Aliens, Climate Change, and Missing Airplanes: The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories

In the recent past, I have heard of many conspiracy theories through social networking sites and my friends including, Michael Jackson is still alive and Christina Grimmie’s death was a sacrifice for the Queen of Illuminati! What are conspiracy theories exactly? They are usually attempts to explain a cause of an event with a focus on covert or secret plots rather than the overt available information. Another possible definition of conspiracy theories is “claims that organizations of powerful, self-serving entities manipulate world events for their own benefit, behind the scenes, away from the prying eyes of the public (Bost, 2015).” The topics that make up the content of such theories include, for instance, wacky theories on UFOS and aliens like Jesus was actually an alien, how certain groups are soon going to dominate the world, celebrity deaths that were staged, and so on. It has become so commonplace that I doubt that conspiracy ideation is a manifestation of deep-seated psychological issues or extreme paranoia; but is often backed by clear rationale (see Bost, 2015).

That being said, psychologists have found certain personality traits and individual variables associated with conspiracy theorists and believers of conspiracy theories. For example, beliefs in conspiracy theories on the 9/11 attacks have been linked to lower levels of a trait known as agreeableness, which is, one’s ability to get along with others and trust others as having good intentions, higher political cynicism, and defiance of authority (Swami, Chamorro-Premuzic, & Furnham, 2009). Others have found that conspiracy ideation is a generalized worldview, rather than a disparate set of beliefs (Swami et al., 2011). In other words, if an individual has a suspicious worldview, they are more likely to endorse more than one conspiracy theory. Moreover, research has established that a feeling of powerlessness that may arise from dramatic uncontrollable changes in one’s life such as economic downturn or natural calamities strengthen people’s beliefs in conspiracy theories and holding on to such beliefs could possibly help reduce individuals’ feelings of anxiety, lack of control, or insecurity (Newheiser, Farias, & Tausch, 2011). This was certainly found among individuals who endorsed the Da Vinci Code conspiracy theory, based on the novel by Dan Brown which was later released as a movie.  Hypervigilance to threat in one’s environment also plays an important role in conspiracy ideation (Kramer & Gavrieli, 2005). Similarly, paranoia and beliefs in paranormal activities (Darwin, Neave, & Holmes, 2011) are also related to the endorsement of conspiracy theories. Interestingly, individuals who report that they would conspire themselves are also the ones who are more likely to endorse conspiracy theories (Douglas & Sutton, 2011).

Various already established concepts in cognitive psychology can account for why people’s beliefs in such theories persist. One such effect is known as the confirmation bias—our tendency to search for evidence that confirms our beliefs while ignoring evidence that discounts them. Another bias in our cognition, known as belief perseverance—the tendency to hold on to our initial beliefs even after receiving new information that disconfirms the basis of those beliefs—can help explain why conspiracy theories are so strongly resistant to disconfirmation, for those who believe them that is.

Researchers have also come up with novel measures of beliefs in conspiracy theories, such as the Flexible Inventory of Conspiracy Suspicions (Wood, 2016). One item in this scale, for example, is “Legitimate questions about the moon landings are being suppressed by the government, the media, and academia.” The scale is flexible because the topic of the conspiracy can be changed.

When people are exposed to conspiracy theories, their beliefs persist for a long period of time.  This was found in a study by Kim and Cao (2016) in which participants were exposed to a conspiracy theory on how the Government was involved in the moon landings. Specifically, they were shown a documentary showing conspiracy theorists claiming that the Apollo Moon landings were staged by the NASA and the US federal government to win the space race against the Soviet Union. It was later found that their beliefs in this theory persisted for over two weeks. Moreover, people who believe in conspiracy theories are less likely to exert effective control over their environment. For instance, those who believe that AIDS is a virus created to destroy the African American population are less likely to practice safe sex (Bogart & Thorburn, 2005). Also, individuals who have been exposed to theories on the involvement of the Government in the death of Princess Diana had lowered intentions of participating in politics and conspiracy theories regarding climate change decreased people’s intentions of reducing their carbon footprint (Jolley & Douglas, 2014). Also, there are other negative consequences of holding conspiracy beliefs, such as decreased prosocial behavior such as charity and decreased acceptance of widely established scientific facts, such as human involvement in climate change (Linden, 2015).

Recent research has established that conspiracy ideation is not necessarily a sign of psychopathology, but rather a cognitive adaptation that people use to deal with powerlessness, lack of control over events in their life, and threat perception. This makes all of us equally vulnerable to conspiracy ideation. Whether and how people can change conspiracy ideation is a matter of debate. There is some evidence that analytical thinking, particularly cautious and deliberate information processing, can reduce beliefs in conspiracy theories (Swami et al., 2014).

Those who endorse conspiracy theories are unlikely to think of their beliefs as being a “conspiracy,” and also object when others do so (Wood & Douglas, 2013) which is further indicative of how strongly the beliefs are held. In fact, some might think that this blog too is a conspiracy to stop people from believing in conspiracy theories!

Sharlene Fernandes