From Reptile Overlords to Rubella Outbreaks: The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories
Our lives are filled with events that are unexplained and sometimes unimaginable, events that challenge the very way we understand how the world works. Sometimes, when things get tough, we can believe that the world is “against us” or that other people are somehow controlling our lives, leading us to wonder whether we may all just be part of one big episode of Black Mirror. Conspiracy beliefs can appear and spread suddenly, as in the case of theories involving COVID-19 suggesting that the virus was created in a laboratory or that the pandemic is caused by 5G cell phone towers.
As weird as many conspiracy ideas may be, research suggests that conspiratorial thinking can serve a purpose. As Richard Hofstadter suggested in The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964), people may jump to strange explanations surrounding life’s events to retain their belief that the world is consistent and predictable.
What are the ingredients of a Conspiracy Theory?
A Conspiracy Theory is a set of false beliefs suggesting that some event is result of a malevolent plot by multiple actors to carry out some goal for their own selfish purposes. To demonstrate, put your tin-foil hats on and consider the following example drawn from famous conspiracist David Icke:
The government is run by a self-interested intelligent group of reptiles (actors) that brainwash the general public (malevolent plot) to manipulate the world-order to their benefit (self-serving goal).
Although such extraordinary beliefs have an interesting appeal, one of their key features is that they rely on vague, baseless premises that cannot be proven wrong. Without premises that can be disproved, an idea like Icke’s reptilian theory requires little investment to adopt but a large amount of evidence to disprove. Such beliefs also tend to view everyone except “the 1%” as a victim of injustice, which helps people finds reason for otherwise unreasonable life experiences, especially those that involve mistreatment or unfairness.
If taken seriously, the whole reptile idea can be frightening, but most people disregard it as an intriguing idea without any noteworthy implications. However, some conspiracy beliefs can pose serious problems, especially in the field of public health.
For example, international polls suggest that anti-vaccination conspiracy theories regarding the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccination have caused vaccination rates to fall well below the required 95% threshold needed for herd immunity in a number of first-world countries, including the United Kingdom. Similar issues have surfaced regarding the treatment of Human immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) in people who are over 60 years old. Health experts have cited conspiracy beliefs as a prominent problem when diagnosing patients with HIV, with some people refusing to believe that the disease exists.
In light of such issues and the intriguing nature of conspiracy belief, I wondered what factors predispose people to believe conspiracy theory beliefs. Based on the vast research literature on the topic, such factors fall into three general categories.
1. The Worried and the Slightly Wacky
Clinically-oriented research has focused on schizotypy – a personality trait that involves paranoia and peculiar mannerisms similar to extreme states of psychosis, especially schizophrenia. Simply put, schizotypal individuals struggle to separate fictitious from credible information, and they tend to connect dots that otherwise should not connect when explaining events. Cognitive research has also shown that people high in schizotypy fixate on the finer details of an event and remain stubborn in their beliefs, rather than examine the belief’s overall logic.
2. Thinking Fast and Slow
Based on a theory made famous by psychologist and author Daniel Kahneman, lower rates of analytical thinking may be a risk factor for conspiracy theory beliefs. Analytical thinking is generally slower and more systematic than intuitive thinking. The more people engage in analytical thought, the more likely they are to take their time and identify the consistencies or questionable premises a conspiracy theory can hold.
3. “When life gives you lemons, you ______”
Believing conspiracy theories may sometimes be reflection of people’s position in life. There are sometimes reasonable grounds for people to be suspicious and distrustful. For example, people who are of low socio-economic status or who live in countries in which engagement in political affairs is low might reasonably feel disadvantaged and likely to distrust mainstream societal views. Hence, beliefs in conspiracy theories may simply reflect a person’s feelings of powerlessness and mistreatment.
Although evidence exists that supports each of these three explanations of conspiracy beliefs, no research has directly examined which view best predicts strong beliefs in conspiracy theories. So, I examined the degree to which each of these three explanations helps us to understand people’s belief in conspiracy theories.
First, of the characteristics measured, schizotypy and delusion-proneness were most strongly related to the degree to which people believed conspiracy theories. So, people who tend have slightly peculiar and sometimes dysfunctional thinking styles are more likely to find the irrational ideas suggested by conspiracy theories to be logical.
Second, the more highly educated people were, the more they used analytical thinking, and the less likely they were to believe in conspiracy theories. It’s not clear whether higher education makes people more analytical or whether more analytical people tend to become more educated. But, in either case, education was related to lower conspiracy beliefs. Interestingly, people trained in the arts were more likely to adopt conspiracy beliefs than those in other fields. Third, environmental factors, such as socio-economic status, were not related to conspiracy beliefs.
So, the more people can take a step back and evaluate a conspiracy theory and its consequences through analytical thought – an ability that can be nurtured through education -- the more likely they will dismiss conspiracy theories as lacking logic or credibility. But the less people use analytical thinking, and the more they have peculiar ways of making decisions (as in the case of schizotypy), the more likely they are to regard the peculiar ideas suggested by a conspiracy theory as correct.
The takeaway from all of this?
In our current socially isolated situation, where our health is a priority, to “question everything” can often mean to disrupt accepted and relied-upon practices. There is a fine line between healthy scepticism and cynicism. As the old adage goes, “all good things come in moderation,” and based on our research, good things do not always come from convincing the masses of the next reptilian revolution. It is more important than ever to evaluate the consequences of believing in conspiracies.
For Further Reading
Georgiou, N., Delfabbro P., & Balzan R., (2019) Conspiracy Beliefs in the general population: The importance of psychopathology, cognitive style and educational attainment, Personality and Individual Differences, 151 (109521), doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2019.109521
Balzan R., Delfabbro P., Galletly C., & Woodward T.S. (2013b). Illusory correlations and control across the psychosis continuum: The contribution of hypersalient evidence-hypothesis matches. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 201, 319-327.
Barron, D., Morgan, K., Towell, T., Altemeyer B., & Swami, V. (2014) Associations between schizotypy, and belief in conspiracist ideation. Personality and Individual Differences, 70, 159-159., doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2015.06.040.
Van Prooijen, J.W. (2017) Why education predicts decreased belief in conspiracy theories, Applied Cognitive Psychology, 31, 50-58, doi: 10.1002/acp3301.
Neophytos Georgiou is a doctoral student in clinical psychology at the University of Adelaide, Australia.