You may think of conspiracy theories as a fringe set of beliefs not to be taken seriously. However, they are increasingly relevant and harmful in today’s society and dismissing them will only worsen their impact.
In fact, a surprisingly high proportion of us hold conspiracy beliefs, with one YouGov survey showing that 60% of people in the UK believe in at least one conspiracy theory.
Currently, the most dangerous conspiracy theories are held by anti-vaxxers. You may have laughed at videos of people holding magnets to their injected arms in an attempt to prove they have been implanted with government tracking chips, but these ideas have life threatening consequences for public health. In the US, huge resources have been wasted disproving alleged UFO sightings and the legitimacy of Obama’s birth certificate.
Frustrating as it may be, we need to be careful not to dismiss these phenomena, as it will only further isolate and radicalise conspiracy theorists.
These beliefs are not evenly distributed across society. Those who believe in one conspiracy theory are more likely to believe in a host of others as well. For example, one study found that those who think princess Diana had been assassinated by the royal family were also more likely to think that she is still alive hiding in a far off island, despite the fact that these two beliefs are directly contradictory.
Interestingly, there are a number of psychological traits that are common across conspiracy theorists that are worth unpacking. These traits affect us all in one way or another, but they are generally found in higher levels amongst those holding radical beliefs.
Firstly, conspiracy theorists often lack self-esteem. Paradoxically, this link is also paired with a tendency towards narcissism. Perhaps this is because conspiracy theories offer a feeling of superiority and uniqueness for those individuals who are also craving relief from perceived low self-worth.
Secondly, conspiracy theories flourish in times of uncertainty and when people feel a lack of control – which may help explain why such theories have proliferated in the pandemic. When people feel powerless, conspiracy theories offer certainty. People start to believe that agency does not lie within but instead in powerful entities such as government bodies. Ironically, this distrust of those in power means that conspiracy theorists put leaders on a pedestal by suggesting they have extraordinary control over important aspects of our lives.
Thirdly, the aptly named “bullshit receptivity” trait identified by researchers, has been shown to be a predictor of conspiracy theory beliefs. People who believed the significance of a randomly generated list of seemingly profound yet meaningless statements such as, “true faith unfolds through the light of timelessness” or “matter is a modality of sexual energy” were more likely to endorse conspiracy beliefs. These findings may indeed be due to the application of intuitive and less analytical thinking. (You can have a go at exploring your own “bullshit receptivity” here.)
It is important to recognise that many conspiracy theories take root because they often hold a kernel of truth. Indeed, the belief that coronavirus began in a Wuhan lab was once considered a conspiracy now seems to hold more evidence.
Before passing judgement on these people, it is worth noting that we live in a post-truth world, littered with corruption and misinformation. Ex-president Donald Trump thrived off muddying the waters with his references to “fake news”. With some leaders conspiring to manipulate and mislead the public, it is understandable that these theories seem particularly popular.
What does this mean going forward? It’s a challenge to respect the person holding a conspiracy theory whilst simultaneously encouraging critical thinking. In order to propel society away from damaging false beliefs, psychological security must be created. Here are some ways we might begin to address this:
- Concerted efforts to hold leaders accountable for spreading misinformation in order to restore some basic trust in our institutions
- Building on existing efforts to create a market for more balanced media and news
- Attempts to break-down echo-chambers of thought that often make conspiracy theories snowball
There is a certain arrogance in assuming that the full truth is always obvious and accessible. We must acknowledge that the boundary between truth and conspiracy is often blurred. So instead of dismissing those holding conspiracy theories as errant individuals, we should take responsibility for the deeper societal contexts that leave all of us more vulnerable to adopting these beliefs.
Aman Bains is a Global Future Intern studying Psychology at the University of Edinburgh. She is passionate about understanding the human mind and the reasons that people think and feel the way they do. She is also deeply interested in developing her knowledge of how psychological differences across cultures can give rise to social injustice and divided communities. She combines this with a deep love of philosophy, poetry and music.