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Conspiracy theories are here to stay but why do some of us believe them more than others?

Updated: Dec 22, 2020

This is a bit of a favourite topic of mine, hands up, I am fascinated by how people are drawn into Conspiracy theories, what hooks them in and what drives the almost cult like beliefs, they hold. Conspiracy theories have been with us for hundreds of years in one form or another. Years ago people believed the Earth was flat, but science has helped us to debunk a number of conspiracy theories. However, the internet has in recent years made it easier for mis information to spread much quicker than previously.

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How popular are conspiracy theories?

Millions of people worldwide subscribe to at least one conspiracy theory and the speed at which they can spread, is lightning speed. The big problem with conspiracy theories and the people that are responsible for sharing them, is that they are very rarely fact checked and in some cases they can create dangerous situations.


Why do people believe conspiracy theories?

People with pre-existing notions and prejudices tend to influence which conspiracy theories they are more likely to believe.

For example, a study in 2018 showed that 47% of Brexit supporters believed the government had deliberately concealed the truth about how many immigrants lived in the UK, versus just 14% of Remain voters.

And 31% of Leave voters believed that Muslim immigration was part of a wider plot to make Muslims the majority in Britain, compared with 6% of Remain voters.

The phenomenon isn’t confined to the UK. The study - conducted over six years in a total of nine countries - found that in the US, 47% of Donald Trump voters believed that man-made global warming was a hoax, compared with 2.3% of people who had voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.


There are shared common characteristics of people who generally believe in conspiracy theories:


1) Marginalised communities who feel let down and excluded by mainstream society. Being part of Conspiracy theory group makes people feel that they belong somewhere, with other people who share the same values and beliefs as themselves

2) Belief in conspiracy theories is associated with general disenchantment with political authority, a sense of powerlessness, and a general sense of alienation from mainstream political society.

3) Confirmation bias can also play a role in the development of conspiracy theory belief. People are naturally inclined to seek out information that confirms their existing beliefs and ultimately feel more secure if an existing belief is backed up by a theory, if even it’s not widely known to be true.

4) So when they run across a theory that supports something that they already think is true, they are more likely to believe the information is also true. Their existing belief is confirmed.

5) Conspiracy theories become more prominent in times of crisis and this has a lot to do with uncertainty. When people feel uncertain they generally like to try and find a reason to understand uncertainty and this where conspiracy theories fill that void. Conspiracy theories give people answers, even if those answers aren’t based in facts.

6) Having lower analytical abilities and less tolerance for uncertainty also play a role. As a result, people turn to conspiracy theories to provide explanations for events that seem confusing or frightening to them because they don't understand certain aspects of society.

Do Conspiracy theories matter?

What researchers have found is that while these beliefs are motivated by a desire to understand, exert control, and feel socially connected, these aren’t the effects people are feeling from their beliefs.6Rather than fulfilling these needs, believing in conspiracies seems to reinforce feelings of confusion, isolation, disenfranchisement, and loneliness

It is a destructive cycle—negative feelings contribute to the belief in conspiracies, yet the belief in conspiracies results in negative feelings. Believing in conspiracy theories erodes people’s trust in their government, science, leaders, and government institutions.

This distrust may discourage people from participating in their social worlds. It might also cause people to stop seeing themselves as valuable contributors to society.


Risks

Believing in things that are not true poses a number of dangers, which can have real effects that impact individual behaviour and ultimately, society as a whole. A resurgence in measles outbreaks in the UK has been largely attributed to a refusal by some individuals to vaccinate—a refusal that stems largely from the conspiratorial belief that vaccines cause autism and other health ailments.

Failing to address dangerous misbeliefs presents a potential danger to public health and even the political process itself. Faulty beliefs lead can lead people to not vaccinate, not vote, or, in some rare cases, even engage in dangerous or violent behaviour.

Overcoming Conspiracy Theory Beliefs

In the age of disinformation, finding ways to disprove conspiracy beliefs seems more important than ever. What can society do to engage with people who hold these beliefs?

One problem faced when trying to disprove conspiracy theories is that people who hold these beliefs also tend to suspect that there are factions engaged in covering up these activities. Those trying to debunk the mistaken beliefs are then viewed as simply being party to the conspiracy itself.

Feeling In Control Reduces Conspiratorial Thinking

Many factors that contribute to these beliefs, such as educational background and personality are not easily or quickly changed. Researchers have found that encouraging believers to pursue their goals can be effective in changing mindsets.

People tend to take one of two approaches in the pursuit of goals.

  • Those who are "promotion-focused" believe that they have the power and control to shape their future. They feel in control of their lives.

  • People who are "prevention-focused," are more focused on protecting what they already have rather than on achieving their goals so they can get stuck.

So what does this have to do with conspiracy beliefs? Research has found that promotion-focused people were more sceptical and less likely to buy into conspiracies. People who believe that their future is shaped by their own actions and have a great deal of control, have a sense of autonomy in their lives and this makes them less likely to believe in conspiracy theories.

What the researchers also discovered was that helping people to develop a more promotion-focused mindset could actually reduce belief in conspiracies. . And more importantly we should all try to listen to people who hold these views. Their views might seem completely unbelievable to some of us, but we have to ask ourselves, why this person has chosen those beliefs and really listen to them to find out why without being dismissive. Active listening is the biggest skill we all have as empathic human beings. For now, take care x




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