susceptible to conspiracy theories. People who feel powerless and are disillusioned also have a higher tendency to believe in them and age equally has an influence here. And younger people show a higher risk of being exposed to misinformation and incorporating it into their belief system. Additionally, character traits such as narcissism can exacerbate this. The correlation between narcissism and belief in conspiracy theories lies in the need to feel superior and unique. Evidence has shown that a certain type of personality is more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, however, we are all potential targets for misinformation.

Misinformation as the fundamental problem

One explanation for the increasing support and number of conspiracy theories may be related to the increasing use of social media. Through the Internet, it is easier than ever to get information. It has fundamentally changed the way we communicate and access information. Unfortunately, it has also increased the spread of misinformation. Nowadays, you can meet like-minded people and find support much faster via the Internet. This can polarize attitudes towards conspiracy theories and reinforce opinions that often have no factual basis. 

Addressing this problem is a major challenge. Given the fact that one can’t stop this information overload, what we have to change is the way we deal with it. Once a conspiracy theory is spread and we have formed an opinion, it is almost impossible to break it. The problem of misinformation must be addressed in advance. Research has shown that a pre-warning for misinformation can prevent people from believing in conspiracy theories. This means that confronting people with factual information before they are exposed to a conspiracy theory makes them more resistant to falsehood. We should therefore be aware of the dangers of misinformation and be conscious of how we should handle information and its sources in our fast-paced environment. Investing in early education could be a good approach to this problem, so that no conspiracy theory may fool us anymore.  

Find out more about the danger of false information and its threat to liberal democracy in our previous article: False information: a dangerous threat to liberal democracy.


[1] Douglas, Sutton, Cichocka 2017: Karen M. Douglas, Robbie M. Sutton, Aleksandra Cichocka, The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories, in: Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2017, Vol. 26, No. 6, S.538-542.

[2] Douglas, Sutton, Cichocka 2017: Karen M. Douglas, Robbie M. Sutton, Aleksandra Cichocka, The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories, in: Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2017, Vol. 26, No. 6, S.538-542.

[3] How three conspiracy theorists took ‘Q’ and sparked QAnon, NBC News, 14th August 2018.

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