• Shawn Wilson, Ph.D.

What Leads People To Believe Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy theories have been popular for a very long time. In a world dominated by 'fake news,' there appears to be no shortage of conspiracy theories. We all probably have a relative or two who believes a number of things about alien abductions and time travel and government plots to keep us ill or ignorant.

Now some conspiracy theories are relatively harmless; believing that Area 51 holds an alien spacecraft is not really going to hurt someone. However, some conspiracy theories can be harmful when they are believed, such as believing that vaccines cause autism, as it leads to children being at risk for life-threatening diseases. As such there is a real interest in understanding the question: why do certain people believe conspiracy theories?

An article by Time explores this concept and finds some interesting patterns amongst conspiracy theorists. First, conspiracy theories tend to occur more often after people have lost something, whether it is money, an election, or some other type of influence. This helps explain how conspiracy theories appear to exist for nearly every single United States president in recent years.

In addition, conspiracy theories differ based on demographics and appear to be inversely related to education and wealth. For example, one survey cited by the article states that 42% of individuals without a high school education believe a conspiracy theory, compared to 23% of individuals with a post-graduate degree. A separate study found that the average household income for those inclined to believe conspiracy theories was $47,193 compared to the household income for those not inclined to believe conspiracy theories, which was $63,824.

Based on this information, conspiracy theories may be a way to provide meaning for why some people lack the resources other people have. Essentially, they provide an external explanation of events that help protects an individual's self-esteem and worth.

A separate reason for belief in conspiracy theories is the desire to be special or unique. A research study found that those who endorsed a greater desire for being unique or who were primed to believe the importance of being unique were more likely to believe different conspiracy theories. This understandably makes it difficult to give up believing in a conspiracy theory as it is also asking the person to give up a part of them that they feel makes them unique or special.

Now a separate question is how does one most effectively help someone see that a conspiracy theory is not real? First and foremost, you should not criticize or belittle another person's opinion. Research has shown that time and time again this way of talking will only reinforce another person's opinions and lead them to get more defensive about their beliefs. Instead, talking to someone with facts in a nonjudgmental way is more likely to be effective. That person may not yet be willing to give up their conspiracy theory but by being willing to talk without judgment and listen, you are opening the door to further conversation.

It also appears as though you can prevent people from believing conspiracy theories by teaching them facts early in life. Teaching youth about the science of vaccines earlier in life makes it less likely that they will believe conspiracy theories about vaccines later in life.

Conspiracy theories are fascinating constructs as people are to believe some ideas that sound truly outlandish when taken at face value. It is also interesting the justifications people will provide to support their belief in a conspiracy theory. Unfortunately, conspiracy theories can have negative consequences, as evident by news of children dying because their parents did not vaccinate them. While we can have fun with some of the conspiracy theories, it is also important that they can have life or death consequences. Hopefully more research will be conducted to help us understand how to best help people to refute conspiracy theories.

Article link: http://time.com/4965093/conspiracy-theories-beliefs/

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© 2020 by Shawn Wilson