What’s the theory behind conspiracy theories?

Here’s a brain teaser for you: How does one connect the outbreak of a highly contagious and viral infection to the destruction of wireless network posts?

If you don’t know the answer to this, then you may be pleased to know that you have not yet fallen into the pit hole of conspiracy theories—or at least not ones related to 5G towers and the coronavirus. We use this as an example of conspiracy theories as the idea that 5G waves are linked to COVID-19 has recently gone viral (pun sort of intended) on many social media sites.

There are many conspiracy theories connecting 5G to COVID-19. Taken from The Conversation

This conspiracy theory is based around the general claim that 5G was created to deliberately spread the virus, despite being untrue.[1] Much like other conspiracy theories out there, these tales can have detrimental consequences on individuals and communities. Some of these include caring less about one’s health,[2] the people around them[3] or even the environment.[4] Despite all this, how do these bizarre theories and explanations become so popular?

We posit that they gain traction because they promise to satisfy important psychological needs that everyone has. This causes the belief in conspiracy theories to become deeply rooted in the individual, as well as making it difficult to shift their opinions on it.

What makes a conspiracy theory?

All conspiracy theories follow a similar template. First, they all suggest that a small group of elite individuals are colluding away from public scrutiny to push a private agenda.[5] The 5G coronavirus theory dividedly points to governments, Bill Gates or the Illuminati as the ones responsible.

Many believe that COVID-19 was a virus created by people in power for various reasons. Taken from Nature

Second, conspiracy theories are all baseless.[5] In our example, we can find scientific evidence that 5G’s high-frequency waves are beneath the wavelength that can damage human cells.[1,6]

So how is it that these “theories” take root in people’s minds when they rely on exaggerated claims and little hard evidence in their favour? A recent study has identified a triad of psychological needs (epistemic, existential, and social) that conspiracy theories cover like a band-aid to a mental wound.[5] 

1. Epistemic Needs

Epistemic needs are basically the desire for knowledge. We all inherently want to be able to explain the events around us in order to have an accurate understanding of how the world works.[5]  Because we don’t like being in a state of uncertainty, we tend to settle for the information that is readily available and makes some form of sense. However, the available data often is incomplete or under constant change, which makes for “plot holes” in the narrative around an event. Conspiracy theories typically cover such gaps and provide us with cognitive closure.[5] 

If crop circles suddenly appeared on your fields overnight, you’d probably be inclined to think it was aliens too. Taken from DailyMail

2. Existential Needs

Conspiracy theories also serve our need to feel safe, secure, and in control of our environment.[5,7,8] When we feel lost, we try to grasp onto something that provides us with security, which subdues the feeling of powerlessness. The 5G coronavirus theory, for example, clearly fuels this need: people are attacking 5G masts because they (erroneously) believe this will reduce their chances of contracting the virus.

This behaviour is called action bias, and it is the belief that value only comes from action. This bias causes some to execute poorly-planned actions to assert control over their circumstances, rather than practising restraint even if it is reasonable to do so.

A 5G mast was set alight in Bradford following the conspiracy theory linking 5G to COVID-19. Taken from BBC

3. Social Needs

Conspiracy theories are also adopted to uplift one’s identity and to project a positive image of themselves.[8] If our self-perception is threatened by external events, we are more likely to believe in a conspiracy theory if it “saves face” for us.[9] This often results in pitting a group against another, which leads to conspiracists often framing social issues as a direct confrontation between groups. We call this phenomenon the “Us vs. Them” scenario.[10] 

The social need makes it seem likely that conspiracy theories are particularly appealing to people who find themselves or their groups as targets of discrimination or disadvantage. Thus, we will consider individual characteristics next. 

Psychological Traits

Those who have experienced adverse life circumstances or chronic health issues are more likely to develop negative psychological symptoms such as anxiety, delusional thinking, or paranoia.[11,12] People who have suffered trauma also tend to look for links and patterns between concepts as a way to recover control and security. These, in turn, can make a person hypervigilant, influencing their belief in conspiracy theories.[13,14]

The symptoms we mentioned can also relate to an underlying feeling of distrust in field experts, identified by persistent thoughts such as “the authorities are hiding something,” or “the government is out to get us.”[14,15] These thoughts may then trigger conspiratorial beliefs as a cognitive defence mechanism.[16] In simpler terms, belief in these theories is a way of dealing with situations that induce anxiety and uncertainty. We can also see this belief as a consequential drive to reconcile worrying thoughts with information that is readily available.

There is a website dedicated to explaining how pigeons are surveillance cameras made by governments to collect data on everyone. Taken from Pigeons Aren’t Real

And why, you ask, is all this information on conspiracy theories so accessible?

The answer is simple: conspiracy theories have been found to spread faster than scientific articles on social media.[17] The exact reason why that’s the case is not entirely understood, but it (kind of) makes sense. After all, many conspiracy theories are really creative and interesting. Some might even say they’re more interesting than statistics and science. And once you share a post about angry mobs destroying 5G masts just for laughs, social media algorithms step in and give you more of that content.

Because of this, conspiracy theories seem to rule the Internet. Over time, people’s beliefs in them become resistant to change due to the seemingly endless supply of content on them (thanks, Facebook algorithms!). We humans also tend to favour things that we are more frequently exposed to and thus more familiar with. This is called the mere-exposure effect.[18]

Believers of the Flat Earth Theory are growing and there is even an official Spanish football team named Flat Earth F.C. Taken from Flat Earth F.C.

How do we tackle conspiracy theories? 

There are two main ways in which we can approach a conspiracy theory: by refuting it or ignoring it.[19] Both approaches pose some issues. 

