In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week we’re looking at the psychology behind conspiracy theories.
This topic came up in a recent post by Andy of Eden in Babylon. In particular, the Q-Anon conspiracy theory has become quite popular, despite its utter absurdity. Then there’s the variety of nuttiness to do with COVID-19 (Alliance for Science at Cornell University has a list, including 5G, Bill Gates, the “deep state”, etc.). So what makes people buy into the weird and wacky?
According to Scientific American, a conspiratorial perspective is “the idea that people or groups are colluding in hidden ways to produce a particular outcome.” The Conspiracy Theory Handbook identified seven characteristics of conspiratorial thinking:
- Simultaneously holding contradictory beliefs
- Extreme levels of suspicion
- Presumed nefarious intent of the suspected conspirators
- A belief that there’s still something going on persists even if specific ideas about the conspiracy turn out to be false
- The self is seen as a persecuted victim
- Any new contrary evidence that comes along is reframed so that it somehow supports the conspiracy theory
- Every event is taken as having a specific meaning rather than being random
Illusory pattern perception
Our brains like to find patterns, but they’re not that good at differentiating random sequences from actual patterns. In fact, we tend to underestimate how often apparent patterns actually happen in random sequences. For example, tossing a coin repeatedly might produce results that don’t look as random as it seems like they should be.
Illusory pattern perception, or apophenia, occurs when we perceive meaningful patterns that aren’t actually there, and then we assume that we can predict the future based on the pattern we’ve just created in our heads. Habitual gamblers do this a lot.
High-impact, threatening social events make people more likely to look for explanatory patterns. The less ordered a situation feels, the more likely it is that people will try to find order where there is none.
A study published in the European Journal of Psychology concluded that illusory pattern perception is an important cognitive factor involved in conspiracy theories. The study found that both conspiratorial thinking and supernatural beliefs were strongly correlated with each other and with the tendency to find patterns within randomness. Seeing patterns in chaos but no pattern in structured stimuli was a predictor of irrational beliefs.
Confirmation bias means that we tend to seek out, believe, and pay attention to things that are in line with what we already believe. If you already think Trump is the best thing since sliced bread and is being attacked by enemies, Q-Anon is just going further in that particular direction, and it’s easier to stay on the track you’re already on.
Proportionality bias means that we expect big, significant events to have big, significant causes. A virus mutating as it jumps from critters to humans may not feel like it’s big enough to account for COVID-19, but a conspiracy to transmit it via 5G might feel like a better fit.
Factors that increase conspiratorial thinking
In anxious, uncertain times, people could accept the idea that bad things just happen sometimes, but that’s not always appealing. Conspiracy theorizing provides a rather handy way of placing all of the blame for bad things happening on “them”, allowing for the belief that things would be hunky dory otherwise.
Some of the factors that can promote conspiratorial thinking are:
- feelings of powerlessness, lack of control
- feeling alienated/unwanted
- personal or collective crisis/threats
- unusual events
- narcissism-related paranoia
While social media doesn’t cause conspiracy theories, it does tend to amplify them.
People who are more strongly inclined toward conspiratorial thinking are also more inclined to believe mutually contradictory conspiracies. Scientific American gives the example that people who believe Bin Laden was killed years before the US announced it are conversely more likely to believe that he’s still alive.
The role of education
Higher levels of education are associated with greater cognitive complexity, which makes people more likely to see the nuances of a situation rather than accept a simple explanation for a complex problem. Education level and analytical styles in combination make people less likely to believe conspiracy theories.
Illusory pattern perception is also less likely to occur in people who are highly educated or very analytic in their thinking.
Greater media literacy is another factor that’s associated with a decreased likelihood of endorsing conspiracy theories.
Prevalence of conspiracy theories
Government survey data analyzed in 2017 showed that over a quarter of Americans believe that there are conspiracies “behind many things in the world.” Participants who thought that American values were eroding were more likely to respond that way.
By 2018, QAnon supporters were showing up at Trump rallies. As of August 2020, Trump had amplified tweets supporting QAnon over 200 times. In July 2020, Business Insider reported that at least 10 Republican Congressional candidates had expressed their support for QAnon.
So what is QAnon? It began in 2017 with a posting by “Q” on the imageboard 4chan. Q claimed to have insider knowledge, and his/her/their spiel, according to Wikipedia, is that “QAnon is a far-right conspiracy theory alleging that a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles running a global child sex-trafficking ring is plotting against President Donald Trump, who is battling them, leading to a ‘day of reckoning’ involving the mass arrest of journalists and politicians.” There’s an antisemitic element thrown in as well to up the cray cray just a little more.
Wikipedia cites a New York Times report that says that in July 2020, Twitter shut down thousands of QAnon-related accounts and tweaked its algorithm to prevent the theory’s spread. You can see collections of Q’s message board posts at qanon(dot)pub and qproofs(dot)com (and no, I’m not prepared to give them backlinks).
Being involved with QAnon online allows people to feel connected to something that feels important that most people aren’t in on that’s going to bring about significant societal change. Group attachments help to establish the in-group as good/right and the out-group as malicious/dangerous. QAnon also capitalize on current events activating the worldview held by some people that makes them prone to interpret events and information as products of conspiracies.
To be honest, even after reading about it, I still can’t grasp what would have to happen in my head to believe in this kind of stuff. My brother, on the other hand, is quite keen on conspiracy theories. To each their own, I guess, but a little more critical thinking could probably do everyone a lot of good.
How do you feel about conspiracy theories?
You may also be interested in this post on The Bizarre Spread of the COVID/5G Conspiracy Theory.
- Craft, S., Ashley, S., & Maksl, A. (2017). News media literacy and conspiracy theory endorsement. Communication and the Public, 2(4), 388-401.
- French, C. (2015). Why Do Some People Believe in Conspiracy Theories? Scientific American.
- Lewandowsky, S., & Cook, J. (2020). The Conspiracy Theory Handbook.
- Moyer, M.W. (2019). People drawn to conspiracy theories share a cluster of psychological features. Scientific American.
- Uscinski, J.E., & Enders, A.M. (April 30, 2020). The coronavirus conspiracy boom. The Atlantic.
- van Prooijen, J. W., Douglas, K. M., & De Inocencio, C. (2018). Connecting the dots: Illusory pattern perception predicts belief in conspiracies and the supernatural. European Journal of Social Psychology, 48(3), 320-335.
- van Prooijen, J. W. (2017). Why education predicts decreased belief in conspiracy theories. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 31(1), 50-58.
- Wikipedia: QAnon
Ashley L. Peterson
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.