The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories

do people believe in conspiracy theories? UFOs, Area 51, the
Illuminati, 9/11, New World Order, ‘chemtrails’, the moon landing –
there are conspiracies about all of them and many people believe them.
I’m not really interested in debunking all of these specific
conspiracy theories. Since I don’t think there’s a shred of evidence
for any of them, spending my time trying to prove them wrong just
isn’t worthwhile. But if you’re interested in finding out what
experts (trained scientists and engineers) have to say about the 9/11
and moon landing conspiracies, for example, you can look into their rational explanations for these events. I’m more interested in
the psychological basis of believing in conspiracy theories.

political scientist Michael Barkun identifies three types of
conspiracy theories. There are event conspiracy theories
– when a conspiracy is responsible for a single event (such as
9/11); systemic conspiracy theories
– when a single organisation aims to gain mass control (such as the
Jews, Freemasons, Catholic Church etc.) and finally there are
super-conspiracy theories
– when multiple conspiracies are linked together and work together
towards a common goal (such as the New World Order). But all of them
have something in common; all of them assert that complex plots are
being carried out by hidden, secret forces. Undoubtedly governments,
religions and other institutions do things we are not aware of, but a
conspiracy stretches this fact to a new extreme by claiming that what
they are doing is malicious, making them our worst enemies.

reason why conspiracy theories are popular is because humans have a
natural tendency to look for meaning
in otherwise random, chance events. The neurologist Klaus Konrad
coined the term apophenia in
1948 to characterise the onset of delusional thinking in psychosis –
as a modern term it means the experience of seeing meaningful
patterns or connections in random or meaningless data. The sceptic
Michael Shermer in his book The Believing Brain
uses a similar term called patternicity
to describe the human tendency to not only find meaningful patterns
in meaningless noise, but to also infuse real patterns with “meaning,
intention and agency.” Our brains have evolved to connect the dots
and create meaning out of the patterns we think we see. Our ancestors
would have had an evolutionary advantage to have a brain like this,
since they would be more likely to find real patterns – such as a
lion behind a bush – than would a competitor whose brain wasn’t
projecting patterns and meaning onto the world all the time.

biologists Kevin Foster and Hanna Kokko wrote a paper called The
Evolution of Superstitious and Superstitious-like Behaviour
In it they argue that humans are not very good at estimating whether
a rustle in the bushes, for example, is a threat or not. Because of
this fact, the cost of believing the rustle is a predator when it’s
not is very low, whereas the cost of believing it’s nothing when it
is a predator is very high. Our physical bodies and behaviour operate
according to cost-benefit balances. Therefore, if believing that most
patterns are real is beneficial, then this behaviour would evolve;
which it did.

A is connected to B and sometimes it isn’t. But when it is, we have
learned something valuable about the world which allows us to make
predictions, survive another day and have another opportunity to
reproduce. Unfortunately, our brains have not evolved to distinguish true
patterns from false patterns; there is no error-detecting mechanism
in our brain. The reason is that there’s probably no evolutionary
disadvantage in looking for patterns everywhere. Luckily, we do have
the scientific method, which allows us to spot the true patterns from
the false ones, by looking at the evidence and whether it falsifies
our pre-conceptions or not.

In the case of the moon landing
conspiracy, people who believe in it point out that video footage
shows the flag blowing in the wind. According to them, the moon
landing must have been faked and filmed on Earth, since there is no
wind on the moon which could cause the flag to move. However, the
appearance of the flag waving was caused by a metal pole along the
top of it which kept the flag in position. When the astronauts put
the flag in the ground, the pole vibrated which caused the flag to
move. After the astronauts put the flag in the ground it continues to
move as if “blowing in the wind”, but this is only because the
energy in the flag has nowhere to dissipate to – there is no
atmosphere on the moon. So here we have scientific evidence which
falsifies one of these conspiracy claims. But despite the evidence,
many people still cling on to these conspiracy theories. Why?

