Does your otherwise sensible friend believe "chemtrails" are part of a sinister government plot? The psychology behind believing in conspiracy theories is fascinating. Some may even have biological causes.
At a dinner party last year, I was casually saying how silly I thought my brother-in-law was for believing in chemtrails when a couple, whom I considered to be very reasonable people, responded that the government really does use them for population control. To be fair, they were shocked that I, a person they thought to be very reasonable, refuse to set up Face ID on my iPhone because I’m pretty sure “they” will use it for surveillance, even though I’m not sure who “they” are.
Conspiracy theories have always fascinated me. When I was thirteen, I worshiped Blink-182 and nodded along to Tom DeLonge’s theories about Area 51. Now that I’m older and a psychologist, I’m much more interested in the psychology of how and why people believe in conspiracy theories.
What are conspiracy theories?
First, let’s define the term. A conspiracy theory is a non-mainstream explanation for something about the world that involves secret, powerful, and often sinister groups. It’s speculative, meaning it’s not based on verified facts. It’s often complex. (Just think of that meme of Charlie from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia madly gesturing at crisscrossing strings on a wall crammed with “evidence.”) It usually includes negative and distrustful beliefs about an “other.”
A conspiracy theory is a non-mainstream explanation for something about the world that involves secret, powerful, and often sinister groups.
And importantly, a conspiracy theory is not falsifiable—any evidence against the theory would be chalked up to a cover-up, paradoxically reinforcing the theory. When scientists try to reassure people that chemtrails consist only of normal water vapor, a hardcore chemtrail believer might conclude that scientists have been bought by the government to lie to the people.
This episode is not going to debunk (or bunk) any specific conspiracy theories. After all, I’m no expert on airplane contrails or moon landings. But it turns out that, whether they're true or not, the psychology of conspiracy theories is fascinating. (Spoiler alert: Sleep disorders might be involved in alien abduction conspiracy theories!)
But let’s start with the basics.
Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?
Psychologists specializing in conspiracy theories believe that people have three main motivations for believing in conspiracy theories, whether or not they’re aware of these motivations.
1. The need to reduce uncertainty and make sense of the world
The world can be a scary and overwhelming place. Events often seem random; talking heads on TV don’t agree on basic facts; there are gaps in our understanding of how injustices and disasters come about. For all of us, there are days when nothing seems to make sense.
When a conspiracy theory comes along, claiming to make sense of the insensible, it can be quite appealing.
When a conspiracy theory comes along, claiming to make sense of the insensible, it can be quite appealing. Research shows that when people feel a strong sense of uncertainty, they’re more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. This is especially true for those who have a high need for cognitive closure—in other words, they feel deeply uncomfortable if they don’t get answers.
2. The need to feel safe and have a sense of control
Related to making sense of the world, we also have a deep need to feel safe and like we have control over our environment.
Conspiracy theories can offer a psychological island to land on when we’re treading water. They offer some concreteness when we feel helpless about our lives. Perhaps someone’s child has unexplained health issues. Believing in a conspiracy about how pharmaceutical companies are purposely using vaccines to make kids sick might seem appealing for desperate parents. Deciding to refuse vaccines gives them some sense of control.
Conspiracy theories offer the opportunity to reject official narratives, affording some small solace.
People who lack control in other areas of life—employment, financial future, social prejudice—may similarly feel like they don’t have a safe or valued space in the world. In fact, people who feel like they have low socio-political control are more susceptible to believing in conspiracies. This makes sense—conspiracy theories offer the opportunity to reject official narratives, affording some small solace.
3. The need to maintain a good self-image
Another reason people who feel left behind or left out are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories is that these unfounded beliefs offer a way to maintain a positive self-image.
How do conspiracy theories make people feel good about themselves? Well, let's say you're persistently unemployed. Isn’t the idea of a secret cabal within the government purposely keeping unemployment high to control an upcoming election an easier pill to swallow than the idea that your skills may no longer be marketable?
Perhaps this is why people on the losing side of the political process are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. It allows people to maintain a sense that they and their in-group are good while blaming others for things gone wrong.
How do conspiracy theories take root?
For the reasons we’ve covered, people may be “on the ready” to believe in conspiracy theories. But how do specific theories take root in people’s minds?
