October 02, 2022

Why do some people believe in conspiracy theories?

It seems that every family has an Uncle Joe—the guy who talks endlessly about conspiracy theories at the holiday table: the “911” attack was orchestrated by the US government; the moon landing was filmed in Hollywood; in the Kennedy assassination, Oswald is not alone; global warming is a hoax…

Maybe we should give Uncle Joe a break, or at least try to understand his thoughts. Why do some people believe in conspiracy theories?

This is exactly the question raised by British psychologist Karen Douglas and her colleagues in an article recently published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science. Researchers have discovered that the reasons for believing in conspiracy theories can be divided into three categories:

Desire for understanding and certainty

Desire for control and safety

Desire to maintain a positive self-image

Let us look at these motivations in turn.

1. The desire for understanding and certainty.

It is the natural desire of mankind to seek explanations of events. We keep asking why things happen like this. Why does it rain when I want to go out? Why is she so indifferent to me? Why don’t you understand what I’m talking about?

We are not just asking questions. We will also quickly find answers to these questions-not necessarily real answers, but answers that can comfort us or fit our worldview:

When I was about to go out, it rained because I was bad luck; she was cold to me because she couldn’t bear that she couldn’t do what she wanted; you didn’t understand what I was saying because you were not listening.

All of us have some false beliefs, that is, some things we believe to be true are actually not true. For example, if you think Sydney is the capital of Australia, you are the victim of a false belief.

However, once you face the fact that Canberra is the capital of Australia, you will easily change your mind. After all, you just got it wrong, you are not emotional.

By definition, conspiracy theories are also false beliefs. But people who believe in conspiracy theories have a vested interest in defending them. First, they tried to understand the conspiracy theory about this incident by reading books, surfing the Internet, or watching TV shows that support their beliefs.

Uncertainty is an unpleasant state, and conspiracy theories provide a sense of understanding and certainty, which is comforting.

2. The desire for control and safety.

People need to feel that they can control their lives. For example, many people feel that they feel safer when they act as drivers instead of passengers.

Of course, even the best drivers will have accidents for reasons beyond their control.

Similarly, conspiracy theories can make people who believe in them feel in control and security. This is especially true when some information makes us feel threatened.

For example, if the global temperature rises sharply due to human activities, then I will have to make painful changes to my comfortable lifestyle.

However, if experts and politicians assure me that “global warming is a hoax,” then I can maintain my current lifestyle.

This kind of motivational reasoning is an important part of conspiracy theory beliefs.

3. The desire to maintain a positive self-image.

Research shows that people who are marginalized in society are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories.

Each of us wants to maintain a positive self-image, and self-image usually comes from the role we play in life, such as our work, and our relationship with family and friends.

When we know that as a parent, spouse, friend, teacher or mentor, we have had a positive impact on the lives of others, we will feel that our lives are valuable and feel good about ourselves.

Assuming that Uncle Qiao is disabled and hasn’t worked for many years, then he may feel excluded from society. However, he has enough time to browse information about conspiracy theories online, and he can chat online with people with similar beliefs.

Therefore, belief in conspiracy theories gave Uncle Qiao a sense of belonging.

In addition, his research on conspiracy theories made him feel like a person with “exclusive news.” Those who believe that global warming is real, or that vaccines are safe, most do not feel that they have exclusive information because they understand science.

On the contrary, Uncle Joe trusts experts. Therefore, when “Uncle Joe” starts to produce all the “evidence” against global warming, it may be difficult for you to make a reasonable refutation. You will only think that this conspiracy theory is too complicated to be true, but from the perspective of Uncle Joe, he clearly understands the subject better than you.

In short, we have a good understanding of what motivates people to believe in conspiracy theories. In other words, they do this because everyone has these three basic needs: to understand the world around us, feel safe and in control, and maintain a positive self-image.

But can conspiracy theories really help people meet these needs?

Research has found that when college students are exposed to conspiracy theories, they will show increasing insecurity. This has led some researchers to conclude that conspiracy theory beliefs are self-deception.

But, as Douglas and her colleagues pointed out, most college students have little motivation to believe in conspiracy theories. They believe that what really needs to be done is to carefully design some research to directly test those who already believe in conspiracy theories.

Regardless of the future results of these studies, the real problem we face now is how to deal with the “Uncle Joe” in life. You can submit counter-evidence and try to persuade him to give up the conspiracy theory, but you are unlikely to succeed.

This is because you are discussing facts, and Uncle Joe is defending his sense of security and his positive feelings about himself. For all of us, self-image always trumps facts.