The 7 Reasons People Believe in Conspiracy Theories

All-Seeing Eye of God on American dollar
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Some widely held conspiracy theories seem so absurd on their face that you wonder how they ever gained any traction: All the Jewish people who worked in the World Trade Center were warned in advance of the 9/11 attacks? The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary was perpetrated by gun-control advocates, or was invented by the media for its own nefarious purposes? Hillary Clinton masterminded a child-sex ring that operated out of a Washington, D.C. pizza parlor? But the unnerving fact is that some people not only believe in these theories, but cling to them with such tenaciousness that other, equally gullible folks find them extremely convincing. So why do so many people believe in conspiracy theories in the first place? Here are the likeliest explanations.

01
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Faulty Wiring

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When Homo sapiens first started walking the savannahs of Africa, a hundred thousand years ago, alertness was an important trait: if you were the first member of your tribe to glimpse a hungry saber-toothed tiger, or to hear a distant clap of thunder, you were more likely to survive the day and go on to have children. In our modern age, though, hyper-alertness can be more a deficit than an advantage. At its most extreme it manifests itself as clinical paranoia (why did that streetlight outside my window flicker when I picked up my coffee mug? Is the CIA watching me?), and in its more moderate forms, it often leads to the tendency of conspiracy theorists to "over-interpret" visual and auditory evidence and connect dots that simply aren't there (for example, watching and re-watching grainy footage of the Kennedy assassination). This is simply the way the brains of some people are structured; there's not much you can do except calmly point out alternative (and more sensible) explanations!

02
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Overindulgence in Social Media

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Isn't it ironic that Facebook and Twitter, two apps that were supposed to draw the world's populace into a close-knit global community, have also fostered so much malice and division? In fact, most people tend to friend or follow other people who have closely aligned political views, and they are also increasingly likely to obtain their news from social media, which results in an online "echo chamber" in which the wildest conspiracy theories bounce back and forth, unchallenged by facts. In this respect, conspiracy theories are a lot like television commercials: if you see the same unwarranted factoid popping up in your feed a dozen times a day, you are more likely to accept it as true or at least worthy of further investigation. 

03
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Political Disaffection

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Granted, it did not rise to the level of a full-fledged conspiracy theory, but millions of starving peasants in late 18th century France really believed that Queen Marie-Antoinette dismissed their plight by saying, "Let them eat cake!" By the same token, there are millions of economically struggling people in this country who believe that Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim who helped plan the attacks on 9/11, and comparable millions of equally disadvantaged people who believe that Donald Trump plans to build concentration camps and fill them with minorities who disapprove of his policies. What all these millions, then and now, share in common is a sense of the lack of their own power—and when you feel you don't have any political clout, you tend to overestimate what real political clout can actually accomplish (at least, in a functioning democracy).

04
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Lack of Education

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Studies have shown that there's a direct correlation between a person's education level and his or her tendency to subscribe to conspiracy theories (don't pat yourself on the back, though: a significant number of people with postdoctoral degrees still believe them). It's not a hard-and-fast rule, of course, but individuals who finish high school, college, or graduate programs are better versed in science, math, and logical argument than those who drop out of the system in the 10th grade. For example, a person with only rudimentary knowledge of physics may be tempted to conclude that "cold fusion" is a genuine phenomenon, and that this cheap, inexhaustible source of energy has been deliberately suppressed for decades by the fossil-fuel industry. 

05
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An Inability to Deal With Bad News

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Sometimes you shouldn't ascribe the worst motives to people who believe in outlandish conspiracy theories: not everyone is equally capable of accepting, and processing, unpleasant facts. There are millions of parents across the U.S. to whom the Sandy Hook massacre was an inconceivable nightmare (this writer among them), and it's at least understandable that a person's defense mechanisms might make it impossible for him to accept the truth of this event. However, one shouldn't take this empathy too far: there's no moral principle that states that a person *has* to accept the fact of the murder of 20 grade-schoolers, but ethical considerations do come into play when that person harasses the parents of the deceased and accuses them of making the event up from whole cloth, with the collaboration of politicians and news writers.

06
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A Misunderstanding of the Law of Probability

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Whenever any semi-important person in Washington, D.C. dies young, there is inevitably speculation on the far fringes that he was "targeted" for "knowing too much," or that the details of his demise were eerily similar to what happened to that other guy a few years ago, you remember, the one with the hat? The fact is, of course, that people die all the time, even relatively young people who seemed relatively healthy at the time, and in a city as big as Washington reason dictates that there will be many such deaths each year, each of which is completely unrelated to the others. This type of conspiracy theory has existed for as long as civilization has, and can be chalked up to ignorance of actuarial tables and the laws of probability. One amusing example from a hundred years ago is the supposed "curse" of King Tut's Tomb; whenever anyone died, of natural causes or otherwise, associated with that expedition, conspiracy theorists invoked the supernatural malice of mummies.

07
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Ironic Amusement

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This is one of the more unpleasant motivations that drive certain conspiracy theorists. You can hardly blame a disbeliever in fluoridated water for the way her brain is wired, and some people have no choice but to drop out of high school, but it's not as easy to excuse educated hipsters who "ironically" subscribe to conspiracy theories and, when challenged, profess to "not really" believe in them. "Dude, chemtrails are totally dangerous! Why do you think planes fly over unpopulated parts of the country?" The trouble here is that there's a fine line between making fun of an idea and presenting yourself (to those not well-versed in the art of irony) as the proponent of an idea. True subscribers to conspiracy theories aren't attuned to that type of nuance; they are just as likely to interpret your sarcasm as support, and go on spouting their line to gullible friends and colleagues. 

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Strauss, Bob. "The 7 Reasons People Believe in Conspiracy Theories." ThoughtCo, Nov. 14, 2017, thoughtco.com/why-people-believe-conspiracy-theories-4142966. Strauss, Bob. (2017, November 14). The 7 Reasons People Believe in Conspiracy Theories. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/why-people-believe-conspiracy-theories-4142966 Strauss, Bob. "The 7 Reasons People Believe in Conspiracy Theories." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/why-people-believe-conspiracy-theories-4142966 (accessed November 19, 2017).