Surely, we are all familiar with the times, specifically the period between January and May 2020, when the Covid-19 virus was a huge mystery. There was this huge pandemic going on; the world had somewhat shut down, resulting in individual mental havoc. This situation has led to many theories, conspiracy theories, about the virus. About where and how it originated, who was responsible, who was not, etc.
The problem with these conspiracy theories was that with how mentally draining the pandemic was, we weren’t able to use our judgment skills effectively. We were paranoid, believing everything others said, or perhaps, not believing in the virus at all. Was it a government scam, or was it a way to control the population? Questions were all that we were left with. We are also familiar with the fact that COVID wasn’t the first and only thing we have been exposed to conspiracy theories. There are thousands of conspiracy theories but what is the psychology behind them since they directly target the human mind? What are the psychological factors behind it and what are, if there are any, consequences of this phenomenon?
What is a conspiracy theory? According to the Cambridge Dictionary, it is “[the] belief that an event or situation is the result of a secret plan made by powerful people,” which clearly gives us the main psychological tool that lies beneath them: the manipulation of people who have the tendency to believe such things.
Research done by the University of Kent’s School of Psychology suggests that people may be more susceptible to being drawn to conspiracy theories to satisfy social-psychological needs, categorized as “epistemic”, “existential”, and “social” (Douglas 2017).
Starting with epistemic motives, for people to have a reasonable understanding of the world around them, they have to find causal explanations for their experiences, and sometimes this is done through conspiracy theories. Of course, their understanding will be flawed since a conspiracy theory is based on personal beliefs, however, these flaws don’t seem to be on the radar of the people who don’t have the motivation to think critically about that issue.
Moving on to existential motives, people also need to feel safe and secure. As can be found in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a sense of security is a must for a person to continue functioning as a human being. It was suggested that people may turn to conspiracy theories for “compensatory satisfaction” when their needs are threatened, which also correlates with the finding that people are most likely to believe in a conspiracy theory when they are anxious. Again, we can see all this in our recent and major examples of COVID-19 conspiracy theories.
The last of these motives is social. The major thing that stands out at this point is the human desire to belong and protect a “good” image for those around them. We are creatures of impression, thus, conspiracy theories are attractive to people who notice a positive air surrounding those who believe in the theory.
Of course, the motives can not be counted as the only psychological explanation behind this phenomenon. Research done in 2018 by Joshua Hart indicated that there are several common personality traits that people who believe in conspiracy theories have in common. These include paranoid or suspicious thinking, eccentricity, a lack of trust in others, a stronger need to feel special, the belief that the world is dangerous, and the constant need to find meaningful patterns where none exist. These also show that people who tend to believe conspiracy theories share a common ground whether it is characteristics or the motives they have in their lives.
To conclude, we live in an age of fake news. It is inevitable to not see the conspiracy theories and the fake news that goes around the media. We are heavily exposed to this false-empty pile of knowledge that we have no choice but to be determined to find an origin, a credible source, and a line of reasoning involving evidence to the knowledge we acquire. Whether it’s the pyramids being built by aliens or COVID-19 being a bioweapon against humankind, a conspiracy theory is a conspiracy theory and needs to be dived into before it reaches the majority.
Douglas, Karen M. The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories. 2017. SAGE Journals, journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0963721417718261. Accessed 24 Oct. 2022.
Hart, Joshua. Psychological Predictors of Belief in Conspiracy Theories. 2 Aug. 2018. Hogfere Econtent, econtent.hogrefe.com/doi/epdf/10.1027/1614-0001/a000268. Accessed 24 Oct. 2022.
"Why Do Some People Believe in Conspiracy Theories?" PsychCentral, psychcentral.com/blog/conspiracy-theories-why-people-believe#mental-health-impact. Accessed 24 Oct. 2022.