On one hand, refuting the theory can in fact strengthen it, suggesting that those who try to debunk the theory are actually a part of the conspiracy.[5] Trying to disprove them by harsh criticism would also be just as ineffective,[19] and people may start to find new ways of backing up their beliefs. As conspiracy theories take roots in a person’s need for self-fulfilment, an attack to the narrative is taken as a personal affront. Hence, conspiracists end up defending their beliefs more strongly in the face of criticism.

On the other hand, ignoring a conspiracy theory can be perceived as a confirmation thereof—even more so if the theory isn’t addressed by those in positions of power. This just tells the public that the authorities simply can’t provide any logical explanations to disprove the theory.

A good example of a conspiracy theory that hasn’t been formally addressed by the US government is that there are aliens being held in Area 51. Taken from KUNR

Therefore, the best way to address conspiracy theories is communication with an open mind, which is the first step to eliminating conspiratorial beliefs. It also helps if the conspiracist is presented with the rational shortcomings of the theory from someone they perceive as intelligent and competent.[20]

Takeaway

Bottom line is: conspiracy theories are attractive because they target core psychological needs we’re seldom aware of. Epistemic, existential, and social needs are generally the same for everyone, but personality traits and life circumstances make some people more prone to fall in the conspiratorial rabbit hole. The Internet and social media have also made it ridiculously easy for misinformation to spread around and, because conspiracy theories are very entertaining, they end up overtaking scientific facts in the spotlight. 

Conspiracy theories are not a recent event and they will always be present in the conversation. If you know someone who tends to bring them up, don’t despair. Talk to them, acknowledge their points of view, address the facts non-judgmentally and compromise in that, maybe, the truth is not what it appears to be. 


Academic References

  1. World Health Organization (2020, February 27). 5G mobile networks and health. Retrieved July 14, 2020, from https://www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/5g-mobile-networks-and-health
  2. Nattrass, N. (2013), Understanding the origins and prevalence of AIDS conspiracy beliefs in the United States and South Africa. Sociology of Health & Illness, 35: 113-129.
  3. Linden, S.V. (2015). The conspiracy-effect: Exposure to conspiracy theories (about global warming) decreases pro-social behavior and science acceptance. Personality and Individual Differences, 87, 171-173.
  4. Jolley, D., & Douglas, K. M. (2014). The social consequences of conspiracism: Exposure to conspiracy theories decreases intentions to engage in politics and to reduce one’s carbon footprint. British Journal of Psychology, 105(1), 35–56.
  5. Douglas, K., Sutton, R., & Cichocka, A. (2017). The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26(6), 538-542.
  6. Simkó, M.; Mattsson, M.-O., 2019. 5G Wireless Communication and Health Effects—A Pragmatic Review Based on Available Studies Regarding 6 to 100 GHz. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health. 16, 3406.
  7. Tetlock, P. E. (2002). Social-functionalist frameworks for judgment and choice: The intuitive politician, theologian, and prosecutor. Psychological Review, 109, 451–472.
  8. van Prooijen, J.‐W., and Acker, M. (2015) The Influence of Control on Belief in Conspiracy Theories: Conceptual and Applied Extensions. Appl. Cognit. Psychol., 29: 753– 761.
  9. Smallpage, S. M., Enders, A. M., & Uscinski, J. E. (2017). The partisan contours of conspiracy theory beliefs. Research & Politics.
  10. Perdue, C. W., Dovidio, J. F., Gurtman, M. B., & Tyler, R. B. (1990). Us and them: social categorization and the process of intergroup bias. Journal of personality and social psychology, 59(3), 475.
  11. Tran, Q. A., Dunne, M. P., Vo, T. V., & Luu, N. H. (2015). Adverse Childhood Experiences and the Health of University Students in Eight Provinces of Vietnam. Asia-Pacific journal of public health, 27(8 Suppl), 26S–32S.
  12. Mayo, D., Corey, S., Kelly, L., Yohannes, S., Youngquist, A., & Stuart, B. et al. (2017). The Role of Trauma and Stressful Life Events among Individuals at Clinical High Risk for Psychosis: A Review. Frontiers In Psychiatry, 8
  13. Hornsey, M. J. (2020). Conspiracy Theories. In J. Jetten, S. D. Reicher, S. A. Haslam, & T. Cruwys. Together Apart: The Psychology of COVID-19. London: Sage
  14. Georgiou, N., Delfabbro, P., & Balzan, R. (2020). COVID-19-related conspiracy beliefs and their relationship with perceived stress and pre-existing conspiracy beliefs.
  15. Uscinski, Joseph E.; Enders, Adam M.; Klofstad, Casey A.; Seelig, Michelle I.; Funchion, John, R.; Everett, Caleb; Wuchty, Stephan; Premaratne, Kamal; Murthi, Manohar, N. (2020). Why do people believe COVID-19 conspiracy theories?, The Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Misinformation Review, Volume 1, Special Issue on COVID-19 and Misinformation
  16. Goertzel, T. (1994). Belief in conspiracy theories. Political Psychology, 15(4), 731–742.
  17. Del Vicario, M., Bessi, A., Zollo, F., Petroni, F., Scala, A., Caldarelli, G., … & Quattrociocchi, W. (2016). The spreading of misinformation online. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(3), 554-559.
  18. Zajonc, R. B. (1968). Attitudinal effects of mere exposure. Journal of personality and social psychology, 9(2p2), 1.
  19. Sunstein, C. R., & Vermeule, A. (2009). Conspiracy theories: Causes and cures. Journal of Political Philosophy, 17(2), 202-227.
  20. Orosz, G., Krekó, P., Paskuj, B., Tóth-Király, I., Bőthe, B., & Roland-Lévy, C. (2016). Changing conspiracy beliefs through rationality and ridiculing. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1525.

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