This question is difficult because the answer seems to be very complex. But psychological science has found some hints.
1. We all have confirmation bias
Confirmation bias is our brain's tendency to look for information that supports what we already believe. This tendency can lead us to talk to people we know agree with us (think Twitter echo chambers). Or it could find us scanning a Google search results page and clicking only on the links that show what we were looking for. If I already think the Illuminati is controlling the world’s banks and I search for “Illuminati banks,” my eyes will be drawn to the link that says “every bank CEO is an Illuminati member.”
Confirmation bias is our brain's tendency to look for information that supports what we already believe.
What makes confirmation bias worse is that we’re not good at remembering where our conspiracy ideas came from. Do you remember when you first heard the idea that the moon landing was staged? A fascinating study showed that when people read persuasive conspiracy theories, they’re prone to falsely recalling that they had believed in the conspiracy all along.
2. It’s not about the specific content
You might think that how well a conspiracy theory takes root in someone’s mind depends on how plausible the theory is. As it turns out, though, content isn't that important. Whether someone adopts a conspiracy theory or not depends more on their overall proneness to believe in conspiracies in the first place.
The act of believing in conspiracy theories is its own fuel.
A study showed that the more someone believed Princess Diana faked her own death, the more the same person believed she was murdered. The more someone believed that Osama bin Laden was already dead by the time his compound was raided, the more the same person believed that he was still alive.
In other words, the act of believing in conspiracy theories is its own fuel. The more we believe in one, the more likely we are to believe in others, even if they're contradictory.
3. Sometimes, a sleep disorder can make you hallucinate an alien abduction
Yes, you read that right—sometimes, believing in a conspiracy theory doesn’t come from going down a Google search rabbit hole. Sometimes, it comes from very real perceptual experiences that your brain creates while you’re in the twilight zone between sleep and wakefulness.
Sleep paralysis, documented since the 1600s, is the strange experience of being completely unable to move even as you're conscious of your own body and surroundings. This tends to happen as you're on the verge of falling asleep or waking up. Not only is it terrifying to feel paralyzed, but sleep paralysis often comes with feeling a heaviness on your chest, a racing heart, other panic attack sensations, and even pain.
Far-out ideas can grow from honest-to-goodness biological roots and then spread through our collective consciousness as conspiracy theories.
You may also have hallucinations during sleep paralysis, often in the form of seeing figures in the room or even looming over your bed. There's good documentation that people who believe they've experienced alien abduction are actually describing an episode of sleep paralysis. Often, their traumatic memories of the experience evolve over time as their brains try to make sense of the insensible. The vague, shadowy figures they hallucinated take on the features of the aliens we talk about in popular culture—large heads, little grey bodies, dark elongated eyes.
Of course, this only accounts for a small portion of all conspiracy theories, but I think it’s fascinating that our brains can mix sleep disorder symptoms with cultural imagery to produce this phenomenon. It shows that far-out ideas can grow from honest-to-goodness biological roots and then spread through our collective consciousness as conspiracy theories.
What are the psychological consequences of believing in conspiracy theories?
As I've already mentioned, a deep longing for safety and control can motivate a person to believe in conspiracy theories. But the sad truth is, the approach isn't helpful. In fact, it may have the opposite effect.
This is a good time to use our wise minds—acknowledge our anxiety, but also weigh the facts so we can be empowered with useful knowledge in the face of uncertainty.
Research shows that when people are exposed to conspiracy theories, they immediately feel less like they’re in control. And it’s not just about feeling bad—believing in conspiracy theories makes people distrustful of government even when the theories aren’t related to the government. It also causes disenchantment with public health authorities and scientists. This disconnect can be a real-world problem when governments and authorities are trying to convince people to follow public health guidelines—like getting their children vaccinated or social distancing during a pandemic—especially if doing the wrong thing increases everybody’s risk.
That’s why understanding the psychology of conspiracy theories is more important than ever. In many ways, conspiracy theories are designed to be appealing to our brains in stressful, uncertain times. This is a particularly good time to use our wise minds—acknowledge our anxiety, but also weigh the facts so we can be empowered with useful knowledge in the face of uncertainty.