People believe in conspiracy theories for a variety of reasons—to explain random events, to feel special or unique, or for a sense of social belonging, to name a few.
Widespread belief in conspiracy theories is cause for concern, says Karen Douglas, PhD, a professor of social psychology at the University of Kent, because research links support in such theories to prejudice, violence, and terrorism. Several followers of QAnon have been charged with violent crimes, prompting the FBI to label the group a potential domestic terrorist threat in May.
In a series of experiments, Douglas and Jan-Willem van Prooijen, PhD, an associate professor of social and organizational psychology at Vrije Universiteit [Free University] Amsterdam, found that the tendency to perceive illusory patterns—to connect stimuli that aren’t related—is part of the cognitive machinery behind irrational beliefs such as conspiracy theories (European Journal of Social Psychology, Vol. 48, No. 3, 2017). Along those lines, some QAnon followers think that because Q is the 17th letter of the alphabet, President Trump is sending them messages when he mentions the number 17.
Q, the anonymous internet poster behind the movement, who claims to be a high-ranking U.S. intelligence official, releases cryptic breadcrumbs known as “drops” online that followers then decipher. Drops are said to explain or predict developments in the supposed war between President Trump and the alleged deep-state pedophiles. Participating in what feels like an exclusive intelligence circle can satisfy the human need for uniqueness, psychologists’ research has shown, prompting a desire to continue participating (Lantian, A., et al., Social Psychology, Vol. 48, No. 3, 2017).
People also turn to conspiracy theories when important psychological needs aren’t being met, says Douglas. Her research shows that such narratives can fulfill our need for certainty and security, for instance, when events seem random, and for social belonging (Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol. 26, No. 6, 2017).
Those findings help explain why many Americans, including QAnon supporters, have turned to extreme explanations for the COVID-19 pandemic. Survey data collected by psychologist Daniel Romer, PhD, research director at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, suggest that nearly a third of U.S. adults think the coronavirus is a bioweapon created by the Chinese government (Romer, D. & Jamieson, K.H., Social Science & Medicine, Vol. 263, 2020).
“Conspiracy theories make people feel as though they have some sort of control over the world,” Romer says. “They can be psychologically reassuring, especially in uncertain times.”
Research also indicates that some people are more likely to embrace conspiratorial narratives than others. Schizotypy, for example, a personality trait defined by eccentricity and suspiciousness of others, is tied to belief in conspiracy theories. People who see the world as a dangerous place and those prone to think meaningless information is profound are also more likely to embrace such narratives (Hart, J., & Graether, M., Journal of Individual Differences, Vol. 39, No. 4, 2018).
Some evidence suggests a link between personality and conspiracy theories. Shauna Bowes, a clinical psychology doctoral student at Emory University, and her colleagues surveyed nearly 2,000 people and found that those lower on agreeableness, conscientiousness, and humility were more likely to embrace both general conspiracy theories (statements like “the government is hiding something from us”) and concrete ones (for instance, that the Apollo moon landings were fake). People with pathological personality scores—such as high grandiosity or very low self-esteem—were even more likely to support conspiratorial narratives (Bowes, S. M., et al., Journal of Personality, 2020).
People of all races and ethnicities believe in conspiracies because of their psychological needs, religion and magical thinking no doubt contributes to it.
"Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts." - Daniel Patrick Moynihan