Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?

“That isn’t real”, “it’s all a scam”, “Don’t believe them”, “Our government is doing it”, “Obama’s birth certificate…” I think we have all heard or seen someone’s conspiracy theory.

It might surprise you to learn that a startling amount of people believe in conspiracies. Researchers and political scientists, Joseph E. Uscinski and Joseph M. Parent found that about one-third of Americans believe that Obama is a foreigner and that his birth certificate was fake. Just as many Americans blame 9/11 on the Bush administration and believe it was created by our own government. Their research also shows that people who believe in conspiracies come from all walks of life; there is not a certain type. People of all ages, political affiliations, income levels, races and educational levels have all taken part in believing in one or multiple conspiracies.

Michael Shermer for Scientific American reports “Liberals are more likely to suspect that media sources and political parties are pawns of rich capitalists and corporations, whereas conservatives tend to believe that academics and liberal elites control these same institutions. GMO conspiracy theories are embraced primarily by those on the left (who accuse, for example, Monsanto of conspiring to destroy small farmers), whereas climate change conspiracy theories are endorsed primarily by those on the right (who inculpate, for example, academic climate scientists for manipulating data to destroy the American economy).”

Proving that everyone can believe in conspiracies, Shermer says “African-Americans are more likely to believe that the CIA planted crack cocaine in inner-city neighborhoods. White Americans are more likely to believe that the government is conspiring to tax the rich to support welfare queens and turn the country into a socialist utopia.”

Human minds are built to constantly look for patterns. If we do not understand something or do not have the full story, the mind likes to fill in the gaps and create its own pattern. Many of us create a story or pattern to try and understand reality.

When so many people are involved in press releases and events, some truth or fact can be hidden or ignored causing the public to lose trust and create their own stories. It may also be hard to trust officials when actual scandals like Watergate have happened.

Although people may build up stories to fill in the answers they don’t know, research also shows that people who believe in one conspiracy are more likely to believe in many. Published Researcher Viren Swami, a psychology professor who studies conspiracy belief at the University of Westminster in England found that:

“Believers are more likely to be cynical about the world in general and politics in particular. Conspiracy theories also seem to be more compelling to those with low self-worth, especially with regard to their sense of agency in the world at large. Conspiracy theories appear to be a way of reacting to uncertainty and powerlessness. If you know the truth and others don’t, that’s one way you can reassert feelings of having agency.”

Maggie Koerth-Baker, contributor to the New York Times adds, “it can be comforting to do your own research even if that research is flawed. It feels good to be the wise old goat in a flock of sheep .”

A recent poll conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University says 63 percent of registered American voters believe in at least one political conspiracy theory.

“Encouragingly, Uscinski and Parent found that education makes a difference in reducing conspiratorial thinking: 42 percent of those without a high school diploma are high in conspiratorial predispositions, compared with 23 percent with postgraduate degrees. Even so, that means more than one in five Americans with postgraduate degrees show a high predisposition for conspiratorial belief. As an educator, I find this disturbing.” Says Shermer.

Shermer concludes “The common theme throughout is power—who has it and who wants it—and so the authors conclude their inquiry with an observation translated by Parent from Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince (a conspiracy manual of sorts), for “the strong desire to rule, and the weak desire not to be ruled.”


Why the internet still doesn’t help disregard conspiracy theory or confirm truth.

While we are able to reference the internet in any scenario, be it what roles Jared Leto has played, what your friend posted on Twitter yesterday, or what the local news has reported recently, oddly enough, the more accessible the information, the increase in conspiracy theories. Confirmation bias : the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions, comes into play and is hard to overcome.

Many studies have been done on our built in confirmation bias including a less controversial  one about how hard to read fonts can help slow down our confirmation biases and how it slows down people's bias because they spend time trying to figure out what it says.

Another problem, one you wouldn’t think  would be a problem, is something political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler identified in 2006 as the “Backfire Effect”. (Check out our previous article on backfire effect, if you haven’t already to learn more about it). If facts presented do not favor someone’s worldview, people can actually become more convinced they are right regardless of what the facts prove. This leaves some to think the facts are actually made-up because they are defending what they believe to be false.

Swami says “The Internet and other media have helped perpetuate paranoia. Not only does more exposure to these alternative narratives help engender belief in conspiracies, but the Internet’s tendency toward tribalism helps reinforce misguided beliefs .”

While it may seem okay to let conspiracy theory believers be, there can be serious implications. For example, on issues related to health those who believe the conspiracy about not vaccinating their children can cause a dangerous outbreak from something that could have been eradicated. If only one person believes it is a conspiracy and decides not to vaccinate their children that effect can be seen in the health of millions of other people.

“Psychologists aren’t sure whether powerlessness causes conspiracy theories or vice versa. Either way, the current scientific thinking suggests these beliefs are nothing more than an extreme form of cynicism, a turning away from politics and traditional media — which only perpetuates the problem .”

Psychologically, it makes sense for our amygdala to jump into action and over-analyze in an attempt to try and coherently understand something shocking. Our brain naturally tries to decipher if any threat still exists or is lying dormant for means of survival.

Biology still remains our closest ally in helping us understand motives and reactions. If we can understand why people do something, we can better understand how we might want to react before we create our own action from it.



Is there anything you believe to be true that is considered a conspiracy? What convinced you?