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The Science Survey

We've got the news down to a science!

The Science Survey

We've got the news down to a science!

The Science Survey

Exploring the Psychology Behind Conspiracy

Why do conspiracy beliefs attract millions of followers? Understanding the psychology behind them can help us to address the persistence and impact of conspiratorial thinking in society.
“The Earth is Flat!” reads a sign that a protester holds up in Liestal, Switzerland, during a protest against COVID-19 restrictions during the pandemic. (Photo Credit: Kajetan Sumila / Unsplash)

Humans are self-interested, opportunist, and better feared than loved. These are common beliefs of Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527 C.E.), a philosopher most infamous for his works The Prince and The Discourses, which display a cynical view of humanity. Machievelli writes that true leaders should act against mercy, humanity, frankness, and religion — all to preserve the state. 

Machiavelli lived his life under the rule of the Medici family in Florence, Italy. The Medici are famous for commissioning great works of art, encouraging humanism, and reopening Florence to the world after the Black Death, an extremely lethal bubonic plague pandemic killing 40-60% of those living in Europe. The Renaissance was an era where the ideas of love, hope, and humanity flourished, so what made Machiavelli’s views so cruel? The answer to this question revolves around the concept of conspiracy. 

In a confusing world filled with and uncertainty, conspiracy theories have flourished, making their way into the fabric of society. From beliefs that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated from within, to suspicions that the pharmaceutical industry manufactures diseases, these theories find a surprisingly vast audience. But what compels millions to support to these often outlandish beliefs? While research has explored the immediate psychological triggers of conspiracy beliefs, it almost never explores their deeper, evolutionary underpinnings.

Conspiracy theories are not just modern phenomena; they have existed for centuries. Two prevailing evolutionary hypotheses attempt to unravel the origins and functions of these beliefs. The first suggests that conspiracy beliefs are a by-product of a variety of psychological mechanisms — such as pattern recognition, agency detection, and threat management — each evolving independently for different purposes, but collectively compelling individuals towards conspiratorial thinking. These mechanisms helped prehistoric peoples navigate the treacherous landscapes of hunter-gatherer societies, where these patterns could mean the difference between life and death.

The second hypothesis offers a more targeted approach, proposing that conspiracy beliefs are part of an evolved psychological mechanism specifically designed to detect dangerous coalitions. According to this view, people have developed a specialized system for identifying potential threats from coordinated groups, which in ancient times often translated into lethal conspiracies against oneself or one’s group. This system, triggered by coalition or collaborative intent, prompts strategic countermeasures aimed at neutralizing perceived conspiracies.

Supporting this adaptation hypothesis, insights from social, cultural, and evolutionary psychology suggest that our ancestors frequently faced real conspiracies within their social groups, hostile coalitions that caused significant harm, death, or impaired reproductive success. In response, humans evolved not just to survive, but to anticipate and counteract these coalitions through a variety of  psychological frameworks.

This evolutionary backdrop not only explains why conspiracy theories resonate so deeply with many today, but also why they are so robust across different cultures. As we dive deeper into the mechanics of these theories through the lens of evolutionary psychology, we uncover startling revelations about human nature and the legacy of our history in shaping our beliefs and behaviors in the modern world.

Beyond the individual mechanisms, there is an intriguing relationship between social structures and conspiracy thinking. Society has always been hierarchical and often marked by competition for resources and power. In such environments, the ability to detect and respond to alliances and hidden agendas would have been advantageous. Modern conspiracy theories often reflect this ancient dynamic, manifesting in suspicions about elites, governments, and powerful organizations.

Moreover, the social transmission of conspiracy beliefs can be understood through the framework of cultural evolution. Ideas and beliefs that resonate emotionally and psychologically are more likely to be shared and perpetuated. Conspiracy theories, with their dramatic narratives and clear delineation of good versus evil, fit this criterion perfectly. An example that illustrates this is the QAnon conspiracists, a far right insurgence group that believes that a global sex-trafficking ring is conspiring against President Donald Trump. For the QAnon, labeling Trump as good and immigrants and foreigners as provides a sense of clarity in a complex world.

