“I’m excited. I’m happy! Once you know the information you are not in fear; you’re, like, empowered! You are excited. You can’t wait for justice to go down, you can’t wait for the kids to be saved, you can’t wait for the bad guys to be put in jail.” —QAnon YouTuber1
There is little doubt these days that belief in irrational conspiracy theories is a widespread societal problem. What might in the past have been dismissed as a fringe phenomenon is clearly not. Numerous surveys have borne this out, showing, for example, that half of Americans harbor at least one conspiracy theory.2
Also readily apparent now, if it wasn’t obvious before, is the potent destructive power of such beliefs—as seen in the COVID-19 pandemic, and in the toxic political polarization of the last few years. But in fact, conspiracy beliefs have always been very widely prevalent, and the assumption that they are mainly the domain of mentally unstable or low-functioning individuals on the fringe of society was always a myth, even for the more outlandish beliefs.
The observation that belief in conspiracy theories is a mainstream phenomenon is one of the starting points for the deep and engaging analysis by Michael Shermer in his book: Conspiracy: Why the Rational Believe the Irrational.3 Shermer is the founding publisher and editor-in-chief of Skeptic magazine, a multiple New York Times bestselling author, and was a monthly columnist for Scientific American for 18 years. He is a leading expert on “why people believe weird things” (the title of his first book, in 1997).
He reminds us that conspiracies (“two or more people, or a group, plotting or acting in secret to gain an advantage or harm others immorally or illegally”) do occur quite often, and occasionally the conspirators are indeed people at high levels of democratically elected governments or trusted institutions.
Nevertheless, Shermer suggests keeping in mind what he calls a conspiracism principle: Never attribute to malice what can be explained by randomness or incompetence. Furthermore, even many real conspiracies turn on chance, coincidence, and contingency. In contrast, people prone to believe in conspiracy theories tend to believe that nothing happens by accident, everything is connected, and there are no coincidences. They usually imagine conspirators as “preternaturally competent” and “unusually evil,” often with elaborately grand schemes.
A phenomenon cutting across demographics and political orientation
People on the political left often assume, incorrectly, that belief in conspiracy theories is an overwhelmingly right-wing phenomenon. Yet, to cite just two of many examples, 911 Truther conspiracies and GMO conspiracies have been predominantly believed by people on the left.4
Political scientists Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent found that conspiracists (believers in conspiracy theories) “cut across gender, age, race, income, political affiliation, educational level, and occupational status.” Education does appear to reduce conspiracism: 42% of those without a high school diploma scored highly in having conspiratorial predispositions, compared with 22% of those holding postgraduate degrees.5 Yet, the fact that over one in five Americans with MAs or PhDs believe in conspiracies indicates that there are additional determining factors besides education.6
Why do so many people believe conspiracy theories, even outlandish ones?
Shermer hypothesizes that there are three overarching factors at work, which he calls:
- Proxy conspiracism: Many conspiracy theories are proxies for a different type of truth believed by the conspiracist—”a deeper mythic, psychological, or lived-experience truth.” For this reason, the particular details of the conspiracy theory may matter less to the conspiracist than the “richer truths” represented in the conspiracy theory.7
- Tribal conspiracism: embracing conspiracy theories may be motivated more by the need to signal one’s loyalty to the tribe than true belief in the particular conspiracy. This might account for how several apparently intelligent and sane Republican politicians could have endorsed such a bizarre conspiracy theory as QAnon.
- Constructive conspiracism: Some kinds of conspiracy theories may be rational and realistic in certain situations, such as those “pertaining to normal political institutions and corporate entities that are conspiring to manipulate the system to gain an unfair, immoral, and sometimes illegal advantage over others.” Therefore, conspiracism may be a rational response to a dangerous world. (Whereas theories involving “ultra-secret and über-powerful entities for which there is little to no evidence” are largely driven by paranoia.)8
Shermer suggests that layered on top of these three overarching factors are a number of additional well-recognized psychological and sociological forces that serve to reinforce conspiracy belief:
Cognitive bias and habits of thought
[See footnote 9 for definitions, explanations and examples of the following]
- Motivated reasoning and confirmation bias
- Attribution bias
- Hindsight bias
- Cognitive dissonance
- Proportionality bias
- Monological thinking
- Oversimplification of complex problems
- Teleological thinking
- Transcendental thinking
- Locus of control
- Anxiety reduction
- “Myside” bias
- Negativity bias
- Anomaly hunting
Even highly educated and highly intelligent people are bedeviled by many of these, and as Shermer points out, they are even better at rationalizing and justifying beliefs that they hold for non-smart reasons.
