A psychologist explains why people believe in conspiracy theories
Tinfoil hats at the ready, conspiracy theories have become plentiful during the pandemic with many factors helping this process.
In the wake of the US Capitol riot and the COVID-19 pandemic, conspiracy theories are running rampant. Whether it’s the idea that the world is being run by Satan-loving paedophiles or that coronavirus is spread by 5G technology, for those of us for whom such claims seem outlandish and ridiculous, it is extremely difficult to understand why anyone would believe them. However, psychology researchers have uncovered a range of explanatory factors, from basic perceptual processes to emotional issues.
For instance, while all of us can be prone to seeing illusory patterns (such as a face in the clouds), a study led by Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam showed that this tendency is heightened among believers in conspiracy theories. This means they are likely to see apparent connections between disparate events that the rest of us just don’t notice.
Of course, many conspiracy theories make claims that are factually incorrect or they are based on fundamentally flawed logic. Unfortunately, believers in the theories are not only more likely to see illusory connections, research shows they are also less likely to have had the kind of education or have the critical thinking skills necessary to help them see the glaring holes in their wild theories.
At the same time, believers in conspiracies often have an inflated sense of their own intellectual competence – research led by the late Scott Lilienfeld at Emory University in Atlanta showed that in personality trait terms, believers tend to be lower in ‘intellectual humility’. Ignorance combined with overconfidence creates a fertile ground for unsubstantiated beliefs to take hold.
There is also a powerful emotional component to conspiracy theory beliefs, which helps explain why they can be so difficult to challenge. Believing in a widely discredited theory – and feeling part of a community of fellow believers – can help to satisfy some people’s need to feel special, according to research.
Studies have also shown believers are also more prone to anxiety and a sense that they lack control – feelings alleviated by subscribing to a conspiracy theory being spread with such apparent conviction by others.
- What makes a conspiracy theory?
- Why do people behave differently in a crowd?
- Why do people ‘humblebrag’?
- Why do some people take more risks?
Asked by: Daniel Hutchinson, Dover
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Dr Christian Jarrett is a cognitive neuroscientist, science writer and author. He is the Deputy Editor of Psyche, the sister magazine to Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophy and the arts. Jarrett also created the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and was the first ever staff journalist on the Society's magazine, The Psychologist. He is author of Great Myths of The Brain and Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change.
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