Why do people believe conspiracy theories?

Some people are drawn to outlandish conspiracy theories, but why are some people more disposed than others?

The Truman Show has a lot to answer for. The 1998 film starring Jim Carrey as the blissfully unaware and unconsenting protagonist of his own reality TV series has triggered dozens of people to believe that they too are being watched by an entire world in on the secret. One man even drove to New York in the wake of the 11 September attacks to make sure that the Twin Towers really had been attacked, and weren’t a plot twist at his expense. He then tried to seek asylum from the cameras which, of course, weren’t there.

If you were on your own reality TV show against your will, the last thing you’d be allowed to see would be a film mirroring your predicament – but disregarding that for a second, The Truman Show delusion is a very modern conspiracy theory: it just wouldn’t be possible without the technology we have now. Yet, in another sense, the ubiquity of internet access should provide a regular slap in the face with common sense: fact-checking is, after all, just a click away.

Well, kind of. “It cuts both ways,” explains professor Robert Brotherton, author of Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories. “It has made it easier and quicker than ever before to spread conspiracy theories, but it’s also made it quicker than ever to spread corrective information.

“The ubiquity of internet access should provide a regular slap in the face with common sense: fact-checking is, after all, just a click away.”

“You hear all the time that we’re living in a golden age of conspiracy theories, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. We’re no more conspiratorial now than we were 100 years ago. Conspiracy has been a human preoccupation as long as we’ve had society – we’ve always been worried about people scheming behind our backs.” Indeed, a study from the University of Miami examined 113 years’ worth of letters to The New York Times, and found the level of enthusiasm for conspiracy theories to be remarkably stable. Going back even further, Brotherton explains how many believed the Great Fire of Rome to be an inside job by Emperor Nero.

So, are there common traits to bind together people who are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories? “There are some trends. Probably the most reliable trend is that people who endorse conspiracy theories more strongly are more likely to score higher on measures of paranoia.” People who are more suspicious of friends, neighbours and figures of authority are more likely, in other words. As Brotherton says, that isn’t surprising given that much of conspiracy is built upon people hiding the truth from you. He’s also keen to point out that paranoia, in this context, shouldn’t be conflated with mental illness: “They’re measuring something pretty mundane – the everyday suspicions we all have from time to time: that your co-workers are talking about you behind your back, or that the stranger on the street looked at you in a funny way.

“A little bit more surprising is that some studies find a correlation between conspiracy belief and a certain kind of open-mindedness. Often you find a correlation between belief in conspiracy theories and the paranormal, or New Age ideas or believing urban legends and superstitions. They don’t always logically go together, and yet it’s pretty reliable that people who buy into one unusual belief tend to buy into others as well.”

So, in other words, it’s not unheard of for people to believe in multiple conspiracy theories at the same time – even some that contradict each other. “For the most part conspiracy theories all seem to stem from a small set of assumptions about the world – basically, the idea that someone isn't telling us the truth about something. Once you accept that general premise, all conspiracy theories begin to look plausible,” Brotherton says.

“Debating with facts doesn’t work, because you’re assumed to be either ignorant or putting out misinformation.”

This, it seemed to me, is remarkably close to the kind of commenters you get on the internet claiming everything is biased – particularly on political commentary. Is there any crossover in terms of personality types? “Political partisanship can cut either way; people on the political left and right are roughly equally conspiracy-prone, they just throw their allegations in different directions,” says Brotherton.

“Another trait that seems to correlate with conspiracism is feeling like you don't have much control over things,” he adds. “So the perfect combination of traits would be someone who is a little more suspicious than average, more open-minded to unorthodox claims, and who is politically alienated.” Interesting. I’m just going to leave this link to an article about Donald Trump here, for no reason whatsoever.

Okay, so we know the type of person who is more prone to conspiracy theory: how can you convince them their beliefs are mistaken? Direct proof isn’t usually enough: you still get people claiming the moon landings were faked despite the lack of adequate camera equipment to pull off the hoax. And many believe that a cure for cancer is suppressed for profits, despite very rich and powerful people routinely dying of cancer. One academic even argues that any genuine conspiracy has a mathematical half-life before some blabbermouth gives the game away. Why is all of this not enough?

“It’s written into conspiracy theory that nothing can prove them to be false,” explains Brotherton. “If there’s no evidence at all, then of course you’d expect that because it’s being covered up. And if there’s evidence against it, well you’d expect that as well because the conspirators are throwing out misinformation to throw us off the trail.” All of this, of course, comes with a big old dose of confirmation bias: if facts do seem to back things up, then they’re proof that a conspiracy theorist is on to something.

“Research found that people who dismiss conspiracy theories as implausible were more likely to disregard a few real examples of conspiracies thrown in.”

So, debating facts doesn’t work, because you’re either ignorant or putting out misinformation. However, there is some evidence to suggest that encouraging more analytical thinking can have an impact. “We can do certain things to prompt people not to rely on their intuition and to slow down a bit – to think a bit more rationally,” explains Brotherton. A study by professor Viren Swami discovered that even presenting conspiracy theories in different fonts could make a difference: if it was harder to read, it seemed less believable because it required deeper thought. Others suggest that belief correlates directly with feelings of control: “We found that if you give people a feeling of control, then they’re less inclined to believe those conspiracy theories,” psychologist Dr Jan-Willem van Prooijen told Time.

Of course, genuine conspiracies do emerge from time to time: the NSA really was undertaking vast amounts of secret surveillance; dangerous experiments on poor black men with syphilis were carried out between 1932 and 1972; and Watergate did happen. Indeed, Brotherton mentions research from a colleague, Dr Michael Wood, which found that people who dismiss conspiracy theories as implausible were more likely to disregard a few real examples of conspiracies thrown in.

“There is nothing inherent in conspiracy theories that says they have to be false,” says Brotherton. “The most reasonable position is to strike a balance between being open-minded, and obviously not accepting every claim of conspiracy.” It’s a tough line to walk.

It helps, of course, if they’re plausible, which is probably why The Truman Show delusion isn’t a more widely spread condition. The sums might add up if your life were interesting enough to warrant the 24-hour-a-day intrusion – however, given the past ten minutes of footage would be you reading this article, I’m guessing it’s not. So, carry on.

READ NEXT: When did science lose interest in the paranormal?

Images: Dave Center, Michael Gil, St Boniface Plymouth and Dennis Skley  used under Creative Commons

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