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Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?

In certain pockets of America, measles diagnoses have been spreading at previously unprecented rates. In 2017 there were 58 confirmed cases of the illness in Minnesota – the largest outbreak the state had seen in 30 years. Similarly, in 2008, a large outbreak occurred in California, which was thought to originate from a seven-year-old boy, who had not been vaccinated.

Less than a decade earlier, measles had been largely eliminated in the US. The gradual resurgence can, researchers say, be directly attributed to people who were not vaccinated.

Before measles vaccinations were introduced in 1963, the illness could be deadly. In the 1960s, there were several million cases, thousands of hospitalisations and 500 deaths per year. Meanwhile in Australia, a 2016 report concluded that 23 deaths from a host of diseases could have been prevented by vaccination between 2005 and 2014. And what’s more, such vaccinations were readily available.

Those that do not vaccinate often choose not to. They are called “anti-vaxxers” and they largely believe that vaccinations are harmful – and, often, that pharmaceutical companies (and others) cover up damaging effects of vaccinations. It is but one of many conspiracy theories that flies in the face of scientific evidence – a quick internet search throws up hundreds.

Similarly, climate change deniers are convinced that the Earth is not warming, and some say that scientists are tweaking evidence to make it appear so. Those that believe in one conspiracy, are in turn more susceptible to believing others. While some conspiracy theories are relatively harmless – the argument that Nasa faked the Moon landing, or bizarrely, that Beatle Sir Paul McCartney died long ago with a doppelganger taking his place ever since – others have damaging ripple-effects.

With new insights, researchers are getting closer to understanding more of the factors involved. This will, they hope, help mitigate some of the very real dangers and societal divides that conspiracy theories encourage.

There is nothing new about conspiracy theories. As early as the 3rd Century, a once-lost Gospel of Philip purported that Jesus and Mary Magdalen were married, a myth which has been perpetuated in popular fiction, such as The Da Vinci Code. Some trace the mysterious brain-washing Illuminati conspiracy to a secret society in 1776, but that society was nothing like the ‘Illuminati’ of today. More recently, some even deny that the Holocaust happened. Despite the harrowing evidence, they maintain that the Nazis did not kill six million Jews during World War Two.

The question psychologists like Karen Douglas, a professor at the University of Kent, ask themselves is why do such beliefs persist? There is no simple answer. Considering the range of conspiracy theories that abound and the fact that up to half of all US citizens believe at least one of them, there is no immediate set of unifying traits that makes up a “profile” of such a person. Who hasn’t at some point wanted to believe that a deceased favourite artist might still be alive? Elvis Presley and Tupac Shakur have both been subjects of such debate.

“On some level, we are all predisposed to be suspicious or mistrustful of government,” says Douglas. That we are wary of groups or people we do not understand makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. “In some ways, it is quite adaptive to be suspicious of other groups for your own personal safety,” she says.

But when Douglas probed a little deeper, she started to uncover a smorgasbord of explanations for why some people are more drawn to conspiracies than others. For one, they seem to have an intrinsic and almost narcissistic need for uniqueness, one study showed. This is the idea that a person feels like they have access to scarce information or alternative ‘secret’ explanations about certain world events, such as the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris. As the scholar and author Michael Billig put it in 1984: “The conspiracy theory offers the chance of hidden, important, and immediate knowledge, so that the believer can become an expert, possessed of a knowledge not held even by the so-called experts.” Douglas’ work has now shown what Billig alluded to.

Other studies reveal that conspiracy theories help people make sense of the world when they feel out of control, are anxious or feel powerless if their needs are threatened. People can find it difficult to accept that we live in a world where random acts of violence, such as mass-murder, can take place. That is why, says University of Bristol professor of psychology Stephan Lewandowsky, it can be psychologically comforting for some to believe that “powerful people” are behind random events. People are literally “addicted to answers,” according to one study.

Take the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, the deadliest mass-shooting in US history in which 58 people were killed. It has been blamed on Muslim terrorists, the violent group Antifa, and it has been suggested it was  part of an Illuminati blood-sacrifice ritual. The fact-checking website Snopes has a longer list of falsehoods it has debunked. “We do not like the idea that out of the blue something terrible can happen, therefore, it is psychologically comforting for some people to believe in a well-organised conspiracy of powerful people who are responsible for those events,” says Lewandowsky.