psychology there is also something called confirmation
. This is a tendency in
humans to interpret information in a way that confirms our
pre-conceptions. There is also something called cognitive
, which is when
someone feels discomfort in holding two belief systems which are in
conflict. In order to overcome this discomfort, information, data and
evidence will have to be manipulated in a way which preserves both
belief systems. Both confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance are
very common are can be used to explain why otherwise rational people
might also believe in creationism, astrology, crystal healing,
homeopathy, tarot reading, psychics, mediums and other New Age
inventions. It’s easy to see confirmation bias in conspiracy theories

In one version of the 9/11 conspiracy theory, it is believed
that the American government had detonated bombs inside the twin
towers after the planes had crashed. According to the conspiracy
theory, the buildings could only have fallen in the way they did if a
controlled explosion was involved. However, these conspiracy
theorists have no evidence for a belief in 9/11 as an “inside job”
and ignore the evidence against their case. Christen Simensen from
SINTEF, a research organisation in Norway, has said that the collapse
of the building can be explained be a chain of chemical events. When
molten aluminium gets in contact with water, which it would have when
the sprinkler system went on in the building, enormous amounts of
hydrogen are formed, which leads to higher temperatures, which leads
to a series of explosions. In spite of this, conspiracy theorists
continue to selectively choose information which supports their

to one study carried out by Dr Patrick Leman, people are naturally
inclined to believe that a significant event will have a significant
cause. This seems almost like common sense. However, in the study 64
participants were presented with four scenarios in which the
president of a fictional country was either: (a) shot and killed, (b)
shot but survived, (c) wounded but survived, (d) survived with wounds
but later died of a heart attack or (d) was unharmed. The
participants were more likely to suspect a conspiracy in the case of
a major event – the president being assassinated in scenario (a) –
than in the other cases. This tendency to assume a significant cause
for a significant event helps explain why JFK assassination
conspiracy theories are so popular. Significant events can equally be
explained by chance, coincidence, overt planning, a particularly crazy individual or
any other number of boring reasons.

feature of conspiracy theories is that they seem to be paranoid by
nature. They are heavily influenced by anxiety or fear to the point
of becoming a delusion. Again, there can be an evolutionary reason
for this. Being paranoid about potential threats is useful because it
makes you more vigilant and more likely to avoid that threat. In
modern times, many people view religion, government and other
organisations as threats – which is understandable since they are
powerful and influential – and they become paranoid about them.
This paranoia can then lead to conspiratorial thinking.

It might be
unfair to characterise all conspiracy theories as irrational and
paranoid, since some conspiracy theories have turned out to be true.
For example, the Tuskegee Experiment in 1932 involved the US
government monitoring the effects of syphilis and performing
experiments on those infected. However, the experiments were
conducted without consent, mostly on illiterate black males who
weren’t told they had syphilis and proper treatment was later denied
to them. It took until 1972, that’s 40 years later, for a man named
Peter Buxton to uncover this evil government plot. Still, true
conspiracies are rare and they seem to be limited to single events.
If you believed in all of the conspiracy theories about single
events, sure, one might turn
out to be true but that would be due to chance alone.

there’s evidence for one of these conspiracies there’s no reason to
believe in them. There’s no use in being paranoid all the time about
what the government is doing behind our backs. Sure the CIA, by definition, uses covert actions and has secret plans, but it is
irrational to think that these plans must be malicious. In addition,
any conspiracy theory assumes that many people are involved in
covering it up. If 9/11 was a government plot, hundreds of government
officials would have to be in on it. If the moon landing was faked,
everyone working at NASA at the time must have been in on it. People
are not good at keeping secrets and having that many people preserve
such a monumental secret just seems unlikely. Even small secrets
involving a small number of people, such as those related to the lives of politicians, cannot be kept under wraps.


1 Comment

  1. December 22, 2016 / 6:26 pm

    Read Tragedy and Hope by Professor Carrol Quidley.

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