Conspiracy Theories: Why Do We Believe Them?
Conspiracy Theories: Why Do We Believe Them?
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(For Part 2 of this multi-article essay about conspiracy theories, click here)
Conspiracy theories can be a hard thing to take seriously. When we hear about people who believe in secret masterminds and global cover-ups, our instinctive behavior is to laugh it off. Through our pop culture, that’s what we’ve been doing for decades.
Unfortunately, with the rise of social media, the spreading of misinformation, and the ever-present danger of COVID-19, how we view these conspiracies has changed. Not only is it easier than ever to create and spread a conspiracy theory, if you believe a lie about the pandemic, it could be dangerous to your own health and to others.
So, what do we do? How do we save those stuck in conspiracy theory rabbit holes? Well, before we can help them, we have to understand why people believe in conspiracies in the first place. That’s what we’ll be addressing today. We’ll understand what makes these theories so appealing, how they manipulate our needs and desires and, most importantly, what they can teach us about the human mind. Let’s get started.
Reason #1: They Bring Peace of Mind
We all like to have control of our lives. The human mind has evolved to enjoy stability and routine. So, when a major crisis happens, whether locally or nationally, the sudden instability frightens us. We go looking for satisfying explanations to what’s going on, even if they’re clearly wrong. Conspiracy theories seem to provide us with the answers we seek.
This is why a lot of conspiracy theories are tied to a major event, like 9/11, COVID-19 and the moon landing. When these events happened, people were scared or confused, and they found answers that gave them a sense of control again. Sure, they may be untrue, but for many people, it’s better than trying to accept something you don’t fully understand.
Reason #2: They Make Things Black & White
One of the defining traits of every conspiracy is the presence of a big bad. No matter what the conspiracy claims, they’ll likely place the blame at the feet of a shadowy organization, pulling the strings of the world right beneath our noses. They can be real, like the U.S government, or fake, like the Illuminati, but they all serve an important purpose for the conspiracy.
On a practical level, they are vague and flexible enough to adapt to evidence and proof. See this coincidence nobody noticed? This is proof of the theory, the big bad is responsible for that. Do you have evidence that the theory isn’t real? Well, then you must be in cahoots with the big bad, you can’t be trusted.
On a psychological level, however, having a villain in your story can give your theory more appeal. If you feel personally hurt by the subject matter of the theory, you now have a group to blame for your woes. If you want to believe your political position is right, even if it’s clearly wrong, conspiracy theories allow you to live in that fantasy. To pretend you’re an underdog fighting a corrupt, evil institution.
Reason #3: They Provide a Sense of Community
Having a strong belief that few people around you share can be a lonely experience. Humans are inherently social creatures, and most of us don’t want to feel like the hermits and outliers that conspiracy theorists are often presented as. Well, for better or worse, the internet has solved this problem. There are now hundreds of social communities where like-minded theorists can hang out with each other, discuss their conspiracies, and have their viewpoints validated by others.
If you’re looking for the power and effectiveness of a conspiracy community, look no further than QAnon. The theory’s popularity skyrocketed in 2020 because it worked like one big social game, inviting players to work together and solve internet clues. For those suffering from the isolation brought on by the pandemic, this was incredibly appealing.
However, the wicked thing about conspiracy communities is, as easy as it can be to join them, it can be incredibly hard for some people to leave. They grow emotionally attached, as they make and grow social relationships with each passing day. For them, leaving the conspiracy behind isn’t just turning your back on your previous beliefs, it’s turning your back on your new-found friends and loved ones. So, if you know someone who believes in a conspiracy, consider who believes along with them. It could be the defining factor on their decision to stay or leave.
Now, remember, not one reason fits all. Every person believes for different reasons, motivated by different, often deeply personal emotions. However, if you have someone in your life who believes in a conspiracy theory, I hope that this information will make it easier to wear their shoes.
I hope you can see that, behind what may seem like unbelievable claims to some of us, conspiracy theorists are simply seeking ways to meet basic needs that we all share. The need to feel at peace with the world, the need to believe what you’re doing is right, and the need to make connections with others. No matter how big the tree grows, those roots of humanity are always there. In Part 2 of this piece, we’ll address how to talk about conspiracies to your loved one, and how to help them cut down what they’ve grown.