The Psychology behind Conspiracy Theories and Their Allure

Posted on August 15, 2018

It would be easy to simply believe that conspiracy theorists have a certain psychological pathology, but the truth is that conspiracy theorists may just be your average person-next-door.

Conspiracy theories are not just a product of the digitalization age; they are derived from a distortion of the deeply rooted belief in the human psyche that we live in a just world, and that everything happens for a reason. This includes the belief that bad things should not happen to good people. But when they do, that belief is threatened, and people will thus seek out a reasonable explanation for why this would happen. However, when the usual explanations are insufficient, some people would turn to conspiracy theories as a source of explanation.

Secondly, feelings of anxiety and uncertainty can also help to drive the spread of conspiracy theories. These emotions act as a psychological alarm which signal to the individual that there is something wrong in the environment, which prompts them to search for an explanation to dispel the anxious or uncertain feeling. Researchers have found that feelings of uncertainty, e.g. fear and worry, coupled with the perception of a loss of control, increase the likelihood of conspiracy thinking.

However, instead of allaying these negative emotions, conspiracy theories fuel further anxiety, thereby trapping the individual in a vicious cycle of overthinking and anxiety. In addition, studies from the 1990s show that believing in one conspiracy theory is a significant predictor of believing in other theories.

In an age where there is much uncertainty and tensions between groups, the spread and accessibility of conspiracy theorizing and fake news is made even easier with global digitalization. It is thus especially important to understand the psychology behind the allure of conspiracy theories. We cannot simply hope to be reactive in terms of debunking fake news when it becomes too viral; but we should also aim to intervene early by being aware of the various triggers of conspiracy thinking so that we can limit the spread and potential dangers of conspiracy theories.


Category(s):Other, Paranoia / Suspiciousness, Prejudice / Discrimination

Source material from NBC News


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