Psychology and the Allure of Conspiracy Theories

They can shape public sentiment on everything from climate change to public health. Understanding why people believe them is vital, researchers say.

Did you hear about how the recent California wildfires were set intentionally? From an airplane? With a laser? To clear a path for a railroad? While your cousin may have obtained his information from some guys at the gym, this idea can also be found on social media, along with other theories about the California fires. YouTube videos claim that the October 2017 wildfires that swept through Northern California were the result of a government attack or a weapons test using some kind of laser or microwave device. The evidence, they say, is in houses that burned flat while trees around them were left standing. “It doesn’t make any sense,” says one YouTuber, over footage of the rubble.

If we feel like we’re hearing about conspiracy theories more than ever, one reason might be found in leadership.

It does make sense, though, to Jack Cohen. A retired research physical scientist for the U.S. Forest Service who has studied fires both in the field and in the lab, Cohen calls this burn pattern typical. A wildfire, he says, actually burns less intensely when it reaches a neighborhood. Instead of sweeping forward as a wall of flame, it becomes sneaky, hopping between wooden houses and dry patches of lawn via embers. The alleged railway path doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, either. But fact-checking probably won’t stop some from seeing insidious patterns in fires and other natural disasters. Of course, climate change is helping to make these events more frequent and intense, but to the conspiracy-minded, climate change itself is a hoax.

Researchers have defined conspiracy theories as “explanatory beliefs about a group of actors that collude in secret to reach malevolent goals.” These theories can feel like they’re everywhere right now, from Facebook to Twitter to the Thanksgiving table, though research suggests that this is not unique to today. In fact, conspiracy theories have been more common in previous moments in history, experts say. Still, in the modern era, when conspiracy theories hold the power to shape beliefs on everything from climate change, to politics, to public health, it may be especially important to understand why some people believe what they do.


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Conspiracy theory research has grown dramatically in the last decade, says Karen Douglas, a social psychologist at the University of Kent in the U.K. In a 2017 paper, Douglas and co-author Jan-Willem van Prooijen explored a link between conspiracy theories and societal crises. They went all the way back to another fire — the burning of Rome in 64 A.D., which happened while Emperor Nero was safely away from the city.

In the widespread destruction afterward, conspiracy theorists suggested Nero had started the fire on purpose so he could rebuild Rome the way he wanted.

In turn, Nero claimed Christians had conspired to burn the city.


In the 2014 book “American Conspiracy Theories,” Joseph Uscinski, a political scientist at the University of Miami who specializes in conspiracy theories, along with co-author Joseph Parent, set out to quantify conspiracy theories over time. The authors gathered 120 years’ worth of letters to the editor of The New York Times, ending up with more than 100,000. By scouring this mountain of correspondence for mentions of conspiracy theories, Uscinski and Parent were able to see trends over time.

Between 1890 and 2010, they found two peaks. These were at times when the public, Republicans and Democrats alike, feared a common enemy, Uscinski says: the early 1890s, when people feared big businesses, and the early 1950s, when the enemy was communism. Leading up to the end of their dataset, though, the authors saw mentions of conspiracy theories drop off. “It’s impossible to measure the exact amount that there are out there in the political ether,” Uscinski says. But he doesn’t see any strong evidence that conspiracy theories are on the rise again.

Even an obscure theory with few true believers can become a major newspaper headline.

If we feel like we’re hearing about conspiracy theories more than ever, one reason might be found in leadership. “Not mentioning anyone in particular — but a certain president of a certain country uses a lot of conspiracy theories,” says Douglas, who co-edited a special issue of the European Journal of Social Psychology about belief in conspiracy theories that came out in December 2018.

Uscinski, meanwhile, is happy to name names. “What’s unique about this time is that you have President Trump, who is a conspiracy theorist,” he says. Historically, conspiracy theories are embraced by groups or parties that are out of power. Uscinski thinks Trump uses conspiracy theory rhetoric to keep his base engaged. That means everyone else is hearing more about these theories, too. Even an obscure theory with few true believers can become a major newspaper headline. And the internet and social media might help make conspiracy theories more visible.

Still, Uscinski says, there’s no indication yet that greater visibility leads more people to believe.

