In this post I explore conspiracy theories – what they are, how they are born and how they stubbornly remain. In these times when opinion is highly polarised, understanding how we are influenced to believe (or disbelieve) can help us check our own thinking and make us better at making conscious decisions about important topics in our lives.
A conspiracy or a conspiracy theory?
A conspiracy is defined by two or more people plotting secretly to do something illegal or immoral, usually with implied harm to others whilst they reap a benefit from the plan. On the other hand, a conspiracy ‘theory’ is just that – a theory that suggests a conspiracy might be taking place.
Due to the secretive nature of the act of conspiring, they can be difficult to prove but far easier to create a ‘theory’ about.
The life of a conspiracy theory
It seems there has always been a ‘conspiracy’ about something – did man really go to the moon? Was JFK assassinated by a lone gunman? Was COVID released on purpose from a laboratory? Each conspiracy takes on a life of its own. It is often generated in response to a large, uncertain or challenging event to which motives are ascribed to ‘unknown, powerful and often feared’ manipulators who somehow benefit from their purposeful actions.
The theory can take on a life of its own and the belief in the conspiracy outlives the event (consider JFK or the moon landing, for instance) and they become impervious to proof that no conspiracy exists. We are taught to believe that conspiracies are common. Look at the movies and TV that is popular – crime dramas, superhero movies, action and adventure – most relate to a ‘diabolical plan’ that is either uncovered just before it happens, or after the event. Its what makes it all so exciting – the takeover of Nakatomi Plaza in ‘Diehard’, Thanos plotting to destroy 50% of life in the universe in the MCU, every James Bond villain. All of these ‘plots’ help people think that conspiracies are common – perhaps even that large, complex conspiracies are more likely than they really are.
Are there real conspiracies?
Of course. There are real cases where powerful individuals and groups have acted in ways that are unconscionable to gain advantage. Watergate, Enron, local council fraud. There are examples of true conspiracies all around us. I recently watched a powerful documentary (‘Collective’) about the hospitals scandal in Romania. This was an absolutely terrible conspiracy that was committed against the people of Romania by powerful individuals and political groups, that cost lives and harmed people to enrich those involved.
Fact from fiction:
There have also been many ‘theories’ of conspiracies- the challenge is taking a theory and proving it as a real conspiracy. That takes facts, evidence and often hard work and often risk. Apart from popular culture, there are a number of reasons why people are primed to believe in conspiracy theories – even when they have been successfully debunked. these include normal psychological drivers of human behaviour.
Psychological Basis for conspiracy theories:
- Control and uncertainty. A fundamental flaw in the view of conspiracy theorists is the lack of attribution of events to chance. The big, negative events that occur in life are often completely random and outside of the control of individuals, regardless of how ‘powerful’ they might appear to be. By feeling out of control, but needing someone to be responsible (this removes both the potential for the randomness of life to exist, and gives the theorist someone to blame) sets fertile ground for believing conspiracy theories. People operating from this frame will prefer to consider that ‘shadowy, uber-powerful individuals or organisations’ have somehow plotted a bad event in advance – when it might simply be an act of nature of something which is just random.
- Narrative bias. People love to understand ‘why’. They create causative links between things that are simply not based on cause and effect. It is how superstitions emerge (my team only wins if I wear my lucky socks). Non-related events that are challenging to understand or that are outside of our control are often subject to narrative bias. ‘Because X, Y happens’ – we see patterns where they do not exist.
- Confirmation bias. We are more likely to notice things that fit with our current reality. If we don’t trust the government, what are we more likely to believe when a random event occurs? If we feel powerless or uncertain, we are drawn to see events through our lenses of fear and lack of control. I will also more readily accept as ‘experts’ people who fundamentally share my views, and discount information from other sources. The way social media is curated means that your world shrinks around your current beliefs and you end up seeing and hearing things that don’t challenge your beliefs, but rather simply confirm them.
- Social inclusion theory. People love to belong – if people are seeking to belong to a group (that doesn’t trust the government, for example), they are likely to take on more radical beliefs of the group as their own so that they can ‘fit in’. People with moderate views are easily radicalised by this approach. For example, if I am hesitant about vaccines, an Anti-vax group looks like people who share my views. As I engage with the group, I happily accept more and more radical views about vaccines to remain ‘in’. I also am more likely to believe information from my own in-group or see someone as a trusted ‘expert’, rather than paying attention or believing things from other groups that I don’t align with.
- Pattern recognition as a stress response. Part of finding ways to cope under stress is to rapidly seek out patterns that allow us to build narratives (narrative bias) to decrease our uncertainty. Patterns that are not there are easily imagined, particularly when the narrative provides me with certainty and confirms my fears. this makes highly implausible theories appear far more plausible than they should.
- Moral grandstanding. Once in an in group, people vie for power or prestige in the group (or reaffirm their belonging) by ‘moral grandstanding’ to others. By being the loudest, the strongest, the most opinionated or even the most outrageous, we confirm to the group our ‘moral right’ to be in the group, and to be acknowledged as a trusted member of it. Social media provides an immediate and powerful platform for people to moral grandstanding around their ‘theories’, and to end up encouraging others to more and more extreme opinions around the topic or theory.
The formation of the conspiracy theory:
Consider how a conspiracy theory often emerges: Two facts build a bridge. ‘Bill Gates spoke about the problems of population on sustainability’ and ‘A deadly virus reduces population’ becomes “Bill Gates created a killer virus to lower the population”. Now people who have high levels of fear and lack of control can see how this narrative confirms their ‘feelings’, and they can take comfort that there are people that feel like they do. Then as they cheer each other on, moral grandstanding, confirmation bias and social belonging are all amplified to deeply radicalise and entrench the ‘theory’ as ‘fact’.
Once someone takes such a radical position on a theory, consistency theory tells us that it is very difficult for them to walk this back, to agree that they were wrong, or challenge their incorrect narrative. They also would ‘fall out’ of the groups they are now belonging to. Imagine a Trump supporter who now suggests the election wasn’t stolen – they would now be on the outer with ‘real’ trump supporters. That is a massive cost for changing their minds. We have seen this over and over -the ‘big lie’ regarding Trump and the ‘stolen election’ narrative. Or QAnon. Or vaccines. Or 5G. Each of these false narratives have been conclusively debunked, yet there are groups of people who will not give up their ‘theories’ or positions around them.
It takes effort and thoughtful consideration to challenge your own beliefs and to see where a ‘theory’ is just that. It can be almost impossible to get someone else to change their mind when all of these psychologically powerful aspects are in play.
When you feel yourself ‘drawn in’ by a theory, perhaps ask yourself:
- Who benefits if it is true? Is it worth their effort?
- Who benefits by spreading the story if it false?
- Where am I getting my information from? A moral grandstander or someone that has done research and presents evidence?
- What does it mean about me (what groups do I identify with) if I believe – and if I don’t.
- How do I evaluate the quality of evidence that is presented for or against the theory?
- When do I allow the goal posts to shift – the theory has been disproven but now I want to believe a ‘modified’ or updated version to avoid accepting contrary evidence?
- If I took the opposite view to my belief in the theory, how would I debunk it? What facts or evidence do I want to ignore or refute in order to hold onto my belief?
Too many intelligent people are ‘hustled’ by conspiracy theories. This is only amplified by the echo chambers of social media. Please make up your own minds – understanding when a theory is no longer possible, probable or serving you it can be a powerful self assessment tool. You can add this to your tool kit to help you improve your experience and take back control of your own thinking processes from the psychological manipulations used to keep conspiracy theories alive.