Why we're prone to believe conspiracy theories

  • Posted on: 28 May 2020
  • By: Michelle Brightwell

This post is part of a series on social media and media literacy.  To see all of our media literacy related posts, please click here.

In a previous post about information overload and it’s issues, we discussed how when our brains are overloaded, it’s hard to decide what’s real and what’s not on a good day. So now, when we’ve been overwhelmed for months with new information every day, it’s easy to fall into common media traps.

One of the ways a conspiracy theory gains traction on the internet is to tap into that exhausted and overwhelmed part of your brain. It’s easier to grasp onto an overly complicated answer. Complexity bias is our tendency to look at something that is easy to understand, or look at it when we are in a state of confusion, and view it as having many parts that are difficult to understand. (source: https://fs.blog/2018/01/complexity-bias/)

People also want to believe in conspiracy theories because they have a desire to for understanding and certainty. Searching for answers is a natural human desire. We are constantly wanting answers for the way that things turn out, asking questions and seeking out answers. Unfortunately, when we are pressed for an answer we will accept anything that comforts us or fits into our worldview. It’s easy to change someone’s mind on something they believed to be wrong if they’re not emotionally invested in it. But when you’re emotionally invested in a belief you hold, you’ll hold on tighter. That’s one reason it can be difficult to let go of a conspiracy theory – you’ve invested the time to look into the issue, to read about it, to watch videos, to talk with others. Uncertainty is unpleasant, and conspiracy theories provide a sense of understanding and certainty that is comforting.

People also have a desire for control and security. Conspiracy theories can return the feeling of control and security. This is especially true when the alternative account feels threatening or uncomfortable. For example, if climate change and drastically rising global temperatures are due to human activity, then I will need to make lifestyle changes that might be uncomfortable or inconvenient. But if I can be convinced that climate change is a hoax, then I can maintain my current way of life without feeling guilty about the consequences to the earth. This is called “motivated reasoning” (source https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/motivated-reasoning). Most of us find the feeling that bad things happen randomly unsettling. Conspiracy theories offer a way of compensating against that unsettled feeling that we have no control.

Another reason that some people find conspiracy theories attractive is a cognitive "need for uniqueness", which suggests that some might be drawn to fringe theories because it makes them feel special or in on a secret truth that's hidden from the rest of the "sheep" in the world. People really want to feel like they are a part of something, and believing in a secret that is perceived as insider information that regular people don't have access to or haven't woken up to yet makes people feel in control.

These are just a few of the ways that our innate psychological needs can trick us into believing something that isn't true, or in believing in something can harm ourselves or our communities.


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