Conspiracy Theories: 3 Big Ideas

Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?

Just this week, 40 year old Matthew Coleman was charged with murder after he confessed to the FBI that he murdered his two children because he was convinced that they were going to "grow into monsters" after their mother passed down her "serpent DNA."

Matthew is a devout follower of the QAnon and "Lizard people" conspiracy theories and, although an extreme case, represents a fascinating phenomenon in the U.S. and around the world: wide-spread belief in conspiracy theories. Around 50% of U.S. adults believe in at least one conspiracy theory. Before researching this topic, I had assumed that this kind of thinking was increasing over time, but there is actually little evidence that conspiratorial thinking is growing.

Regardless, a reader asked me to look into why people believe in conspiracy theories, so here are three big ideas I got from the research literature on this topic.

1) The largest predictor of belief in a conspiracy theory is... belief in other conspiracy theories.

To study why people believe in conspiracy theories, a lot of studies do what is called a cross-sectional study: they survey a large group of people on which conspiracy theories they believe in, as well as other questions that might predict if they do, and correlate answers to people who believe in conspiracy theories and people who do not.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the correlation that appears in study after study is that belief in one conspiracy theory predicts belief in another. What this tells me is that belief in a conspiracy theory says a lot more about the person than the theory itself. To get a following, a conspiracy theory doesn't need to have real evidence, be logical, or even coherent. Some people are simply predisposed to believe in them, so what kind of character or environment causes belief in conspiracy theories?

2) Lack of self-esteem or a social safety net could cause conspiratorial thinking

Another theme I noticed in the literature was how researchers found that people who believed in conspiracy theories often had an inherent lack of self-esteem. Additionally, in their social life, they lacked stable safety nets like a good job, family structure, or community. One study I read found that fears about their employment was one of the largest predictors of conspiracy thinking.

People who are ostracized also tend to be vulnerable to conspiracy theories. One study even found that if people who felt ostracized underwent an exercise of self-affirmation, their conspiracy thinking decreased.

I think this might explain why conspiracy theories are often accompanied by very active online communities. Belief in a conspiracy theory can give a much needed sense of community to people who are without.

3) A need for simple solutions drives people to conspiracy theories

A lot of the more recent literature on conspiratorial thinking focus on how education level is strongly negatively correlated with belief in these theories. Is that because educated people are inherently smarter than non-educated people? Not at all. Instead, one study claimed that a belief in simple solutions accounted for why education seems to stamp out conspiracy thinking. Education in every field encourages careful consideration of complex ideas and tends to promote nuanced thinking.

More generally, we all have a great need for building simple models for complex ideas. We hold mental shortcuts, or heuristics, for all kinds of things that we don't understand. The situation in Afghanistan, for instance, is incredibly complex and nuanced and so my heuristic for what is going on is basically "terrorists are bad so the U.S. has spent 2 decades over there making sure terrorism doesn't take over" when in fact it is a lot more complex than that.

So I'm fairly empathetic to the comfort that a conspiracy theory can offer to people who do not understand a given topic. It is just fascinating to me how easily this kind of automatic thinking can be interrupted. One study, for example, found that simply asking a group of teacher to reflect on their rationality (e.g., "to what extent do you feel rational?") decreased belief in conspiracy theories. Social media and the internet rarely give us a breath to stop and think, but I hope you are able to find that time this week.

Thanks for reading.


Speaking of social media, there was a preprint of a research paper published earlier this week that made a lot of noise in my Twitter circles claiming that the COVID pandemic has caused babies born recently to have lower general intelligence. I haven’t read the study myself, but here is an excellent thread on what could be wrong with this claim (click-through to read thread):

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