The psychology behind conspiracy theories – why do we want to believe them?

  • The coronavirus pandemic has become a breeding ground for all kinds of wild conspiracy theories
  • There are various epistemic, existential and social factors that influence people to believe in these nefarious secret plots
  • There’s also a need for uniqueness that comes with holding ‘scarce information’ that no one else supposedly has

Have you heard about 5G spreading the coronavirus? Or that Bill Gates wants to chip everyone with the Covid-19 vaccine?

The pandemic has become quite the breeding ground for all kinds of conspiracy theories, some of which might negatively impact a person’s health decisions. 

But why do we believe in conspiracy theories, no matter how improbable? 

READ: Coronavirus conspiracy theories abound, and they could cause real harm

The need to be unique

Many studies have been conducted on the psyche of these "truthers" (because, apparently, the term conspiracy theorist is itself a conspiracy theory) to discover what personality traits and factors influence susceptibility to these "facts". 

A study published in Social Psychology highlights that people with tendencies like distrust, low agreeability, narcissism and Machiavellianism tend to adhere to ideas that a secret group bent on global domination is pulling the strings behind the scenes. 

But there’s another factor that the study found contributes to believing conspiracy theories – the need to be unique. People show their individuality through consuming scarce resources, and through their beliefs. 

The researchers likened beliefs to possessions, and the conspiracy theorist holds on to "information" that they believe is scarce and only they know, making them more informed and special than everyone else – even the "so-called experts" who are in on the "scam".

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Another study that reviewed the literature on the psychology of conspiracy theories published in PubMed highlighted other factors that can contribute to these beliefs: limited access to available information, cognitive ability, and the lack of motivation or education to think critically.

Self-defeating in nature 

They also grouped the motives behind conspiracy theorists into three categories: epistemic, existential and social. 

The first looks at what’s happening in our environment – when our reality is seemingly chaotic and random, humans have a need to find order in that chaos. A conspiracy theory presents a difficult-to-disprove reason for catastrophic events and the human mind clings to it. 

Existential talks to how one deals with this chaos. Conspiracy theories present a way to take back control of the situation – and when an unknown virus spreads around the world and upends global society, it’s not hard to understand why people take on these beliefs to feel safer. 

However, this factor is self-defeating in nature – most of the time it has the opposite effect, disempowering its followers. When nefarious agendas are the ones controlling everything, it can impede your will to make long-term decisions for yourself, like voting in political elections. 

The last one – social – is more personal. We all like to believe that we and the groups we adhere to are inherently good, the heroes of our own stories, but when events or information contradict these perceptions the brain find ways to protect our image. The responsibility is taken out of our hands and blame is put on other groups, like the government. 

READ: What drives 'anti-vaxxer' parents? It's a mixed bag

Some conspiracy theories are true

The lack of social cohesion also pushes people towards conspiracy theories – ostracisation has a harmful impact on the psyche and these beliefs help people make sense of their isolation. It can go either way. These beliefs can either increase alienation or create a sense of belonging among people with similar views. 

But there are limitations to these studies. Many are conducted on educated university students and not groups more prone to believe in conspiracy theories. 

Another issue is that history is strewn with examples of conspiracy theories being true – State Capture in South Africa, police brutality against African Americans, the Epstein saga – and these make it difficult to disprove more outlandish theories.

Many might blame the age of the internet for the rise in detrimental conspiracy theories – currently known as the "infodemic" – but according to pscyhology professor, Rob Brotherton, conspiracy theories have been a part of human society since time immemorial.

He wrote a book about why our suspicious minds put faith into these beliefs, and in an interview with Independent, he says that everyone has subconscious biases that make us susceptible to conspiracy theories, in whatever form they may present themselves. 

A 'fundamental part of human nature'

Some of these biases include cognitive bias – when the brain only accepts evidence of its already ingrained beliefs – and proportionality bias – when monumental events with far-reaching consequences don’t match up with a small cause, like a random coronavirus strain found in a Chinese market or a lone gunman taking out a president. 

READ: Conspiracy theories, cures and commentary regarding Ebola on social media

You can check how much of a conspiracy theorist you are with this interactive version of the Generic Conspiracist Beliefs Scale. This questionnaire is what researchers use in studies about conspiracy theories, developed by Brotherton. 

“It’s a fundamental part of being human,” he says in his book. Conspiracy theories also tap into our darkest prejudices and fears, for example anti-vaxxers have an innate fear of losing a loved one. 

With Covid-19, it could be the fear of financial pressures caused by lockdown, worries about losing those you love and, in South Africa, our history of governmental and racial oppression will make most people wary of enforced government regulations that help curb the spread of the coronavirus. 

There’s a fine line between healthy scepticism and paranoia, and it's important to check what biases you may have before jumping on the next conspiracy theory bandwagon. 

But you'll probably think this article is part of the conspiracy too. 

Image credit: Canva