Why do people believe conspiracy theories?

Consider this a companion piece to my last bit on flat earth ‘theories’ (and I use that term very loosely). The idea of a flat earth relies exclusively upon belief in conspiracy, that NASA and countless scientists are not only wrong, but they’re actively lying to you. You’ll see stuff like this all over Facebook, Instagram, etc:


Of course the interesting thing about memes like these is that there’s never a reason given for why NASA and the media would perpetrate such a massive hoax. We can assume that anyone who develops and perpetuates a conspiracy is doing it for some reason. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is rarely a motivation provided for these conspiracies. We’ll see why that’s not problematic for the believer in a moment.

Of course, the flat earth isn’t the only conspiracy out there. Climate change, vaccines, 9/11, cures for cancer or AIDS, weather control–take your pick. There are people out there who believe it and who disseminate that belief online via social media. The weather control one was a particularly new one for me, but I’ve seen it making the rounds lately:

Haap Patent Weather Modification Chemtails EMF

Well, at least here we have a motivation: military power. However, why would a secret government organization file a public patent for a top-secret weapon? That doesn’t make much sense, does it?

Whenever I look at these kinds of conspiracies, I’m struck by one common thread: they contradict themselves at an incredibly basic level. They set up these shadowy corporations or institutions as entities that are simultaneously both immensely powerful and yet completely incompetent. Take the HAARP example. Here we have a secretive government organization that has all this power and money and knowledge–they can even control the weather!–yet they’re so stupid that they file public patents, let photos of their devices leak onto the internet, etc.

None of that matters to the conspiracy theorist, because these conspiracy theories aren’t meant to appeal to a sense of reason or logic. That’s why they never provide evidence and they rarely provide a motivation. None of that matters, because conspiracy theories are designed to do one thing:

Mollify a perceived lack of control in the believer.  

But don’t take my word for it. There’s been research into why people believe conspiracy theories. This article from Psychology Today has some real gems in it for explaining the conspiracy theory phenomenon:

“Melley proposes that conspiracy thinking arises from a combination of two factors, when someone: 1) holds strong individualist values and 2) lacks a sense of control. The first attribute refers to people who care deeply about an individual’s right to make their own choices and direct their own lives without interference or obligations to a larger system (like the government). But combine this with a sense of powerlessness in one’s own life, and you get what Melley calls agency panic, “intense anxiety about an apparent loss of autonomy” to outside forces or regulators.”

To me, this makes perfect sense. When someone who values their independence see a lack of control or an erosion of that independence in their own life, they manufacture a scapegoat in these conspiracy theories. Research by psychologist Jean Twenge provides some empirical data for this:

“Twenge’s research examines how Americans’ personality traits have been changing over the past several decades, from the 1960s through the end of the century, looking at the personality scores for each year. For example, she finds that trait anxiety (or neuroticism) has been rising dramatically in both children and adults over this period. […] In another study, she shows that people have come to hold an increasingly stronger external “locus of control”; this refers to the feeling that external forces are determining what happens to you, as opposed to an internal locus of control, the feeling that you dictate your own outcomes. […] Individualistic values have also been getting stronger in our culture, with greater importance attached to personal freedoms and self-reliance. […] The rise in anxiety, individualism, and external locus of control may therefore underlie the rise in conspiracy thinking. This is somewhat troubling because these personality trends show no sign of leveling off. In fact, given the current pace of globalization and the “Americanization” of other countries, it seems likely that these personality traits (and conspiracy thinking) will be increasing elsewhere too.

That seems like a succinct and accurate representation of the people who I know that believe in conspiracies. In my last post, I featured a screenshot of a conversation on Instagram. Let’s take a look at it again:


The bit about density is still circled, but this time let’s examine some of the other comments on the thread, starting with the one from mitch_and_tammy: “Who gives a fuck if the earth is flat or round. Either way, I’m still a middle class slave!” This comment doesn’t really tell us if this person believes that the earth is flat. But it does show a predisposition toward not questioning the conspiracy because of a perceived lack of power and control.

Then there’s the comment from bitabites: “I KNOW it looks flat I know about operation paperclip. I know not to trust anyone so I know not to believe anything…” I’m not quite sure what operation paperclip has to do with the flat earth. Nevertheless, let’s examine the other language. This person exhibits a high degree of individualistic values, with much emphasis on “I,” on what the individual “knows.” There’s a strong distrust of that external locus of control– nobody is to be trusted and nothing is to believed.

These two individuals, particularly the second one, exhibit the kind of anxiety and paranoia that psychologists commonly ascribe to conspiracy theorists. Their belief in a flat earth, therefore, are unsurprising.

It’s also unsurprising, therefore, that scientifically trained or inclined people seem less likely to believe in conspiracies. Science relies almost exclusively upon external loci of control–we need other scientists to independently confirm or refute our findings. And because science is a genuinely collaborative effort, there’s less emphasis on “I” and more emphasis on “we.” Science isn’t about the individual, it’s about the scientific community as a whole. Science as a collective body also tends to work toward the same goal, with mutual cooperation and respect. In short, science empowers people, groups of people, whole scientific communities.

So, what do we do to combat this? Well, from the research that’s been done the first and most obvious thing is to make individuals feel more empowered. We can do that on a political, social, and economic level. We can correct the massive income and wealth inequality that exists in this country for starters. We can stop moneyed interests and corporate lobbyists from influencing our political system. Those are probably the biggest causes of anxiety we currently face.

But we also have to do a better job educating people. Basic scientific understanding is floundering in this country. People don’t know how science works, and more importantly don’t know how to critically evaluate evidence or anything they read and see. Sadly, science has become one of those external loci of control, the “other” that’s trying to suppress you. Of course that’s farthest from the truth, but it’s the outcome of a society that doesn’t understand science and feels large amounts of anxiety and paranoia–we have a tendency to fear what we do not understand.

We in the scientific community need to do a better job of engaging with these conspiracy theories and their believers. If people feel a lack of control in their lives, what they really need is power. And I would argue that science is the ultimate provider of knowledge.


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