Some will explain at great length that Nazis survived because they fled to the moon. Others see prophetic images in clouds or hidden messages from extraterrestrial creatures. Many of us claim to be privy to the clandestine forces behind current, past, or even future affairs but why are some of us enamoured by the tales of conspiracy theories? Well there’s no clear cut answer, but psychologists have come up with some convincing reasons.
What is a conspiracy theory?
A conspiracy is a secret plan to do something for a harmful or illegal purpose. Those plotting a conspiracy are referred to as conspirators and their schemes are often politically motivated. A conspiracy theory is the explanation of an event or situation being attributed to a conspiracy - a belief that some covert but influential organisation or group of people are responsible for an unexplained event, when other explanations are more probable. Often, those who believe in such notions have a vested reason in doing so. They confirm preexisting beliefs; having already put time and energy into finding supporting evidence. Although most of the time the theories are irrational, rejecting these ideas prove difficult and they can have serious real world consequences. On the other hand such beliefs may also be based on rational and sound arguments and in rare cases these theories have proven to be true.
Conspiracy theories are often a result of our own world views. Our unconscious biases, assumptions and inherent fears allow far-fetched concepts to start making sense — despite all the contradictory evidence available. Humans have a natural inclination to accept facts and arguments that support their thought-process and reject opposing opinions and ideas. This is known as confirmation bias; the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one's existing beliefs or theories. Confirmation bias often manifests as a coping mechanism, allowing people to avoid experiencing feelings of personal discomfort and cognitive dissonance — the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioural decisions and attitudinal changes.
There are three fundamental assumptions that the theory of cognitive dissonance expresses:
Actions vs. Beliefs
Humans are sensitive to inconsistencies between actions and beliefs. We have an inherent alarm system that goes off upon recognition of inconsistency between our beliefs, actions or opinions . For example, if someone believes that cheating is wrong and they cheat on a test, they will feel cognitive dissonance.
Beliefs vs. Feelings
As humans when we recognise the inconsistency between our actions and beliefs we experience feelings of personal discomfort. We aren’t able to say ‘oh well’ and dismiss it. We feel motivated to ease our feelings of discomfort by either changing our beliefs, actions or perception of the action.
Feelings vs. Beliefs, Actions & Perceptions
For humans there are three ways that dissonance can be resolved.
1: Individuals can change their beliefs, for example, they could convince themselves that cheating is ok. Although, removing dissonance through a change in beliefs is often unsuccessful as our beliefs are pretty stable and rigid.
2: Individuals can reduce cognitive dissonance by changing their actions, they can vow never to cheat again. Although this can reduce personal discomfort in the short term, motivation to change brought about through guilt and anxiety is unhealthy and often unsustainable.
3: The most complex but sustaining way to remove feelings of personal discomfort, will be to change the perception held about the action. This means you can justify/rationalise your action, by giving an alternative belief/principle that allows for the action to exist without causing discomfort.
When people find it tough to accept real-world events, they tend to find succour in intrinsically complex theories and have inconsistent arguments to bolster their claims, says Scientific American. It also provides relief and a sense of control to believers. For instance, if the global temperature is rising because of reckless human activities and rampant industrialisation, some would talk about why this is a hoax and how the "green lobby" is planning to further their vested business interests. In other words we attempt to remove our feelings of discomfort by rationalising them as an alternative belief - a conspiracy theory.
Furthermore, If somehow a person cooks up a conspiracy theory that proves there is no relationship between smoking and lung cancer, they can continue smoking without any fear or worry. Such notions, despite being false, provide comfort and the assurance that they’ll be able to maintain their current lifestyle. The believers of such theories often feel a sense of entitlement that they possess exclusive knowledge.
Conspiracy narrators have strengthened their presence and reach with the rising influence of social media. For instance, conspiracy theories flooded social networking sites when the survivors of a Florida High School massacre turned into vocal proponents for gun reforms, which increased their probability of becoming a ripe target of online abuse.
Even intense scrutiny on Facebook and Twitter did not result in a change in the thinking of these conspiracy narrators. Some social media platforms have issued a crackdown on such content but this may be pushing people to sites dedicated to promoting conspiracism. In February, Youtube set out to demonetize ant-vaccination videos on the video streaming site. Facebook and Youtube have also prohibited certain conspiracy theorists from using their platforms. One of the most controversial cases involved banning - the very popular conspiracy theorist - Alex Jones from distributing content. He’s proposed many conspiracy theories such as: the government are capable of creating tornadoes with “weather weapons” and he implied that the death of an actress may have been to boost sales. He also criticised YouTube’s clampdown by comparing it with a "free speech" issue.
A few psychologists term this tendency as a "proportionality bias" according to which big events in the world are always caused by big reasons. No wonder people find it hard to believe that the death of a US President was caused by a deranged gunman; the idea of a large-scale conspiracy appealed more to them and they found it easily digestible.
Believing in such bizarre theories makes people feel special in a positive way and they are likely to feel more informed than others, which only contributes to reinforcing bias. A certain degree of individual narcissism or a grand idea of the self also acts as a catalyst behind the formulation and spread of such ideas. Research also points out that often those in weaker socioeconomic circumstances harbour such notions as it helps them put the blame squarely on someone else for their existing predicament. Psychological studies also support the notion that such opinions are often adopted to show their uniqueness. In essence, conspiracy theories often germinate to reason with our own subconscious insecurities and to offer mental succour also.