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Conspiracy Theories & Why People Fall For Them

What Are Conspiracy Theories?

Conspiracy theories are rumours and false narratives surrounding important events. Many involve themes of nefarious plots by powerful and malevolent groups. People who believe conspiracies will often reject conventional narratives of the event, dismissing them as cover-ups. Conspiracy theories have existed as part of the human social experience for millennia. Some of the oldest date back to biblical times and persist even today. For example, the one about children that Jesus and Mary Magdalene conceived in secret who supposedly continued his bloodline.

History has shown a connection between conspiracy theories and periods of widespread unrest and anxiety. Wars, economic uncertainty, natural disasters and the present-day pandemic threaten people both physically and economically. Currently, large groups of individuals remain dissatisfied with government policies and political leaders. True to form, conspiracy theories have emerged and the internet and social media have enabled their rapid global reach.

The Impact of Conspiracy Theories

This is cause for concern, according to Dr. Karen Douglas, professor of social psychology at the University of Kent. She has linked conspiracy theories to prejudice, violence and terrorism. 

It can, therefore, feel confounding and frustrating to discover a loved one or a co-worker buying into propaganda, half-truths and lies. Vehement arguments over “the truth” are creating ruptures in relationships between people who previously got along. Now, more than ever, we need to understand why people fall prey to conspiracy theories so we can communicate without jeopardizing relationships.

Conspiracy Theories: The Antidote for Anxiety

Studies have shown that people are likely to turn to conspiracy theories when they are anxious (Grzesiak-Feldman, 2013). Research also suggests that the propensity to believe in conspiracies is stronger when people experience distress due to uncertainty (van Prooijen & Jostmann, 2013). We have all of the above occurring in massive doses across the world right now

The pandemic is a complex and challenging global threat of the kind we have not experienced for a century. We are on a steep learning curve to get ahead of it, and we are making mistakes along the way. Humanity has never grappled with so many ethical gray areas and it is costing lives. As our collective knowledge about the Corona virus grows, governments modify their response protocols. The contradictions between domestic lockdowns and functional airports, small business closures and open big box stores, along with wearing masks that are not mandatory, hardly inspire confidence! On the contrary, they make people anxious.

With uncertainty around every corner and no single authority firmly in charge, many individuals remain overwhelmed and without agency. Consequently, they find relief in “black and white” explanations for complex problems. This is precisely why some believe the pandemic is a hoax orchestrated by Bill Gates and other powerful elites to vaccinate microchips in people in order to wield control over them. Incredible as it may seem, such explanations bring cathartic stress relief as an antidote for anxiety. They offer a simple explanation. The complexity of the truth requires more uncertainty and ambiguity than some can tolerate.

Being The Good Guys

During periods of large scale social disruption and change, people want to be on the right side of history. It is common for conspiracy theorists to accuse the “other side” of heinous acts. In the 1600s, this mentality led to the infamous witch burnings in Salem. The authorities justified the live burnings as self-righteous acts. They drew a clear line in the sand between good and bad, which became empowering. Mobs worked themselves into a fervour to expose evil acts and become the “good guys.” The witches, as we now know, were simply scapegoats during a period of enlightenment and social change that was not embraced by all. 

The Q-Anon conspiracy is spun from similar dynamics today. It makes wealthy and influential celebrities and politicians the villains in a global child abuse and sex trafficking ring. Believers tied it to the U.S election by making Donald Trump the only leader capable of stomping it out of existence. It offered a compelling enough reason for mob mentality to set in to storm the Capitol on January 6th, 2021. The crowd truly believed they were patriots on the right side of a society that has lost its way. They resolved to “defend democracy” and an election that was rigged and stolen. 

Power & Self-Esteem

People who are marginalized, disenfranchised or living in a lower socioeconomic status are more likely to succumb to conspiracy theories. And research backs this up (Abalakina-Paap, Stephan, Craig, & Gregory, 1999). Experimental results also suggest that ostracism causes people to believe in superstitions (Graeupner & Coman, 2017).The pandemic has created much poverty and disenfranchisement, leaving many people on the “outside”. Conspiracy theories offer plausible explanations for their deprivation and feelings of worthlessness. Furthermore, conspiracy theories turn hierarchies on their head with alternate understandings of reality (Sapountzis & Condor, 2013). They give people reasons to feel unique and not part of the “sheeple”. This draw, to regain power and self-esteem, is often the driving force that attracts many to conspiracies.

Jumping to Conclusions

Some individuals are predisposed to arriving at conclusions from limited information, an “intuitive thinking” style. Interestingly, this thinking pattern is also exhibited by people with psychosis. Clinical psychologist, Stephanie Mehl, determined that such individuals will believe conspiracy theories more readily, particularly during distressing and highly emotional situations. When we process large volumes of information, they trigger emotions that dominate our decision-making abilities. The feelings can undermine our ability to stay focused on logical facts and figures. This can lead some people to make incorrect assumptions about a situation.

The pandemic has dismantled normalcy across the globe. For many, the lockdowns have cut off important social and emotional supports. In the face of prolonged distress, conspiracies can “feel” true, compared to the mundane truth of life, which is presently very complicated and challenging.

Personality Traits and Conspiracy Theories  

In a recent article published by the American Psychological Association, Shauna Bowes, a clinical psychology doctoral student, revealed details of an interesting study. Her team surveyed nearly 2,000 people and discovered common personality traits that can make some more likely to believe conspiracy theories. They include individuals who are less agreeable and conscientious, along with those who display lower levels of humility. Such people are more likely to embrace broad conspiracies, such as “Governments lie to us” and “The pandemic is a hoax.”

In addition, people with pathological personality scores, such as high grandiosity or very low self-esteem, are even more likely to support conspiratorial narratives (Bowes, S. M., et al., Journal of Personality, 2020). In fact, obvious traits like paranoid tendencies, or anti-authority values can also play a role in this effect.

Managing Relationships with Believers In Conspiracy Theories

The pandemic has been hard on relationships of every kind. And if a conspiracy theory is tearing yours apart, then you might be in extreme distress and even loathe to discuss it with anyone. However, a confidential session with a therapist can help you gain a healthy perspective on the matter. 

Your loved one’s beliefs took shape over time and the process of changing their mind will also require time. This will try your patience but we will help you with strategies to understand them better. You need to find common ground to keep the bond going. As noted above, if anxiety drove them towards believing conspiracies, then validating their fears can offer a modicum of relief to soften hardcore beliefs. You do not have to agree with their beliefs, but you can learn how to respectfully disagree and diffuse tense conversations.  

The Importance of Repairing Rifts

Try not to entirely write off a loved one lost to a conspiracy theory. If your relationship has suffered a rift, then we will help you with strategies to open a window for a reunion. Lessons learned from individuals reformed from radicalization tell us that some ultimately come to regret their choices. However, many will hesitate to admit they have changed their mind. Also, leaving cults, gangs and religious orders is extremely difficult for people who have nowhere to turn. To help your loved one transition back, we can help you to create a supportive environment where they will not feel judged, maligned or vilified for their past beliefs and actions. 

When dealing with a believer in conspiracy theories, the most important thing to keep in mind is to stay calm and grounded. Nobody wins in a shouting match, and it is unlikely you will change their mind by engaging in one. Much of this is easier to do with a trusted therapist in your corner. We encourage you to contact us for an assessment. You are not alone in this matter. Many families are going through similar issues with relatives and loved ones, presently.