Bill Gates, 5G, microchips, global control, coronavirus, human creation. These words may not seem related but they are significant for many conspiracy theorists. However, beliefs alone cannot hurt anyone, right? In fact, they are not as benign as they seem and can lead to several problems, especially in times that are as chaotic and indecisive as the present.
But how can people believe something without any valid proof? It is valid to be skeptical of any particular event, but it is another thing to be hyper skeptical and overinterpret evidence.11 As Carl Sagan, astronomer and science communicator, once proclaimed: “the extraordinary must certainly be pursued. But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
Indeed, that is the rule to follow, but often the opposite happens. Things of great magnitude are affirmed with total conviction, which only reflects inconsistency and contradiction because, of course, these “extraordinary claims” are not supported by “extraordinary evidence”. Sadly, many people see extraordinary claims as absolute truths, which proliferates misinformation. This can have serious consequences.
Faced with a pandemic that requires large-scale behavioral changes and threatens considerable psychological strain, social and behavioral sciences emerge to address this challenge.18 By understanding the psychology behind conspiracy theories and knowing their effects, it is feasible to dismantle them and align people’s conduct with public health recommendations.
A long history
Conspiracy theories are not unique to our time. They have prevailed for many centuries, spreading more intensely in times of crisis.19 The content of a series of letters sent to the New York Times and Chicago Tribune between 1890 and 2010 reveal that the highest peaks for conspiratorial belief were located in the height of the second industrial revolution and the beginning of the Cold War. If we go further back to AD 64, where Nero, the Roman emperor, intentionally and unjustifiably blamed Christians for burning Rome, conspiracy theories caused many to be sacrificed or burned alive.19 For their part, people who believe in conspiracy theories are not satisfied with official explanations for global phenomena; instead, they prefer to think that malevolent organizations or individuals want to take control of the world.
Social psychology has been unraveling the mysteries behind the different types of irrational thoughts through biases and heuristics.8 The study of conspiracy theories has developed alongside this discovery of irrational behavior. Research led by Karem Douglas,3 a professor of social psychology at the University of Kent, suggests that conspiracy theories satisfy certain psychological needs, and not necessarily conscious ones. Namely, the need to understand things, a desire to have control over situations, and the need for a positive self-image.
Other studies have found correlations with personality factors such as meanness, mistrust, openness to experience, and Machiavellian behavior, which is a focus on self-interest at the cost of manipulating others.9 Evidence has even been found to show that people who believe in conspiracy theories are more likely to accept or engage in daily criminal activities.7
In fact, research suggests that conspiracy theories are more harmful than good.3 These can encourage the rejection of conventional medicine, scientific consensus, and democratic organization.3 The combination of these effects makes perfect sense in contrast to the current misinformation “infodemic”17 plagued by villains and miracle cures.
To be in control
Living in uncertainty can be incredibly stressful; consequently, psychologists have ventured to perform different types of experiments to test how we engage with uncertain circumstances.1 Finding yourself in the midst of a pandemic because of an unknown virus that is claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and has shaken the world economy only exacerbates the uncertainty of our lives. Human beings facing this type of situation have used different biases to try to have their inner world controlled and stable.
Research suggests that people dissatisfied with small-scale explanations may need to explain large-scale events with causes of a similar magnitude.10 When institutional explanations feel unsatisfactory, they may create a version of events that accords with the magnitude of the problem.
A perceived lack of control could explain conspiracy theories as an opportunity to reject official reports and allow someone to exert control over information.5 In turn, this lack of control could activate the adaptive ability to see illusory patterns around us to reduce uncertainty.20 People who have the greatest propensity to see these types of patterns are those who have more deep-rooted beliefs about conspiracy theories.21
I know things that “they” don’t
At some point or other, most of us have wanted to stand out from the crowd. This motivation to feel different from others —unequally distributed among people— is clearly reflected in day-to-day decision-making, whether buying a unique article of clothing that very few can get13 or perhaps “acquiring” an unusual belief.9 This last aspect is where conspiracy theories fit perfectly so that people can demonstrate their uniqueness by seeing these beliefs as unique and original possessions.9 What could be more “unique” than thinking that we are lab rats for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or that 5G antennas spread the current virus?
Research carried out by Lantian et al.9 argues that people who have a greater need for uniqueness are more likely to believe in such theories, which, by their own nature, have the characteristics of being unconventional and potentially scarce information. The secret plots in which conspiracy theories are developed make people feel special as it allows them to self-identify themselves as more informed people about what is happening in the world.
By relying so much on this information, you can get to the point where you believe yourself to be more knowledgeable than the real experts about the event itself.9 With this in mind, it is not surprising that theorists react in disbelief or mockery in response to official sources of information. In fact, conspiracy theories diminish confidence in government and scientific institutions.4, 6
“They” are the culprits
Conspiracy theories fulfill the same function as deities in ancient times. When Deities were blamed for unfortunate events and myths that explained these events spread It seems that conspiracy theories now fulfill that role, despite our scientific advancement.19 It also happens in politics, when “incompetent rulers” are blamed for everything. However, blaming others, in this case, “villains with macabre plans” and we as “the victims”, can also easily lead to disengaging from any kind of responsibility.2 It is the perfect excuse: “I cannot infect someone with coronavirus by not wearing a mask; instead, they are the culprits for creating a biological weapon that is killing us.” Unfortunately, this is how it often falls when it comes to a lack of self-care to fight COVID-19.
In the current context, people begin to reject medical treatments or resist a future COVID-19 vaccine based on unfounded ideas (e.g. “the vaccine seeks to implant a chip”). Instead, they start to come up with alternative treatments that are ineffective or prohibited, and that could lead to lethal consequences (e.g. death from ingestion of chlorine dioxide).
Vulnerability, loneliness, and lack of power
One of the social reasons that Douglas suggests are behind conspiracy theories refers to groups in vulnerable conditions with an objectively low status: people in a state of poverty or belonging to a “losing” group.2,3 His studies suggest that these groups may take to conspiracy theories as a defensive response to displace other reasons for the disadvantaged state in which they find themselves.
Swami & Coles14 also found that people who believe in conspiracy theories are likely to have greater feelings of helplessness, social isolation, and anomie —subjective deviation from social norms. It is also observed that people who perceive themselves as misaligned have alternative explanations when rejecting official sources and seek to satisfy their need for belonging by going to conspiratorial groups or marginalized subcultures.12 This is how people who feel powerless with their reality and ignore the norms of society as unfair can quickly dive into conspiracy theories.12