Psychology for living: why do people believe in conspiracy theories?

A conspiracy theory is a belief that some individual or secret influential group is responsible for a circumstance created to serve themselves. It is assumed there are malevolent intentions. Examples of such theories are that the 9/11 was an inside job by a secret group within America, or that the royal family was behind Princess Diana’s death.

There have been many conspiracy theories around the Covid 19. Central is the theory that instead of preventing the spread of deadly infectious diseases, vaccines make people ill and that this has been covered up by pharmaceutical companies and governments. Some believe the Covid vaccines are an attempt by Bill Gates to microchip humanity.

Theories that hold that Covid is a cover-up, include that the virus is not real, that illness is caused not by a virus, but instead caused by radiation from 5G towers, that it was created in a Chinese lab as a bioweapon, or that the vaccines were designed to restructure our DNA. There is no evidence for any of these beliefs.

People are drawn to conspiracy theories for several reasons. First is the desire to have information, they want to know the truth when something unsettling has happened. Second is that people are drawn to these theories when there is uncertainty. Often they have not been taught the tools to differentiate between good or credible sources, and bad or non-credible sources.

People who feel powerless and disillusioned tend to gravitate more towards conspiracy theories. Espousing these theories can make them feel good about themselves by feeling they have access to information others don’t necessarily have. They often suggest that others who do not accept the conspiracy theories are sheep, or “drank the kool-aid,” while they have “the truth.”

Experts suggest that when misinformation offers simple, causal explanations, even if unverified, it gives many a sense of agency or control. The feel they know what is “really” going on. People who have high anxiety, feel insecure in their relationships or their lives, and who tend to catastrophize life’s problems, are more likely to believe conspiracy theories.

The more isolated they feel, and the more they refuse to believe evidence that disproves their theories, the more they deepen their involvement in those theories. It is also common for those people to further isolate themselves from anyone who challenges them.

These beliefs can turn in to a conspiracy theory addiction. Such individuals may seek out information to support what they already believe is true. This is exacerbated in those who have less tolerance for uncertainty, or with lower analytical abilities and thus are more likely to embrace these theories.

Their strong need for understanding and consistency can lead to addictive behaviors, such as spending excessive time on the internet, and becoming less involved with relationships and responsibilities.

It does not help to ridicule others, or try to prove them wrong. If someone wants our opinion about what is true or false, we can present facts from credible sources. I have seen arguments tear families apart. This is one of those things about which it is best, in my view, to agree to disagree, and then change the subject.

Gwen Randall-Young is an author and award-winning psychologist. For permission to reprint this article, or to obtain books, CDs or MP3s, visit Follow Gwen on Facebook for inspiration.