The psychology of conspiracy theories

Why do people believe sometimes outlandish conspiracy theories? You need to look beyond the individual to start to understand, explains Jovan Byford.

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you…

A detail of a mural in Denver International Airport, (right) subject of much conspiracy theorist interest. A plea for peace, or a plan for future martial law?

Many such writers describe belief in conspiracies as manifestations of ‘paranoia’, ‘anxiety’, ‘fantasy’, ‘hysteria’ and ‘projection’, or as fulfilling a profound psychological need for certainty in the precarious (post-)modern age. In everyday discourse too, ‘conspiracy theorists’ are often labelled ‘lunatics’, ‘kooks’ or ‘paranoiacs’, implying that they suffer from some intrinsic psychological deficiency or dysfunction.

Yet, surprisingly, little psychological research has been conducted on this topic. In fact, it is only since the 1990s that social psychologists have turned their attention to the conspiracy theory phenomenon and scrutinised its psychological roots in a systematic way.

Investigating the conspiracy theorist

Researchers have explored the relevance of more general demographic factors like gender, socio-economic status, educational level or ethnic background and so on, but also things like disenchantment with political authority, sense of powerlessness, political cynicism, authoritarianism or alienation from society.

Anyone who has had the opportunity to engage with conspiracy theories will realise that they are, in fact, a dynamic set of stories and shared assumptions about the world which persist and evolve over time.

They have also looked at personality factors and aspects of cognitive functioning (resistance to disconfirming evidence, tendency to circular thinking, attributional styles, etc.) to see whether conspiracism is underpinned by some intrinsic perceptual or reasoning deficit which leads people to misunderstand or misinterpret causal relations in the world.

Overall, this quest for the psychological profile of conspiracy theorists has yielded modest results. Conspiracy theorists have been shown to be quite similar to sceptics in terms of cognitive functioning or personality. In fact, the only consistent finding is that believers tend to be disenchanted with authority and cynical about the mainstream of politics.

But this is hardly surprising: these are the central motifs of any conspiracy theory!

Look again…

But conspiracy theories are not just a set of individual attitudes.

Did you hear about…?

Also, conspiracy theorising is more often than not a shared endeavour and a social activity, performed through organisations, movements, campaigns, or through jointly produced websites and internet forums.

This means that conspiracy theories are least interesting (or least damaging) when they are confined to a person’s head; they are far more interesting when they are in the public domain, circulating as a set of ideas — on the basis of which movements are established, political projects forged and power relations challenged and sustained.

A theory of conspiracy theories

As a number of social psychologists (including Henri Tajfel, Michael Bilig, Keneth Gergen or Serge Moscovici) have argued over the years, psychology ought to be turning its attention away from looking for psychological underpinnings of social phenomena and consider instead how specific ideologies, worldviews and cultural traditions produce particular patterns of thinking and behaviour.

Put differently, it is not that ‘faulty reasoning’ causes people to endorse conspiracy-based explanations, but rather that something within those explanations, within their thematic configuration, narrative structure and explanatory logic, leads people to exhibit these seemingly ‘faulty’ patterns of thought.

This suggests that the central object of study should be the structure, logic and evolution of conspiracy theories, with a view to explaining how and why this tradition of explanation persists in modern society, and how it sustains distinct forms of individual and collective thought and action.

Dr Jovan Byford is a lecturer in Psychology at The Open University. This article was originally published on OpenLearn and can be viewed here.

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