I have lived and worked in four multi-cultural countries and also visited several. Whenever I interact with a person of different nationality, I love to discuss their culture, traditions, and faith. Fortunately, I socialized with around 47 nationalities.
There are many traits that we all share same but one social psychological phenomenon is common among humans — belief in Conspiracy Theories.
If I compile the list of top 10 conspiracy theories that I heard firsthand from the people I met or chat, will be:
- The moon landings were faked
- 9/11 was orchestrated by Jews or US
- Theories about the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
- Secret Societies Control the World; New World Order
- Massive Muslim plot to Islamise Europe and other Western countries
- Halal certification funds terrorism.
- Holocaust is exaggerated, and 6 million Jews were not killed
- Crazy theories about Covid-19 and other diseases
- Vaccines don’t work, and Bill Gates is trying to inject something else with vaccines
- Global Warming is fake
Whether or not above-mentioned conspiracy theories are correct, they have a real impact on people’s health, relationships, and safety.
Lately, I have been reading few articles and research papers about it which I have used to write and compile this review article (check references section). We will try to find the answers of the following three questions:.
- What factors drive the popularity of conspiracy theories?
- What are the consequences of adopting these theories?
- How should we engage with the conspiracy theories or theorists?
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What psychological factors drive the popularity of conspiracy theories?
Belief in conspiracy theories appears to be driven by motives that can be characterised as:
- Desire for Information
- Desire for Control and Security
- Desire to Maintain the Self or Group Identity
Desire for Information
Humans are very curious specie; therefore, we try to find patterns in everything. You may have heard about the claims about seeing holy faces, scriptures, and images in the clouds, food, mountains, even on animals’ skins — because we also possess a power of imagination that makes us a remarkable storyteller and also compel us in believing them.
When a large-scale or significant event happens, there will be a casual explanation available initially. But people craft the stories — but why? Because people crave for information; therefore, they analyse the events on limited information and build their own narrative.
Every pleasant story needs a hero and villain. Successful conspiracy theories always have a right villain; it can be a person, an ideology, political or religious group, country — in short, anything but it should be the right one. Who is a hero then? Well, I will discuss it in the third motive.
Conspiracy theories and fictional stories are very similar with one difference — they use former as counter-narratives to confuse the actual nature of events and, in doing so, push a particular ideological view of the world.
In this era of information, why still people fall for the conspiracy theories? As per studies, conspiracy belief is correlated with lower levels of analytic thinking and lower levels of education.
Actual explanation of the events takes time and effort, but thanks to Internet and mobiles, fake news, and misinformation spread like a fire.
Events like disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines, Coronavirus, Beirut’s massive explosion, and many more like them are bizarre and unexpected events; their explanations can’t be provided immediately unless conspiracy theorists are at work. Conspiracy theories offer explanations that provide this connection.
People are naturally inclined to seek information that confirms their existing beliefs. So, when they run across a theory that supports something that they already think is true, they are more likely to believe the information is also true.
Desire for Control and Security
Most of us have a desire for information but lack the ability or motivation to think critically and rationally. In the events of uncertainty, when we can’t control the outcomes, we feel anxious and powerless — that likely to turn us to conspiracy theories.
Studies suggest people turn to conspiracy theories as a way of feeling safer and more in control — because when they believe in certain theories, they consider themselves part of a particular clan or group. For example, if someone doesn’t believe in vaccines, Covid-19 or moon-landing, they will find other people who believe the same. Now they have got the opportunity to reject official narratives and feel that they possess an alternative account.
But now, as per researchers, there is a little evidence that believing in these theories actually helps people satisfy this need to feel control and freedom. In fact, by believing in these theories, people may be less likely to engage in actions that might boost their sense of control (such as voting, taking part in political activity).
Since conspiracy theories suggest that important outcomes are in the hands of evil-minded forces who possess and exercise powers beyond legitimate limits, it would not be surprising if further research suggests that long-term effects may leave people feeling more demoralised than ever before.
Desire to Maintain the Self or Group Identity
People can also be motivated to believe in conspiracy due to social reasons. Scholars have suggested that conspiracies portray out-groups as the opposition which makes believers feel better about themselves and their own social group.
Those who believe in the conspiracy feel that they are the “heroes” of the story, while those who are conspiring against them are “the villains.”