Van Prooijen, a social psychologist at VU Amsterdam, believes conspiracy theory thinking might be inherently human. In a 2018 paper, he and co-author Mark van Vugt describe their “adaptive-conspiracism hypothesis,” which says a tendency to see conspiracies could have been evolutionarily beneficial. “What we predict is that in earlier times when our ancestors were all hunter-gatherers, it was adaptive for human beings to be a little suspicious of groups that were different, or that were powerful,” van Prooijen says. When facing a group that can harm your own group, assuming they have bad intentions might be the safest strategy.

We’re not all equally suspicious. Van Prooijen, Douglas, and another collaborator have found, for example, that people who believe in conspiracy theories are more likely to perceive patterns in random stimuli, such as a series of coin tosses. Another recent study by Reine van der Wal of Utrecht University in the Netherlands and colleagues found that people who believe conspiracy theories are more likely to infer a relationship between unrelated events.

Looking for patterns is normal and helpful in many settings, van Prooijen points out. But conspiracy theorists see patterns that aren’t there, like intentionally destroyed houses or the path of a railroad. One YouTube video about the 2017 Northern California wildfires, which has 195,000 views, draws connections to hurricanes, a hepatitis A outbreak, and the release of the movie “Geostorm.”

Certain emotions also push people toward conspiracy theories: anxiety, uncertainty, and a lack of control. “People turn to conspiracy theories as a coping mechanism, in a way,” Douglas says. “They kind of help people to deal with a problem that just seems too big.” A wildfire is a big problem, for example. Climate change is an even bigger one. And studies have shown that belief in conspiracy theories is linked to climate change denial.

“Climate change is indeed a bit of a special case, I think, in conspiracy theories,” Van Prooijen says. Most conspiracy theories are about exaggerating a problem or finding alternate explanations for it, but climate denial is the opposite: refusing to acknowledge a very large problem. Probably the most well-known climate change conspiracy theory says that the entire phenomenon of global warming is a hoax. But conspiracy theories about droughts, wildfires, or hurricanes — all expected to intensify as the planet warms — are also tied to climate change.


Uscinski recalls stocking up on supplies before a hurricane hit Florida in 2017, and hearing his cashier at Target remark that Trump was controlling the storms. Surprised, Uscinski conducted a mini-poll. “I asked the woman behind me in line. I said, ‘Do you agree with this perspective, that Trump’s controlling this hurricane?’ And she said, ‘Yeah, I definitely do, he’s doing this.’” That woman told Uscinski she was a public school teacher, “which was sort of horrifying,” he says.

A poll of more than 2,000 Floridians asked if they believed that the government controlled catastrophic weather events such as hurricanes. Fourteen percent said yes.

Later, he conducted a real poll of more than 2,000 Floridians, asking if they believed that the government controlled catastrophic weather events such as hurricanes. Fourteen percent said yes. Another 18 percent weren’t sure. “People don’t want to admit that they’ve caused the problem,” Douglas says. The anxiety and uncertainty that climate change causes through droughts, fires, and storms could make people even more likely to turn to conspiracy theories. It feels better to deny climate change is happening, or blame its effects on someone else.

Douglas says it matters who people blame for climate change. If people think global warming is a hoax or the government controls the weather, they might be less likely to take steps to reduce their carbon footprint. Cohen, the fire scientist, finds the unscientific thinking behind wildfire conspiracy theories “rather depressing” and says he avoids seeking these theories out. But Douglas thinks that understanding where conspiracy beliefs come from can help researchers figure out how to intervene — at least where it’s important. “If people think that there are lizard aliens ruling the world,” she says, “it doesn’t really matter.”


Elizabeth Preston is a freelance writer whose work can be found in New Scientist, Discover, Quanta, The Atlantic, and STAT News, among other publications.

Top visual: Cultura via Getty
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7 comments / Join the Discussion

    I am not worried about ordinary conspiracies against me — the ones fomented by people, for I am almost completely independent; a ‘freelance’ physician not afraid to lose any post, for I have none, nor to lose fame for I have never been famous. Furthermore I am no lender to be concerned about chasing the borrower, nor a borrower to be concerned about the stalking of loan sharks.

