What is... psychology series

What Is… The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories

News Literacy Project

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 wrong persists even if specific ideas about the conspiracy turn out to be wrong
  • self seen as 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 aren’t 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 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 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.

Cognitive biases

Our brains try to make things simpler, but the cognitive biases that result don’t necessarily match up with reality.

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:

  • anxiety
  • feelings of powerlessness, lack of control
  • uncertainty
  • 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.

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 their 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.

How do you feel about conspiracy theories?

Sources

The Science Corner: Pseudoscience, Public Health, and Media Literacy

The Science Corner has info on media & research literacy, fake news, public health, and debunking pseudoscience.

46 thoughts on “What Is… The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories”

  1. I love conspiracy theories, they are just so fun – sometimes. Like the chemtrails! YouTube is full of people who believe in all sort of weird things. Off course, they can do harm when they are believed to have a cure of some sorts. But with the chemtrails I can have a good laugh. Really conspiracy theories helps me through some dark days sometimes!
    It’s all a matter of the right perspective 🙂

  2. How do you feel about conspiracy theories? I can take or leave them, even though some might postulate that I embrace the idea. I truly don’t, I don’t think there’s a huge conspiracy to do ‘evil’ or anything. I DO think that there is a lot we (as in the general public) aren’t told about. That people in some inner circle are privy too. The reasons are numerous for that: People might be smart, people in large groups are incredibly stupid and panicky; Joe Q. Public can’t handle the bald faced truth about *insert knotty problem of the moment* and dozens of other reasons our alleged leaders keep things from us ‘for our own good.” I might sound like a bit of a conspiracy theory ‘nut’ after all… I’m not. The fact that ‘they’ keep tighter and tighter tabs on folks through tracking what someone is buying (via internet information), tapping our phones, and so forth is a fact. In my opinion. There’s an old ‘funny’ that says something like:

    Just because one is paranoid, doesn’t mean someone else isn’t out to get them!

  3. That’s really interesting, and I had no clue that the Q thing was happening!! It’s news to me!! My dad swears that I have narcissism-related paranoia. He got mad at me when I thought that Nate deliberately let Sonya fall at the ropes course, causing her to twist her ankle. He said, “You’re so convinced that everything’s about you.” [Eyeroll.] Your blog post also reminds me of how I was convinced my sister pushed my mom down the stairs. I still am convinced. My next move is to wait for my sister to die and then ask her fiance, Mr. Perfect, if he knows anything. So the case will probably run cold for the next several decades, seeing as my sister’s 35 years old. That sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? I have a strange brain. But hey, the truth is out there.

  4. I know we laugh about conspiracy theories and the psychology around them is like second week freshman Psych 101 level basic, but at the heart, they peddle in lies, and the problem with that is the minute you get people listening, you’ll get more people listening, you’ll get people starting to agree. What is a cult other than a handful of people who are buying what a conspiracy theorist says?

    What’s really ironic is when people who believe a conspiracy theorist…let’s say, oh, Donald Trump…have the facts presented to them, but they still refuse to believe. Six months ago if you said, “Trump knows how bad COVID is and he’s downplaying it” his supporters would have refused to believe you and called you the conspiracy theorist. Then we get tapes of him admitting he knows and his followers just kind of shrug because to admit that’s the truth is to admit you were wrong and conspiracy theorists can’t do that. This is why we must call them out no matter how daffy it may be.

      1. It’s scary because I don’t know if it’s willful ignoring of the truth…. which just makes them a bad person, or it’s an inability to recognize the truth when presented, which makes them batshit crazy. Neither is comforting.

    1. This is what I’ve observed also, Joshua. The conspiracy theorists whom I’ve known have a remarkable tendency NEVER to admit that they’re wrong. This is what prompted me to write the article that Ashley linked to above. On some level, the inability to cop to personal error perpetuates the adoption of the false paradigm.

        1. Exactly. This is what I was trying to point out in my column. We have a blame-shifter in office who has attracted a cult of supportive blame-shifters. Lie upon lie is promulgated, to the point where truth is discarded completely.

  5. Ugh, my Dad believes the 5G conspiracy theory and I have given up convincing him that it is a load of bullshit. I think that beliefs can relate to anxiety and anger, especially when it is not really acknowledged.

  6. This is really great, Ashley – and thanks for linking to my column. I saw this yesterday morning but knew it would take a while for me to read carefully. After having done so, I could probably write a whole new blog post!

    Some of this is stuff I found in my own research, before I decided to narrow my article down to the issue of blame-shifting (or psychological projection) that I found appropriate for the religious news site. But some of it is new to me. In particular, I am fascinated by the concept of “illusory pattern perception.”

    The Q-Anon conspiracy, despite its patent absurdity, concerns me more than any of the others I’ve encountered. The idea that there will be a scourge of Left-leaning politicians and journalists is something that could easily come true in the establishment of a Fascist state. This would be particularly likely if large masses of people actually come to believe that the Democrats are evil socialists (rather than progressives), and thus should be exterminated. In fact, lots of Trump supporters already believe things along such lines.

    As a journalist, of course this concerns me. However, I have to stop and realize that when I begin to think that way, I am actually empowering the very conspiracy theory that it is my practical obligation to dispel. Funny how the conspiratorial mind-set can be contagious.

    Thanks again for this very well-researched and informative article. I shared it on Twitter.

    1. The Q-Anon business is very concerning, especially with the whole issue of a peaceful transition of power, or lack thereof, after the election. There’s definitely a Fascist flavour to all of this.

  7. Top notch, top dollar quality ……. you’re NOT saying that the Tooth Fairy doesn’t exist though are you? I know that some theorists suggest it’s all a conspiracy to deliberately steal teeth from the unsuspecting … but l don’t buy into that!! However l am rather partial to views that stipulate the 7 day week is actually 28 days long!

    Shh don’t tell anyone 🙂

  8. Ohh conspiracy theories !! this might be weird but just now I asked one of the blogs I follow who had this thing going on about “ask me anything” and I asked them if they believe in any conspiracies? Because personally I enjoy reading about some scientific theories regarding aliens or ancient Egyptian civilizations. they are fun and are of no harm in particular.

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