A review called ‘The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories‘ sets out a theory of why individuals end up believing Elvis is alive, NASA faked the moon landings or 9/11 was an inside job. Karen Douglas and colleagues suggest:
Belief in conspiracy theories appears to be driven by motives that can be characterized as epistemic (understanding one’s environment), existential (being safe and in control of one’s environment), and social (maintaining a positive image of the self and the social group).
In their review they cover evidence showing that factors like uncertainty about the world, lack of control or social exclusion (factors affecting epistemic, existential and social motives respectively) are all associated with increased susceptibility to conspiracy theory beliefs.
But also they show, paradoxically, that exposure to conspiracy theories doesn’t salve these needs. People presented with pro-conspiracy theory information about vaccines or climate change felt a reduced sense of control and increased disillusion with politics and distrust of government. Douglas’ argument is that although individuals might find conspiracy theories attractive because they promise to make sense of the world, they actually increase uncertainty and decrease the chance people will take effective collective action.
My take would be that, viewed like this, conspiracy theories are a form of maladaptive coping. The account makes sense of why we are all vulnerable to conspiracy theories – and we are all vulnerable; many individual conspiracy theories have very widespread subscription – for example half of Americans believe Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone in the assassination of JFK. Of course polling about individual beliefs must underestimate the proportion of individuals who subscribe to at least one conspiracy theory. The account also makes sense of why some people are more susceptible than others – people who have less education, are more excluded or powerless and have a heightened need to see patterns which aren’t necessarily there.
There are a few areas where this account isn’t fully satisfying.
– it doesn’t really offer a psychologically grounded definition of conspiracy theories. Douglas’s working definition is ‘explanations for important events that involve secret plots by powerful and malevolent groups’, which seems to include some cases of conspiracy beliefs which aren’t ‘conspiracy theories’ (sometimes it is reasonable to believe in secret plots by the powerful; sometimes the powerful are involved in secret plots), and it seems to miss some cases of conspiracy-theory type reasoning (for example paranoid beliefs about other people in your immediate social world).
– one aspects of conspiracy theories is that they are hard to disprove, with, for example, people presenting contrary evidence seem as confirming the existence of the conspiracy. But the common psychological tendency to resist persuasion is well known. Are conspiracy theories especially hard to shift, any more than other beliefs (or the beliefs of non-conspiracy theorists)? Would it be easier to persuade you that the earth is flat than it would be to persuade a flat-earther that the earth is round? If not, then the identifying mark of conspiracy theories may be the factors that lead you to get into them, rather that their dynamics when you’ve got them.
– and how you get into them seems crucially unaddressed by the experimental psychology methods Douglas and colleagues deploy. We have correlational data on the kinds of people who subscribe to conspiracy theories, and experimental data on presenting people with conspiracy theories, but no rich ethnographic account of how individuals find themselves pulled into the world of a conspiracy theory (or how they eventually get out of it).
Further research is, as they say, needed.
Reference: Douglas, K., Sutton, R. M., & Cichocka, A. (2017). The psychology of conspiracy theories. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26 (6), 538-542.
Karen Douglas’ homepage
I saw Karen Douglas present this work at a talk to Sheffield Skeptics in the Pub. Thanks to them for organising.