Not to mention, cognitive biases play a significant role in the persistence of conspiracy theories. Confirmation bias, the tendency to search for, interpret, and recall information that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs, reinforces conspiratorial thinking. Once an individual subscribes to a conspiracy theory, they are likely to encounter and accept evidence that supports it while dismissing contradictory information.

Confirmation bias is not the only bias that fuels the prevalence of conspiracy theories, with the proportionality bias — the tendency to believe that big events must have big causes — also contributing significantly. This bias makes it difficult for people to accept that significant events, like assassinations or terrorist attacks, can result from random or isolated actions. Instead, they seek grand explanations, often involving elaborate plots and powerful actors.

The internet and social media have further encouraged the spread of conspiracy theories. These platforms provide an unprecedented ability for like-minded individuals to connect, share ideas, and reinforce each other’s beliefs. The algorithms that drive social media often prioritize sensational and emotionally charged content, which includes many conspiracy theories, thus increasing their visibility and reach.

Understanding the evolutionary and psychological roots of conspiracy theories does not merely explain their persistence; it also offers potential strategies for addressing them. Promoting critical thinking skills, improving media literacy, and fostering environments where open dialogue and skepticism are encouraged can help to mitigate the spread of unfounded conspiratorial beliefs.

By acknowledging the deep-seated origins of conspiracy thinking, we can better appreciate the challenges in combating it, and develop more effective ways to foster a more informed and rational public discourse. This approach requires a multidisciplinary effort, integrating insights from psychology, sociology, communication studies, and other fields to create a comprehensive strategy that addresses the roots of conspiracy beliefs and their manifestation in modern society.

Conspiracy theories thrive in environments where uncertainty and mistrust are prevalent, often gaining traction in times of social upheaval or crisis. These periods amplify the psychological mechanisms that predispose individuals to conspiratorial thinking. Historically, times of war, economic downturns, and pandemics have seen spikes in conspiracy theories, as people search for explanations that provide a sense of control and understanding.

The narrative power of conspiracy theories also lies in their ability to offer a clear, but often unbalanced, explanation for complex events. They simplify the chaotic and multifaceted nature of reality into comprehendible stories with defined villains and heroes. This reductionist approach can be comforting, offering an illusion of understanding and control over unpredictable circumstances.

However, the consequences of widespread belief in conspiracy theories can be significant and far-reaching. They can undermine trust in public institutions, fuel social divisions, and incite violence. For instance, the belief that elections are rigged can erode democratic processes and legitimacy, while health-related conspiracies can lead to public health crises by discouraging vaccination and other preventive measures. 

Addressing the influence and spread of conspiracy theories requires a targeted approach. Education systems play a crucial role in developing critical thinking and media literacy skills from an early age. Teaching students how to evaluate sources, question information, and understand the difference between evidence-based conclusions and speculative assertions is essential.

Media organizations also have a responsibility to promote accurate and reliable information while avoiding sensationalism. Fact-checking and transparency in reporting can help build public trust. Additionally, social media platforms need to implement and enforce policies that reduce the spread of misinformation, such as flagging or limiting the reach of content that promotes unfounded conspiracies.

Encouraging open dialogue and fostering community engagement can also mitigate the impact of conspiracy theories. When individuals feel heard and their concerns are addressed, they are less likely to turn to conspiratorial explanations. Building strong, transparent institutions that are responsive to the public can help rebuild trust and reduce the allure of conspiracy thinking.

By acknowledging the deep-seated origins of conspiracy thinking, we can better appreciate the challenges in combating it, and develop more effective ways to foster a more informed and rational public discourse.

About the Contributor
Isabel Goldfarb, Staff Reporter
Isabel Goldfarb is both a Copy Chief and a Social Media Editor for The Science Survey. She tends to focus on A.I., economics, and political science in her reporting, but is now venturing into covering topics related to arts and entertainment. In addition to writing her own articles, Isabel edits her fellow journalists’ articles on subjects ranging from current events to features. She appreciates how the field of journalism allows one to explore what they are most passionate about, as well as express and challenge one's own opinions on a wide range of issues. Aside from journalism, Isabel enjoys debating, reading, and fencing. In college, Isabel would like to study applied mathematics, economics, and international relations, all of which have the potential to intertwine with journalism.