Conspiracy theories, or conspiracy theories, are alternative explanations to official explanations, they share the fundamental belief that certain significant events in history have been maliciously manipulated by hidden and mysterious forces.
“The coronavirus pandemic is a secret plan devised by Bill Gates to implant traceable microchips in people.” “COVID vaccine can alter DNA.” “Vaccines contain lung tissue from an aborted fetus.” “The cure rate for the disease is 99.97 percent.” etc I don’t know how many of these theories we’ve heard lately.
Conspiracy theories are not new, there have been conspiracy theories in every era of history. But it seems that lately they are growing at an exponential rate. Why do more and more people believe in conspiracy theories? In this article we will try to answer this question by presenting the characteristics of conspiracy theories and the (relative) psychological benefits of those who share them.
What are conspiracy theories?
There have been conspiracy theories at all times in history, but they have increased exponentially in recent years, with the internet and more recently with the pandemic. To address this trend, the European Commission and UNESCO have even released a series of educational infographics to help citizens identify, refute and counter them.
Conspiracy theories have six things in common in their narrative: the existence of an alleged secret conspiracy, the presentation of a group of conspirators, the irrefutable proof of the theory, the basic idea that nothing happens by chance and that coincidences do not exist, the division of the world between good and evil, and a specific group of evil people with dark interests.
These theories appear as a logical explanation of events that are difficult to understand, giving a false sense of control. This need for clarity is even stronger in uncertain times like those we have experienced with the pandemic.
conspiracy theories they usually start with distrust on who benefits from the fact or the situation, and thus a group of conspirators is identified. Then look for any “evidence” that makes the theory sound. Although in some theories, as in the case of earth planners, one can quite doubt the benefit that NASA obtains, hiding that the earth is in fact flat.
Once sown, conspiracy theory is growing rapidly, especially thanks to the internet and social media. They are difficult to refute because anyone who tries them can be seen as part of the conspiracy: for example, the mainstream media and TV news lie because they are also bought off by the same hidden powers that use them as organs to spread their lies.
Theories can come from anyone, and anyone on the internet, not just the President of the United States, can spread a conspiracy theory around the world.
Main characteristics of conspiracy theories
Conspiracy theories are currently an emerging field of research in social psychology, giving them a number of principles:
- They are coherent, they have an impact on people’s practical reality.
- They are universal, conspiracy theories have existed in all eras, cultures and social backgrounds.
- They are emotional, because it is emotions and not rational deliberations that cause conspiratorial beliefs.
- They are social and conspiratorial beliefs closely related to the psychological motivations of intergroup conflict.
1. They are consistent
The conspiracy beliefs are consistent. Although conspiracy theories are unlikely to be true, It is undeniable that these have an impact on important aspects of life, such as human health, relationships and safety. We have plenty of evidence that what we believe affects our behavior, even though what we believe may be wrong or completely outlandish produces behavior that has real consequences. Being a climate change denier will save you from worrying about recycling.
2. They are universal
Conspiracy beliefs are one of the most universal things that exist. They are not limited to a particular era or culture, they spread throughout and regardless of social class, everyone is susceptible to conspiracy theories, from the downstairs neighbor to Donald Trump. In fact, the tendency to suspect that others are plotting against you and your team may be part of human nature.
The adaptive conspiracy hypothesis proposes that even though conspiracy theories are of no use to us at the moment, they are. they were prominent among ancient hunter-gatherers who faced frequent conflict between the groups.
True conspiracies were common among our ancestors. For this reason, and according to this model, humans have developed a conspiracy detection system, a system that is activated by specific signals associated with a greater likelihood of hostile alliances to protect us from dangerous conspiracies.
3. Conspiracy beliefs are emotional
It would be tempting to assume that belief in conspiracy theories is closely related to a high degree of critical thinking, since even the most irrational conspiracy theories are often backed up by a number of elaborate argumentswhich could indicate that belief in conspiracy theories is based on rational thought processes.
For example, conspiracy theories about the arrival of man on the moon, which claim to have been filmed in a television studio, are often justified by a thorough analysis, with very elaborate physical arguments, of the absence of wind in the moon and the apparent movement of the flag in the recordings. If you share this theory, know that after Neil Armstrong, 12 astronauts walked on the Moon.
