Gaining access to reliable and credible knowledge about the world is easier than ever before. If you want to figure out why light cannot escape a black hole, why some plants run part of photosynthesis during the night, how insulin is made or the details of some law, that information is just a few clicks away. This has enabled billions of people to look up stuff for themselves and informed themselves about a whole host of issues from global warming to public transport. Yet, there is a darker aspect to this situation. Technological advances have also made it much easier for false information to become even more widespread than before. As the old saying goes, it takes an order of magnitude more effort to debunk nonsense than it takes to spread it.
With the advent of social media and personalized search engines, it is now easier than ever before to lock oneself into filter bubbles where the content one sees just reinforces and amplifies existing opinions and views. Easier than ever to be socially brainwashed by pseudoscience and bigotry. People can join intellectually isolated communities where they are not exposed to any contrary information and be led into believing the most absurd things about reality. Why do people believe in conspiracy theories? Are there individual differences and what are those caused by? How has the research conclusions about conspiracy theorists changed in the last few decades of psychological research?
The truth is out there is a recent narrative review paper on the psychology behind conspiracy theories. It was written by Viren Swami and Rebecca Coles and published in The Psychologist in 2010. It surveys research that address the fascinating question of what makes people believe in conspiracy theories. There are a lot of opinions out there, but what are the facts behind the speculations?
Research starting in the late 1960s suggested that a belief in conspiracy theories was associated with psychopathology and delusions. Think about the common portrayal of a conspiracy theorists as people in a tin foil hat reading old newspapers and studying grainy photos trying to draw imaginary connections where none exist while at the same time thinking that the government is reading their minds. Hofstadter also suggested that conspiratorial thinking were more likely to emerge among the powerless and those who experienced a catastrophic event. However, the prominence and spread of conspiracy theories in all areas and levels of society suggests that this is not the entire story.
Later research discussed the possibility that conspiracy theories helped people make sense of the world in chaotic and turbulent times. They also help to provide psychologically satisfying answer to ambiguities and allows people to have a comforting, yet faulty, sense of certainty in the face of a lack of information. Conspiracy theories are also excellent at insulating people from opposing information: all evidence against a conspiracy theory just shows how far the conspiracy goes and those who object to conspiracy theories are seen as shills paid off my the shadowy conspirators.
There could also be a sense of twisted proportionality involved, where high-impact events have to be explained by high-impact causes. So people who believe in conspiracy theories might be more likely to believe that a powerful political leader was assassinated by an insidious shadow government than a random person on drugs who mistook the politician for an adversary. Many conspiracy theories also provoke strong emotions, such as anger and upset. This is, in some sense, part of the answer why they are so successful. People are more likely to remember and share stories that made them outraged than those that did not provoke any particular feeling. That is maybe one reason why a lot of the widespread conspiracy theories are so hysterically exaggerated and free of facts.
It would be valuable to do more research on conspiracy theorists in order to lessen the impact of misinformation, prevent people from falling into the trap of conspiracy theories and helping them escape. Because conspiracy theories often portray accurate information as deceptive lies and science advocates as paid shills, it is difficult to reach them in their bubble. It is also likely that conspiracy theorists would view such research as a conspiracy against them. Yet this is a social environment from which we can learn a lot about human biases and ways to rescue people from extremist movements. We ignore it at our peril.
This article is available in both online and PDF formats. Cached versions of the online paper can be found here and here. There are currently no cached version of the PDF document available. Interestingly, the website also has the paper in MP3 format that you can listen to. It also has a great set of references that one can pursue to read more papers and books about psychological research on conspiracy theories and why they are so appealing to people.