    The conspiracies I fear most are the inner ones — the ones perpetrated by my own cells, silently for most of my lifetime. Conspiracies to mutiny and multiply uncontrolled wreaking havoc in my body, conspiracies to stop apoptosing for my sake, and to turn immortal at the cost of my own life

    Boghos L. Artinian MD

    Reply

    Admittedly, the title of this piece focuses on ‘psychology and allure’ – but I’m still surprised it features no mention of the rise of social media and its role in dramatically increasing the publishing power of these theories. I’m tempted to think the thing that makes this story relevant now isn’t the general decline in conspiratorial beliefs (as noted in the article) but, rather, how every conspiracy-minded person has been handed a bullhorn.

    Reply

    While I agree that it may be arguable that burn patterns of wildfire may indicate some form of conspiracy, this author is too quick to throw the baby out with all the bathwater.

    There are clearly many very REAL conspiracies throughout history (e.g. smallpox intentionally being spread to Native Indians, attempted cover-up of bikini atoll nuclear test disaster, documented mind-control experiments by CIA that have since been declassified via FOIA etc.)

    Does the author think the JKF assassination does not begin with some form of conspiracy too?
    By definition, the JFK assassination, is a classic conspiracy turned into reality and exposed as such, correct?

    More recent examples that are CLEARLY highly suspicious is “Building 7” during 9-11.
    Google this smoking gun “Building 7” and you know there is no rational way an entire skyscraper can come down in a similar fashion as a controlled demolition due to just a few small & sporadic fires.

    The world is not what it seems. What you see and read in the press is not always what is the truth.

    Reply

    Gabriella, the JFK assassination “conspiracy theory” is the origin of the term. To call it “exposed” is flatly false, as the evidence supports the government’s conclusion that Oswald acted alone. Admittedly, the evidence is not particularly persuasive one way or the other, but the point is that people will continue to construct specific narratives none of which is more likely than the null hypothesis that Oswald acted alone.

    There are undoubtedly numerous plots going on right now, criminal conspiracies of all sorts and at all levels. There always have been. And some of them will involve the government, directly or indirectly. But the problem with the state of mind here is that specific narratives are viewed as intrinsically likely just because they implicate the government, or the Jewish people, or whomever. Consider the standard response a 9/11 truther gives to someone who disagrees: “So you think the government wouldn’t do this? That they only act in your best interest?” I don’t have to think that; the evidence speaks for itself, and my opinion about the nefariousness of the defendant isn’t relevant. Most of the evidence concocted to support these assertions is gathered and twisted with a specific goal in mind rather than analyzed objectively. And usually, when you do look at the evidence objectively, it falls apart almost instantly.

    This is the pattern you see in people who believe in secret government weather control. The government is being classified as “evil,” and therefore evil actions are automatically expected of them, even if the particular theories don’t really make any sense. That’s why you spent most of your post describing bad things previous administrations have done instead of developing the evidence for your theory.

    If you really want an answer for how 7 WTC is believed to have collapsed, and the variety of footage that exists of the collapse, the information is out there. Hell, you could read the article on Wikipedia. Your entire argument here is to google the demolition, which I have, and what I found does not support your conclusion. Rather than small and sporadic fires, there were fires on over a dozen different floors burning for up to seven hours. The fires were uncontrolled in many places due to a vulnerable sprinkler system with no automatic control and due to low water pressure for the fighters (because of the high demand of course). The building began to bulge and creak three hours before it collapsed, and did not collapse all at once, but over the course of about 40 seconds. Although copious amounts of information exist, most of it is extremely flimsy, often involving subjective interpretation of video footage, altered evidence, non-authoritative scientific opinions, and individual testimony. On balance, I think the evidence is clearly more consistent with a collapse due to structural failure from colliding debris and uncontrolled fires than with a demolition.

    Reply

    Govenrment controlled weather might be a poorly phrased conspiricay theory; certainly the government is controlling the amplitude and regularity of severe weather events with energy policy by encouraging industrial pollution in general and specifically with Rick Perry’s coal subsidies.

    Reply

    Really interesting point. People may poorly articulate their thoughts, such that it sounds as if they believe in whacko unsubstantiatable conspiracy theories.
    What William suggests makes a lot of sense. “President Trump” could be shorthand for those in government and in power; “control the weather” could be a layperson’s way of saying “influencing the climate”.
    So, how a question is asked matters, and assuming someone understood the question as asked, and that we understand the response, risks a great deal of misunderstanding. Thanks!

    Reply
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