However, Research data suggests that a high cultural level is not behind these theories. For example, people with a college education are less likely to believe in conspiracy theories. Conspiratorial beliefs are tied to intuition rather than analytical thinking. Unpleasant emotional experiences have been shown to increase a person’s need to believe in something and make sense of the facts they have experienced.
4. Conspiracy beliefs are social
Conspiracy theories are a social phenomenon because they reflect the basic structure of conflict between groups. A good conspiracy theory involves the existence of hostile and evil alliances or outside groups, Illuminati, pharmaceutical companies, reptilians, etc. In addition, these plots often plan not only to harm or deceive individuals, but also larger groupsin fact, they almost always want to deceive the world population.
After learning about its characteristics, let’s look at the psychological benefits of believing in conspiracy theories.
Are there benefits to believing in conspiracy theories?
Conspiracy theories are paradoxical. On the one hand, they can give a sense of security, like “denial” theories of reality (COVID, climate change) I’m calm because it doesn’t affect me. But on the other hand, they pose the threat of a perverse power, which wants to manipulate me. So we ask ourselves: What are the real advantages of believing in conspiracy theories?
Research shows that conspiracy theories have real effects on people’s health, relationships and safety. Experience-based research has mostly highlighted its negative effects. Belief in conspiracy theories is associated with poorer health, less happiness and worse social relationships. Also they harm society by reducing public support for social policies to solve real problems such as climate change and the coronavirus pandemic. They are also associated populist movements, extremist politics and violent activism.
But on the other hand, conspiracy theories contribute meaning and purpose.
Conspiracy theories as an ego defense mechanism
We know that people are more likely to radicalize after experiencing a loss of meaning. Believing in something bigger than themselves makes people feel important and special, giving them new purpose and a sense of belonging.
In this sense, conspiracy theories can also create meaning by giving the impression that something really important is uncovered about the hidden workings of the world. Conspiratorial beliefs also make you feel unique and special, so they can positively reflect in people’s positive self-perceptions as they see themselves. Thanks to conspiracy theories, people can establish their superiority over others and also over that of their group, which is called collective narcissism.
In conclusion, conspiracy theories help people defend a fragile ego by exaggerating the importance of themselves and their groups.
Conspiracy Theory as a Rationalization Tool
Conspiratorial beliefs they are associated with antisocial behavior and those who refuse to abide by the rules, for example by refusing vaccines and confinement. Conspiracy theories legitimize this behavior on the one hand and encourage it on the other.
Conspiracy theories can justify behaviors that, with or without evidence, would not be socially acceptable. Therefore, conspiracy theories facilitate the process of rationalization, by which people try to justify themselves and others our behaviors.
This idea is consistent with the classic theory of cognitive dissonance, the psychological discomfort we feel when our minds have two conflicting concepts at the same time: I should quit for health, but I shouldn’t because I like smoke a lot and i like it.
The flexibility of conspiracy theories helps those who share them to redefine these unhealthy behaviors into healthy behaviors, such as skipping the lockdown, believing that pharmaceutical companies are the devil or that Bill Gates is deceiving us and that the coronavirus does not exist. Although these actions are not good for themselves or for society, conspiracy beliefs may be considered reasonable and acceptable by others.
Conspiracy theory as entertainment
The third way conspiracy theories contribute to meaning and purpose is to create an exciting, dramatic, and compelling alternate reality. According to “ufologists”, the reptilians are powerful warriors whose mission is to dominate and enslave the human species.
conspiracy theories they often depict the typical struggle between good and evil, presenting a mysterious world, and questioning the roles of the powerful as politicians or celebrities (who often fall ill or have cravings). It’s normal for many works of fiction, including novels, plays, and movies, to focus on conspiracy.
In conspiracy theories they transform those who believe into actors in these spectacular stories and gives them the opportunity to face mysteries. Above all, believing in conspiracy theories is great entertainment.
However, the processes and benefits described as beneficial are only short-term. If building an alternative reality can be seductive, we risk believing it too much. Many of the harmful effects of conspiracy theories stem from promoting choices based on these beliefs that can have negative real-life consequences (such as denying climate change) for people and the environment.
- Gorei, A.; Voracek, M. (2019). A systematic review and meta-analysis of psychological research on conspiracy beliefs: terrain features, measures, and associations with personality traits.