Do you have a friend or family member who is convinced that the Earth is flat? Vaccines cause Autism? 9/11 was an inside job? Have you ever experienced the frustration of talking to them about it?
A conspiracy theory is an unfounded but deeply held belief that is accompanied by the belief that the “truth” has been covered up in some elaborate and sinister plot to fool the masses. The “conspiracy” part is not the belief itself, but the belief in a cover-up by some large and powerful group. A conspiracy theorist will often gather “evidence” that supports their views, while ignoring or dismissing credible evidence to the contrary. Conspiracy theorists are known for talking themselves up about having special knowledge while disparaging nonbelievers as being “sheep” who have wool pulled over their eyes.
Conspiracy theories aren’t new to society. For example, the Flat Earth Society has been around for a couple of centuries. In the age of the internet, however, outlandish beliefs abound, and fellow theorists are easy to find. Mass media has led to much more visibility of conspiracy theories and their believers. Additionally, when people like movie stars and politicians endorse a conspiracy theory, it tends to fuel the belief in others.
Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?
Conspiracy theorists are famous for cherry-picking data. Incredibly, they tend to discount peer-reviewed scientific research in favor of YouTube videos and anecdotal data. Therefore, I find it somewhat amusing that I consulted only the peer-reviewed literature to determine why people believe these theories in the first place.
Paranoia is associated with belief in conspiracy theories. Imhoff & Lamberty (2018) discovered that these individuals harbor paranoid ideations about large, powerful groups, such as the government, large corporations, and even Hollywood celebrities. They tend to have significant difficulties with trust. Hawley (2019) wrote that conspiracy theorists distrust standard sources of information and believe that they have unique insight into the shadowy underpinnings of the belief at hand. They may scour the internet for information that fits their belief and readily disregard information that does not.
This doesn’t mean that all conspiracy theorists are mentally ill. Sure, some of their beliefs may be delusional, but that doesn’t mean they have a diagnosable mental disorder. Certainly, some conspiracy theorists have a mental illness, but that does not necessarily mean that the conspiracy theory is caused by or even related to the illness.
Political extremism on both the “left” and the “right” is also associated with belief in conspiracy theories (Prooijen, Krouwel, & Pollett, 2015). This is not to say that political party affiliation causes people to believe in conspiracy, but perhaps whatever led the person to harbor radical political positions may also contribute to their unfounded beliefs.
There may be personality differences in those who believe in conspiracy theories vs. those who don’t. Green & Douglas (2018) found that an anxious attachment style was significantly correlated with belief in conspiracy theories, while the avoidant and secure attachment styles were not. This was true even when controlling for other known predictors, such as right-wing authoritarianism, level of interpersonal trust, and demographic factors.
Conspiracy theorists will readily engage logical fallacies in their efforts to maintain their beliefs:
Ad hominem: “You’re just a sheep, that’s why you can’t see that I’m right."
Straw man: “Vaccines are awful! How could you even think of injecting your child with poison?!” or “Jet fuel can’t melt steel beams!”
False dichotomy: “You believe people actually landed on the moon? Wow, you believe everything the government tells you!”
False analogy: “The Twin Towers must have been brought down by bombs planted by the government, because buildings demolished by dynamite fall down the same way.”
My own feeling is that some people are simply motivated by a deep yearning for identity and to feel special and important. We are all driven to find meaning in our lives. Perhaps those who struggle with that experience a touch of satisfaction in their conviction that they hold unique knowledge about the world.
Are you seeing some of these traits in your conspiracy-theorist friend or family member?
How do I deal with people like this?
It is unlikely that you will be successful at convincing a die-hard conspiracy theorist to change their beliefs. Providing them with evidence to the contrary isn’t likely to help, as their “research” is already littered with confirmation bias. They are not interested in the systematic and logical pursuit of knowledge that is the scientific method. When faced with evidence to the contrary, a conspiracy theorist may dismiss the evidence as being part of the nefarious plot to hide the “truth,” or they may criticize you, the deliverer of the message.
If your conspiracy theorist loved one’s belief is harming someone else, take appropriate action. For example, if your aunt believes prescription drugs are mind-control devices the government dispenses to control us and refuses to give her child needed medication, a call to your area child protective services or law enforcement is in order. Otherwise, if no real harm arises from the belief, there are two good choices:
1. Set boundaries. Say, “I know you are convinced that this is true, but I’m not, and I’m not interested in hearing any more about this. In order for us to get along, it’s important that we just not talk about this topic anymore.”
2. If setting boundaries does not work, you may have to distance yourself from the person. Many conspiracy theorists truly believe that they are correct and that the rest of the world is deluded. They believe their “truth” as much as you believe the sun rises and sets every day. You will not talk them out of it, and if they refuse to stop trying to convert you or berate you for being “blind to the truth,” you may have to cease contact with them.
In closing, I will leave you with this light-hearted joke found somewhere on Reddit:
Three conspiracy theorists walk into a bar.
You can't tell me that's just a coincidence.
Green, R. & Douglas, K. M. (2018). Anxious attachment and belief in conspiracy theories. Personality and Individual Differences, 125, 30-37. DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2017.12.023
Hawley, K. (2019). Conspiracy theories, impostor syndrome, and distrust. Philosophical Studies. doi:10.1007/s11098-018-1222-4
Imhoff, R., & Lamberty, P. (2018). How paranoid are conspiracy believers? Toward a more fine-grained understanding of the connect and disconnect between paranoia and belief in conspiracy theories. European Journal of Social Psychology, 48(7), 909-926. doi:10.1002/ejsp.2494
Prooijen, J. V., Krouwel, A. P., & Pollet, T. V. (2015). Political Extremism Predicts Belief in Conspiracy Theories. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6(5), 570-578. doi:10.1177/1948550614567356