The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories: What Are they? Who Believes Them? Any Why are They So Hard to Get Rid Of?

Conspiracy theories are having a kind of a moment right now.

Although some conspiracy theories are decades old, the current political climate has given rise to many political conspiracy theories that have taken hold of the public’s conspicuousness. . . and that is bad news for any one who cares about facts and truthfulness.

One of the things missing for the conversation about conspiracy theories is the underlining psychology that gives rise to them. Interestingly, there has been a growing body of academic literature in recent years that have been studying the psychological underpinnings of conspiracy theories, and some of the key findings have been, well, fascinating. Some of the key findings about conspiracy theories include:

• large numbers of individuals endorse conspiracy theories
• conspiracy beliefs persist throughout the general population
• conspiracy theories have persisted over time
• conspiracy theories occur in many regions of the world
• conspiracy theories exist across the left-right political spectrum

These findings are only a few of the more interesting things uncovered about conspiracy theories in recent years.

Concerning the psychological underpinnings of conspiracy theories, however, a few things remain notable, like, for instance, that conspiracy theorists tend to have a high “need for closure” (NFC), where they tend to “seize and freeze” ambiguous information. In other words, one of the hallmarks of conspiracy thinking is that the world is seen though a “black and white” lens, where no ambiguity is tolerated. Moreover, researchers have also found that calling something a “conspiracy theory” does little to decrease one’s belief in it; yet calling an individual a “conspiracy theorist” does appear to have an impact on one’s belief.

These findings are important for several reasons.

First, because conspiracy theories have been making their way into mainstream news, where the line between fact and fiction is becoming ever more blurred, it is important that individuals engage in critical thinking exercises to tease out fact from conspiracy. Second, some conspiracy theories specifically target science itself, and this can lead to all kinds of problems. If someone believes the Apollo moon landings were a hoax (which some conspiracy theorists do) that may do little harm to the world outside of that individual’s head, regardless of how insidious the beliefs they hold. But if someone believes that the AIDS/HIV virus was created by the government or that vaccines cause autism, this is very problematic because these types of conspiracies may undermine medical safety and public trust.

Finally, because conspiracy theories have been entering into the mainstream, it remains important for the news-consuming public, public officials, academics, and the like to activity combat and undermine conspiracies before more harm is done. Facts still have a place in this world, as “getting your facts straight” remains the only reliable way to discriminate against junk ideas.