Upbringing may also play a role in world beliefs. Individuals who grew up insecurely attached to their parents – where they experienced a negative relationship with one or both of them, also seem to be more likely to support conspiracy theories. That’s according to a study being published in April 2018 in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

“These people exaggerate threats compared to others,” explains Douglas, in part because they use an inflated perception of global threats as a coping mechanism. “They help people explain or justify their anxieties." Whether or not it works is another matter. The current evidence at least, suggests it does not help with anxiety. It might even make people feel less in control. In fact, conspiracy theories can make people feel more uncertain, powerless, and disillusioned. Once in that state, they are then also more likely to continue believing them.

That so many people do choose to believe conspiracy theories, comes with potentially dangerous consequences, despite the fact that some are absurdly silly or even comical.

People who are party to them feel more disengaged politically and are therefore less likely to vote. Climate sceptics are also less inclined to reduce their carbon footprint and support the politicians who promise to do so. Similarly, anti-vaxxers contribute to the spread of disease, which can harm and even kill the very young or those with compromised immune systems. These are the very real effects of an age where there is a “blizzard of misinformation” out there, says Lewandowsky, where the nobility of truth itself is being undermined.

There does not seem to be an easy way for the truth to rule supreme. Frustratingly for scientists, presenting accurate facts which “disprove” a conspiracy theory does not usually help. In fact, it can even make a false belief stronger. Lewandowsky found that the stronger a person believes in a conspiracy, the less likely they are to trust scientific facts. It is more likely they will think the person attempting to reason with them is in on it. “What that means is that any evidence against a conspiracy theory is reinterpreted as evidence in favour of it.” The rejection of science is, in part, fuelled by conspiracy theorists, he further found.

This highlights the extent to which we live in a polarised world. One study looking at how conspiracy theories spread online, revealed that there is no overlap between those who share scientific news, and those who share conspiracies or fake news. “We are living in separate echo chambers,” says physicist David Grimes, from Queen's University, Belfast. He was so frequently trolled by conspiracy theorists in his science writing that he developed an algorithm to show how unlikely it is that big secrets can be kept for any significant length of time. The more people involved in a cover-up, the quicker it would unravel, he showed.

“We all share a single world, and the consequences of what we decide from a policy or ethics perspective, affect all of us. If we cannot even agree on basic science, things that shouldn’t even be controversial, we [will] have serious problems making decisions,” says Grimes.

While there may not be a single solution, research looking into the psychology behind conspiracy theory participation is a start. We now know that a person’s ideology is often related to their beliefs. The strongest predictor of climate denial, for instance, is a free-market ideology, Lewandowsky discovered. Through the work of Douglas and others, we now also know many of the traits that make people more susceptible to believing something without evidence. We need to realise that we are “drawn to patterns,” even when there are none, says Grimes. “The reality is, we live in a stochastic Universe. It’s tempting to draw a narrative, but there’s no narrative, there are no waves, we are joining dots in the sand,” says Grimes.

Although technology has created the many echo chambers and filter bubbles we see today, it could also help overcome them. One pioneering experiment in Norway introduced a quiz to make sure the person understood what they had read before they were able to comment on an article. This might help people “calm down” before distributing random noise, says Lewandowsky, but at the same time it is not censoring anyone from having a voice.

Another strategy that could help is educating people to better understand trusted sources, as well as holding public figures to account when they spread misinformation. Several fact-checking websites and journalists already attempt to do this, but it doesn’t always work. Grimes has found that people set in their beliefs are unlikely to change their opinions, but those who “aren’t fully committed” can be swayed when presented with evidence. That, he hopes, means we can overturn many conspiracies if people are provided with compelling, fact-based evidence.

Lastly, we can all look more closely at what we share on social media ourselves. People often share a clever-sounding headline without actually reading the contents of the article. “We’ve got the information of the world at our finger tips and yet we’re obsessed with empty fictions,” says Grimes. That’s exactly how misinformation and conspiracy theories can so easily spread.

This means that we really cannot always believe what we read and hear. If something sounds peculiar or contrived, chances are it might well be. If you are aware of just how many conspiracy theories circulate, then you are already ahead of the game in preventing them from spreading further.

Melissa Hogenboom