The Psychology Behind Conspiracy Theories
3 March 2021 Hits:581
This time last year, we heard more and more about this strange new virus, but we were still blissfully unaware of the impact it would have on the world.
Simultaneously, as this virus was infecting people, we also saw a rise in the number of conspiracy theories that were affecting people!
A little research led me to understand that conspiracies go hand in hand with crises; especially pandemics. For example, the 1918 flu pandemic was blamed on German Submarines that brought the disease into ports as a “terrible new weapon of war.” Someone else blamed the Germans, maintaining “that the germs were inserted into aspirin manufactured by the German pharmaceutical firm Bayer.” Modern technology like electric lights and telegraph poles were blamed. We look back and consider those conspiracy theories to be ridiculous. In 2121 people will think the same about the conspiracies people are spreading during the current Pandemic.
So, what is the psychology behind conspiracy theories? What type of people is more vulnerable to them? What are the perceived benefits of believing something that isn’t supported by the facts?
The Need for Certainty
Uncertain times are a breeding ground for misinformation. “When people feel threatened and out of control, it’s natural to want to feel more control and bring order to the randomness by resorting to conspiracy theories,” says John Cook, Ph.D., co-author of The Conspiracy Theory Handbook.
Last year COVID-19 was a new coronavirus, and little was known about it. It takes time and painstaking research over months and years to fully understand what we’re dealing with. Some people find it very difficult to live without knowing. And so, they assume it’s better to latch onto something, even if it’s the wrong thing than to know nothing. For these people believing a lie is better than facing reality.
The Need for Social Connection
Buying into conspiracies helps people find a social connection. Everyone wants to belong. Those who believe in conspiracies “belong” to a group of people, invariably online, who also believe. They become the “in-crowd,” our crowd, our tribe.
“It makes us feel safe… we feel like we aren’t alone and are part of something greater than ourselves where people understand us, and we understand them,” says Dr. Carla Manly, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist. “For some people, it’s a matter of pride. There are certain people who, until the bitter end, will hold onto something that is not true because they don’t want to believe they’re wrong.”
The Need to Know
A Facebook “friend” who posted on my page recently finished her comments with, “not many people know this.” I replied, “but YOU do, right?” It was a tongue-in-cheek response aimed at gently exposing her misplaced sense of importance. But it made no difference, and I didn’t really expect it to. Believing in conspiracy theories makes the believer feel unique being the bearer of scarce information. It’s the “I know something you don’t know” that we’d expect young children to whisper to each other, and it’s rooted in pride.
A 2016 study found, “People with high education are less likely than people with low education to believe in conspiracy theories.”
Those with low education tended to believe in simple solutions to complex problems. Those with higher education have been trained in critical thinking. That doesn’t mean that highly educated people are immune to conspiracies. In fact, those who have a higher education can be harder to convince that they are wrong.
The Need of Self
In our individualistic world, the need to look after number one (me) is invariably given high priority. People who focus on individual rights and freedoms as more important than concern for the broader community are more likely to be anti-mask, anti-lockdown, and anti-vaccine. They’ll view restrictions as attacks on their personal freedoms rather than common-sense measures to protect society. “I’m going to do what I want and no socialist politician/dictator/communist” is going to tell me what to do. Sound familiar?
How to respond
Many people have asked me how best to talk with someone who has embraced conspiracies. Firstly, ask yourself if it’s worth it. I think it’s best to go into a conversation without expecting to change the person’s mind. In other words, go into the discussion with low expectations. Try and talk about various topics too. Ask questions like, what has led you to believe that? Where did you get your information from?
If they are relentless in pursuing discussion of conspiracies, you are entirely within your rights to let them know when you’ve had enough. Refuse to argue. If they send you links to articles say, “That’s interesting, but I beg to differ.”
To guard my own mental health, I have chosen to unfollow certain people on social media. This is kinder than unfriending, but it means I don’t see their posts. And they post A LOT!
Anyway, that’s enough of all this. I need to devote some time to work out how they staged the moon landing in a TV studio ~ and renew my subscription to the Flat Earth Society!