Why Do We Believe Conspiracy Theories?

Did you know that NASA faked the moon landing and Elvis faked his death? Did you know that Hillary Clinton ran a child pornography ring out of a pizzeria or that Bill Gates engineered the current pandemic so that people could be implanted with a tracking device? These and myriad other conspiracy theories swirl around us.

            Conspiracy theories are not new, they spread quickly, and they are stubbornly persistent. Consider that in the year 64AD, a week of wind and heat allowed a small fire to grow to an inferno that flattened Rome. Emperor Nero had been away. He returned to mobs calling for his head because, apparently, he had orchestrated the fire to rebuild the city according to his plan. People also insisted that rather than stopping the blaze, he had watched from a window while nonchalantly playing his fiddle. Neither was true but both lies were accepted even before the flames had subsided. Nearly two thousand years later, Nero’s fiddling remains our metaphor of an uncaring leader.

            To understand the Rome fire and all other conspiracy theories we must concede that in terms of biological and evolutionary time, we are the Romans. We know more stuff and enjoy more technology but we’re no smarter than them because our brains are no more developed. We are just a susceptible to a good conspiracy theory now as they were then.         

            According to clinical phycologist Jade Wu, we and the Romans have three fundamental needs. First, we need to understand. Sometimes things are so complex that it is easier to accept a simple explanation rather than admit to no explanation or that it is beyond our capacity to understand. Second, we need to feel in control. A conspiracy theory offers comfort to those buffeted by forces beyond their ability to influence or direct. Finally, we need to feel good about ourselves. It is easier to blame others than accept responsibility for bad decisions or things not going as we wished.

            While we are all subject to these deep-seated psychological needs, social psychologist Karen Douglas argues that some of us are more susceptible than others to the lure of conspiracy theories. You are more likely to believe conspiracy theories if you are narcissistic, have poor critical thinking skills, crave intellectual certainty, are intellectually incurious, or feel anxious or depressed. People with one or more of these characteristics are more likely to seek people, social media, and news sources that merely confirm their already cemented biases and beliefs. Conspiracy theories find fertile ground in echo chambers that confirm already entrenched beliefs that, for example, all immigrants are dangerous, all politicians lie, all corporations are evil, the other political party is always corrupt, or that no one as inconsequential as Lee Harvey Oswald could have changed the course of history with a couple of lucky shots that took down someone as powerful as President Kennedy.

            Conversely, of course, if you exhibit the opposite of all or most of those traits then you are more likely to fulfill your need for understanding, control, and self-esteem by digging deeper, seeking nuance, trusting expertise, and considering information’s sources. You are more likely to seek information that broadens perspective and challenges assumptions. You are less likely to buy a conspiracy theory if you read a lot and rather enjoy the cognitive dissonance sparked by new ideas and nuance and feel safer, more in control, and better about yourself due to searching for a deeper understanding of complex issues and ideas.  

            All this means that the only defence we have against conspiracy theories is a willingness to undertake the hard work of critical thinking and maintaining a healthy skepticism. The Romans believed the Nero stories long before there was Facebook, Twitter, or Fox News. People will believe new conspiracy theories long after those and other purveyors of lies are as dead as the Roman Empire. Let us be among those willing to do the real work of seeking the real truth.