Why People Believe Conspiracy Theories?

September 11th Attacks by VisualHunt

September 11th Attacks by VisualHunt

Conspiracy theories are nothing new to our society, and over time have become more attractive because of bias and beliefs.  According to Josh Hart, professor of psychology at Union College, people gravitate toward conspiracy theories during periods of widespread anxiety, uncertainty, and hardship. Conspiracy theories decrease social engagement and influence people’s decisions. These theories seem to threaten the social systems that Americans rely on. Believing in conspiracy theories help people make sense of the world when they feel their needs are threatened.

Conspiracy theories are an attempt to explain harmful or tragic events as a secret plot set up by a powerful group, such as the government. These theories are not facts, but an opinion formed by people who believe there is something that is kept hidden from the general public. Mostly all conspiracy theories derive from a belief that a group of people are secretly trying to harm citizens to achieve some greater control. For instance, people believe that the twin towers were destroyed by a controlled explosion set up by the Federal Government.  

Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?  

According to University of Chicago political science professors Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood, in any given year roughly half of Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory. Meaning, conspiracy theorists can be of any political, religious, and economic background. The human brain is wired to find conspiracy theories appealing. All human beings have a desire for understanding and certainty, causing them to seek explanations for tragic events. We are far more likely to accept a change when we understand the reason for it. Our acceptance pivots less on how much we like the change and more on how much sense the change makes. As humans we become so adapted to social normality, and when change arises, we struggle to accept it because it's not what we have learned and practiced. When the Sandy Hook shooting occurred people had a hard time believing it was real because a school shooting has never happened in a primary school. 

Psychologically everyone has cognitive biases according to Jan-Willem Van Prooijen, who believes these biases contribute to the appeal of conspiracy theories. These biases are: 

  • Confirmation bias: People's willingness to accept explanations that fit what they already believe. 

  • Proportionality bias: The inclination to believe that big events must have big causes. 

  • Illusory pattern perception: The tendency to see causal relations where there may not be any. 

Confirmation bias if the most powerful and pervasive cognitive bias in believing conspiracies. We all incline to give more belief in evidence that supports what we already believe and ignore evidence that contradicts our beliefs. Many real-world events that tend to become conspiracies are complex and unclear. Early reports of tragedies contain many errors and uncertainties, causing many people to search and create evidence to cover up these inconsistencies. In the Las Vegas shooting many people thought there were multiple shooters at first after seeing videos and hearing first person accounts. But after investigation, the FBI debunked the conspiracy and charged only one person. 

Alex Jones by Dechamps Comb

Alex Jones by Dechamps Comb

As humans we try to believe in things that make us feel better about our world and the people who live in it. Conspiracy theories are so persuasive because they serve a psychological function for people trying to cope with stressful events, such as a terrorist attack.

Prooijen states, “people need to blame the anxiety that they feel on different groups and the result is frequently conspiracy theories”. We can't always understand everything that happens to us, but we tend to want to understand what happened, and the tendency to assume the worst. Psychologists have found that people tend to adopt beliefs to fulfill emotional goals, such as the need to feel good about the events in the world. Basically, Chaos needs comfort. By believing in these theories people feel special and unique because it gives them a sense of possessing secret knowledge.

Alex Jones, host of Infowars, is a great example of someone who believes they possess secret knowledge. He warns many of his viewers that things are going to happen out of conspiracy, but never do.  

Beliefs in conspiracies tend to accord with political attitudes. Our brains are wired to protect the groups we are in making us ore venerable to attribute the actions of other groups to conspiracies. A study by Josh Hart, revealed that Republicans are more likely to believe governmental conspiracy theories when a Democrat is a president, and vice versa. For example, Republicans are more likely than Democrats to believe Obama is not a natural born citizen. On the other hand, Democrats are more likely to believe that Trump’s campaign conspired with the Russians. Both psychologists and political scientists believes there is an ideology (worldview) that drives people to see the world in terms of conspiracies. This ideology determines how people interpret new information, view leaders and authorities, and understand the world more generally.  Studies have found that left and rights tend to believe in different conspiracies due to what they support and want to believe. Conspiracy theories reinforce a belief that nothing in the world happens through coincidence. The refusal to recognize the role of chance leads people to develop a worldview, which creates conspiracies in all layers of societies. 

In the end, it's hard to change how people feel and think towards the things happening in our world. Debunking conspiracy theories maybe be easy but changing people beliefs toward certain things is nearly impossible. We must learn to understand the psychological triggers and motivations in order to minimize the influence and potential danger to conspiracy thinking. Conspiracy theories will continue to develop when people feel they are not in control of their lives and placed into a societal subgroup. 


Eli Wagner