People with social motives believe in conspiracies when:
• They are on the “losing” side of a political issue
• They have a lower social status because of income or ethnicity
• They have experienced social disgrace or rejection
• They are discriminated against “villain” groups
Such findings suggest that conspiracy beliefs might arise as a sort of defence mechanism. When people feel disadvantaged, they are motivated to boost their own self-perceptions. Blaming others by linking them to malevolent plots provides a scapegoat on which to lay blame, thus improving how conspiracy believers view themselves.
Conspiracists are usually narcissists. They believe that their own social group is better, yet less appreciated, by other people.
People who feel that they or their social group have been victimised are also less likely to believe in government institutions and more likely to believe in conspiracies.
How people encounter and share these ideas should also be noted. It’s easy to dismiss a story shared by a random source that you don’t trust. But when multiple people in your social circle who you know and trust all seem to believe the same story, it seems less like a silly conspiracy and more like a trusted fact. Sharing these kinds of stories within our networks gives social credence to such conspiratorial thinking.
What are the consequences of adopting these theories?
While researchers have some good theories about why people believe in conspiracies, it is less clear what the ultimate effects of these beliefs are.
What researchers have found is that believing in conspiracies seems to reinforce feelings of confusion, isolation, vulnerable, and loneliness. It is a destructive cycle—negative feelings contribute to the belief in conspiracies, yet the belief in conspiracies results in negative feelings.
Believing in conspiracy theories erodes people’s trust in their government, their leaders, and their institutions. It also diminishes trust in science and research itself. This distrust may discourage people from participating in their social worlds. It might also cause people to stop seeing themselves as valuable contributors to society.
Believing in things that are not true poses several dangers, which can have actual effects that impact individual behaviour and ultimately have a ripple impact on society as a whole.
Failing to address dangerous misbeliefs presents a potential danger to public health and even the political process itself. Faulty beliefs lead can lead people to not vaccinate, not vote, or, in some rare cases, even engage in dangerous or violent behaviour.
How should we engage with the conspiracy theories or theorists?
In the age of disinformation, refuting conspiracy beliefs seems more important than ever. Social platforms claim to be buckling down on those who peddle and profit off of conspiracies, but is it really possible to change such views once they’ve taken root? Some things to remember when trying to change someone’s mind about a conspiracy theory.
Listen and Find out What They Actually Believe
One problem faced when trying to disprove conspiracy theories is that people who hold these beliefs also tend to suspect that there are factions engaged in covering up these activities. Those trying to debunk the mistaken beliefs are then viewed as simply being actors in the conspiracy itself.
While it might be tempting to simply mock conspiracy theories, especially the more ridiculous ones, this usually causes believers to dig in their heels and deepen their commitment to their belief.
Learn About Their Status Quo
As we learned earlier that many factors such as education background and personality draw people to conspiracy theories and superstitions, and these are not easily or quickly changed.
Researchers found a tactic that is very effective — encouraging conspiracists to pursue their goals that increases people’s sense of control over their lives.
Researchers found that goal-oriented people were more sceptical and less likely to buy into conspiracies. Why? People who believe that the future hinges on their own actions have a great deal of personal agency and control. It is this sense of autonomy and agency that makes people less likely to believe in secret plots and nefarious plans.
On the other hand, unambitious are more focused on protecting what they already have rather than on achieving their goals.
A Quick Word by Author
Conspiratorial thinking can be problematic and dangerous, but this does not mean that you shouldn’t have questions about institutions, marketing, social media, etc. After all, not all conspiracies are false.
As you encounter information from various sources, it is important to be able to distinguish between false conspiracy theories and actual threats to personal security. While it may be tempting to ridicule conspiracy believers, remember that these sorts of beliefs are actually pretty common — you probably even believe in some of them.
In a world where people feel the very real effects of power imbalances and distrust in leadership, conspiracy theories will naturally flourish, which means discouraging this type of thinking is not always easy.
Maybe it’s difficult to change the adults, but what about the children? The best lifelong learning skills that you can teach to your kids is Analytical Thinking — it should be the part of the curriculum at primary school level.
Education and awareness work like a herd immunity — the more people are educated and cognizant — less will be affected by conspiracy theory disorder.Thy Fere