Conspiracy Theories and Why we Believe in Them

9/11 cover up, faked moon landings, flat earth, the Illuminati, a reptilian elite controlling the world… I’m sure you have come across at least one conspiracy theory. They’re everywhere! Floating around, gaining followers and then losing credibility.  Like living organisms in an ideological realm: being born, getting fed, growing bigger (sometimes they couple with another theory to reproduce themselves), and then, eventually, they die. 

In these times of struggles and uncertainty, where humanity seems to be threatened, conspiracy theories are flourishing like never before. Some people believe SARS-CoV-2 virus was engineered in a lab, stolen by the Chinese government and then deliberately spread as a bioweapon. Others believe it was a Jewish plot to profit from mass vaccination; a Muslim conspiracy; a population control scheme planned by environmentalist… People can get very creative.         

But why do we engage in conspiracy theories? Psychology researchers seem to offer a few clues to understand this question. 

The first concept that needs to be in place is “epistemic mistrust”, or the lack of faith in knowledge provided by institutions like governments or the scientific community. Historically, these authoritative figures have determined what is “true” and what isn’t. But, due to many examples of corruption among leaders, now the public is constantly suspicious about the official information. 

Secondly, “cognitive closure”, or the need to create an explanation when explanations are lacking. Some people simply cannot leave the mystery as a mystery and they prefer to create an explanation that “fits” their way of thinking. And that leads us to the third concept, “confirmation bias”, or the tendency to seek and believe the data that supports our pre-existing views, while discounting the information that doesn´t. Think about it, if you have an opinion and then go to the internet to “learn” more about it, chances are that you will find information that supports your opinion, and dislike whatever it doesn´t.  So, if you like the idea of a flat earth, you will focus more on “flatters” theories. 

The desire to be unique is another factor that plays a role in conspiracy thinking. “They may fool everyone else but they won’t fool me”, kind of thinking.  We all have a desire to be authentic, but for some people it seems to be stronger.    

Lastly, “peer pressure”. You may laugh at this one, thinking that doesn´t affect you, but the truth is that peer pressure has demonstrated to be even more effective than scientific evidence. If more people believe a piece of information, then we are more likely to accept it as true. This is the most frustrating part, since rational arguments aren´t good enough to alter people´s beliefs, but we are constantly modifying our beliefs just to fit in.   

It´s important to recognize that these psychological tendencies affect us all, and that you aren´t mentally “unbalanced” or “delusional” for believing in conspiracy theories.  This is a normal phenomenon. But, it is a good idea to be aware of our possible thinking flaws, so we protect ourselves from misinformation and irrationality. The best antidote to this would be to promote critical thinking and increase science education. Also, it is healthy to create the habit of second-guessing yourself and be open to accept new information. Hopefully, with organized thinking we could clarify some of these theories, because nobody needs more confusion in their life.  

With the fast and varying information bombarding us during this time of crisis, it can be difficult to piece together what is real and what isn’t.  It’s no wonder that some may be experiencing confusion, anxiety, increased stress – just to name a few.  If you, a loved one or a friend is struggling organizing your thoughts and feelings recently… it may help to reach out to chat with someone.  At Whitevalley Community Resource Centre where counselling is free (yes free!), you can speak to non-judgmental, qualified professionals who are bound ethically to confidentiality.  Our doors and our hearts are open.  We are here to help…  You can contact us by calling 250 547-8866, Monday to Friday, 9 am to 4 pm.