The research on personality factors predisposing to conspiracy belief is inconclusive, but findings do point toward certain traits being more associated with such belief. These include [See footnote 10 for definitions and explanations]:
- Low interpersonal trust
- Ideological eccentricity
- Excessive concern about personal safety
- Dangerous-world beliefs
- Hyperactive agency detection
- Schizotypal personality
- “Bullshit receptivity”
- Less science-mindedness
- Feelings of control
An additional factor in the appeal of conspiracy theories, one also borne out by research, is their entertainment value—“not unlike science fiction, fantasy, horror, detective, and adventure novels and films that titillate readers and viewers with fantastic Manichaean stories of good and evil forces and people plotting to assassinate a foreign leader, overthrow a political regime, conquer an evil empire, or even rule the world.”11
Academic researchers Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood have extensively researched susceptibility to conspiracy theory belief. In their 2018 book Enchanted America: How Intuition and Reason Divide Our Politics, they identify a more general factor accounting for such susceptibility, one that is broadly consistent with all the other factors discussed above:
- Intuitionism—A strong tendency to utilize intuitive thinking over evidence-based thinking.
“Our central argument is that the most important political division in the United States is […] between Rationalists and Intuitionists. Rationalists are people who comprehend reality using nonintuitive sources. They utilize abstract theories, philosophical deductions, and observable facts. They view social and political problems in a dispassionate manner, seeking pragmatic, technical solutions. They exist all over the political spectrum but generally share a common respect for science and reason. They may adhere to different philosophies, but inevitably, they all draw from the same intellectual wells dug by Locke and Kant, Smith and Mill, Keynes and Hayek.” —Oliver and Wood, Enchanted America12
The higher a person’s Intuitionism score, the more likely that person will also be drawn to religious, spiritual and other supernatural beliefs, paranormal beliefs, and unscientific alternative medicine.13, 14
The internet and social media
Conspiracy theories are nothing new, and neither is their widespread uptake. But there is no doubt that the internet and social media have made their spread much easier and faster.
The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt provides a particularly excellent analysis of the dumbing-down effect of social media on civil discourse and rationality in his 2022 article in The Atlantic: “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid.”15
Societal stress, instability and uncertainty increases the receptivity of citizens to conspiracy theories, as we saw during the COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, in times of political instability, economic insecurity, and war. Cultural anxiety about erosion of values may also contribute, as during the “culture wars” of the last few years.
Shermer provides many examples of real conspiracies in recent and distant history, using those examples to illustrate how actual conspiracies tend to unfold, and in many cases to unravel or ultimately be exposed. He highlights the many differences compared with imagined conspiracies. For example, in real conspiracies, things seldom go according to plan, schemes are thwarted by unforeseen circumstances and obstacles, people mess up, become afraid, change their minds, can’t keep their mouths shut, defect or betray each other, or become whistle-blowers motivated by moral scruples or by personal gain and fame. The more complex a conspiracy and the more people it involves, the harder it is to control all the variables, pull off the plot, and keep it all secret.
In Parts II and III of his book, Shermer provides tips on how to determine which conspiracy theories are unlikely to be true, including a useful Conspiracy Detection Kit, and helpful tips on how to talk with your friends and relatives who have fallen for fallacious conspiracy theories.
Nobody is in control
Part of the appeal of conspiracy theories is that it is more comforting to believe there is a simple order and coherence to the world—even when we believe the bad guys are trying to take control. At least we, the clever good guys, have gained special knowledge of their plot and can engage in a righteous fight to thwart their evil intentions.
The true complexity of the world is much harder to grasp.16
“The main thing that I learned about conspiracy theories is that conspiracy theorists believe in a conspiracy because that is more comforting. The truth of the world is that it is actually chaotic. The truth is, that it is not the Jewish banking conspiracy, or the Gray aliens, or the 12-foot reptiloids from another dimension that are in control. The truth is far more frightening. Nobody is in control. The world is rudderless.” —Alan Moore17
Ultimately, as Oliver and Wood point out, conspiracy theories are intuitively compelling and comforting for many of the same reasons that normal, ubiquitous beliefs like religion and spirituality are so natural to most of us.18