Control Freaks

The psychology of conspiracy theories

by Charlotte Wall


Barack Obama has stayed busy in office: He fabricated his birth certificate to feign his American citizenship, held “death panels” to decide who would live and who would die under Obamacare, mandated contraceptives for religious institutions in order to destroy religious liberty, blasted the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig offshore to rally support for his environmental agenda, organized Syrian gas attacks to prompt conflict in the Middle East, called for the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre to further gun-control lawmaking, and also instituted internment camps in which to place any and all Americans who resist his decisions—allegedly.

People can’t actually believe these conspiracy theories, right? Wrong. People do believe them and in exorbitant numbers. But who convinced people to believe in them?

Well, a conspiracy begins with a theory or story having some discrepancy. From here, the theorist explains everything that happened in the story in a credible way, meaning they must garner evidence and alternative explanations for happenings in the official story. If done well, the created theory explains many details that remain unknown or fuzzy in official stories.

Conspiracy theorists are the people who come up with these explanations, gaining a level of pseudo-sophistication once their conspiracy theories gain traction. But what causes these people to first feel the need to explain discrepancies in stories at all?

According to a pair of new studies published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, conspiracy theorists tend to all feel a lack of control over their lives.

For the past six years, Jan-Willem van Prooijen, associate professor in social and organizational psychology at VU University Amsterdam, has studied conspiracy theories, those who start them, and those who believe them. “When I started this research, one of the things I really found astonishing was how many people believe in certain conspiracy theories,” says van Prooijen.

Conspiracy theories often arise during uncertain and frightening times: after terrorist attacks, high-profile deaths, natural disasters and financial crises. His research hints that when people feel they don’t have control in certain circumstances, they try to make sense of it and explain what happened—regardless of how illogical it may be. “The sense-making leads them to connect dots that aren’t necessarily connected in reality,” says van Prooijen.

Van Prooijen and his team of researchers also found that feeling a sense of control protects against believing in conspiracy theories. In one of his studies, they divided 119 people into two groups, telling one group to write down times they were totally in control and telling the other to write down one time they didn’t feel in control. One group was left with an empowering feeling, while the other group was left helpless.

Next, researchers surveyed their positions towards a building project in the Netherlands that unexpectedly destroyed the foundations of many houses, an event which sparked many to believe it was a conspiracy of the city council. Those people in the group primed to feel ‘in control’ were less likely to believe that the government was plotting against them. “We found that if you give people a feeling of control, then they are less inclined to believe those conspiracy theories…giving people a sense of control can make them less suspicious over governmental operations,” says van Prooijen.

The second experiment looked at Americans’ conspiratorial beliefs preceding the turn of the millenium. It was conducted in late 1999, during the months leading up to the event known as Y2K. “The more that people feared the millennium bug in 1999, the more likely they were inclined to believe in other conspiracy theories, ranging from Kennedy’s assassination conspiracy theories to the government hiding evidence of the existence of UFOs,” says van Prooijen. Believing in one conspiracy is a good predictor in gauging someone’s belief in another.

Van Prooijen’s findings support the findings of another group from the Journal of the American Medical Association, which found that 37 percent of surveyed Americans believe the FDA is purposely forbidding people from accessing natural treatments to cancer because it is indebted to drug companies.

Although these beliefs can be very hard to change, granting people a sense of control might cast out some conspiratorial beliefs—new research suggests this would be beneficial globally. “There’s no doubt cultural variables influence it,” van Prooijen says, “but the essence of conspiracy theorizing is, I think, universal in human beings. People have a natural tendency to be suspicious of groups that are powerful and potentially hostile.”

The notion that belief in conspiracy theories can be limited to one demographic or stereotype, like geeky white men living in their parents’ basements, is a myth. Political scientists Joseph E. Uscinski and Joseph M. Parent, from the University of Miami, found that people who believe in conspiracy theories “cut across gender, age, race, income, political affiliation, educational level, and occupational status,” as published in their 2014 book “American Conspiracy Theories.” Believers are from both the political left and right, although Uscinski and Parent found that each group tends to believe differing theorists with a range of conviction. 

Liberals tend to mistrust media sources and political parties they view as beholden to rich capitalists and corporations, whereas conservatives are more likely to believe that liberal elites and academics control the media and political parties. Those aligned with the political left also typically belive GMO conspiracy theories which, for example, accuse Monsanto of purposely undermining the health of the general public by producing GMOs. On the other side, those aligned with the political right often believe climate change conspiracies as true, such as the idea that academic climate scientists are fudging data as a means to destroy the United States’ economy.

Group identity also causes divisions between believers. White Americans are more likely to believe conspiracy theories that suggest the government is taxing the rich in order to turn the country into a socialist utopia. Black Americans are more likely to believe conspiracy theories that the CIA is responsible for planting crack cocaine in inner-city neighborhoods.

Encouragingly, Uscinski and Parent found that education reduces conspiratorial thinking: 42 percent of those without a high school diploma have conspiratorial predispositions, balanced against 23 percent with postgraduate degrees. Still, this means that more than one in five Americans bear conspiratorial beliefs.

Uscinski and Parent detail the four characteristics of conspiracy theories: “(1) a group (2) acting in secret (3) to alter institutions, usurp power, hide truth, or gain utility (4) at the expense of the common good.” A content analysis of more than 100,000 letters to the New York Times over its 124 years in print turned up three pages’ worth of accused conspirators, from Adolf Hitler and the African National Congress to Zionist Villagers and the World Health Organization. These conspirators can be categorized into eight types: Right, Left, Communist, Capitalist, Government, Media, Foreign and Miscellaneous (which includes Freemasons, the American Medical Association, and even scientists). 

The common theme shared by all supposed conspirators is power—both who has it and who wants it. Uscinski and Parent conclude their inquiry with a translation from Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” in itself a conspiracy manual: “the strong desire to rule, and the weak desire not to be ruled.”

Those who promote conspiracies are selective doubters who favor a worldview focused on the menacing omnipotence of elites. Although distrust is an important factor contributing to the widespread belief of conspiracies, alienation is an even larger contributor to conspiracy theory susceptibility. Psychologists and political scientists alike have repeatedly found that when people process pro and con information on an issue, they besmirch the information with which they don’t agree and accept the information most compatible with their own beliefs. They call this pervasive habit “motivated skepticism.”

Conspiracy believers are the epitome of motivated skeptics because they apply their selective scrutiny to the mainstream rather than the right or the left. They tell themselves they are the only ones who see the lies and that the rest of the world is blind. Though the public might sometimes be deceived by authority, believing blindly in one’s own opinion is just another way to be gullible.