This post is by Karen Douglas
(pictured above), Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Kent. Karen studies the psychology of conspiracy theories and the consequences of conspiracist thought. Here she asks, is it irrational to believe in conspiracy theories?
Conspiracy theories explain the ultimate causes of events as secret plots by powerful, malicious groups. For example, popular conspiracy theories suppose that the 9/11 attacks were planned by the US government to justify the war on terror, and that climate change is a hoax coordinated by climate scientists to gain research funding. Some conspiracy theories seem outlandish to most people. For example, very few people would agree that world leaders such as Barack Obama and David Cameron are reptilian humanoids
in disguise. However, many other conspiracy theories give people pause for thought. Indeed, one recent investigation showed that around 50% of Americans believe at least one conspiracy theory (Oliver and Wood 2014
). Nevertheless, conspiracy theories have a bad reputation. Many view them as irrational beliefs held only by paranoid, disenfranchised members of society.
But if conspiracy theories are so popular, can belief in them really be irrational? Recent research on the psychology of conspiracy theories has attempted to answer this question. Some research suggests that beliefs in conspiracy theories can be characterised as irrational because conspiracy beliefs correlate with various psychopathological measures. For example, conspiracy belief has been linked to paranoid thinking and schizotypy (Darwin and Neave 2011
), delusional ideation (Dagnall et al 2015
), and paranormal beliefs (Lobato et al. 2014
Other research, however, has found that believing in conspiracy theories may simply be a natural by-product of the way we perceive the world around us. Specifically, people have a tendency to attribute agency and intentionality to things around them (Douglas et al 2016
), to overestimate the likelihood of events occurring together (Brotherton and French 2014
), and to assume that “big” events must have had a “big” cause (Leman and Cinderella 2007
). All of these common cognitive tendencies predict the extent to which people believe in conspiracy theories. People also believe in conspiracy theories to the extent that they believe that they, personally, would be willing to conspire in similar situations (Douglas and Sutton 2011
). These findings therefore suggest that believing in conspiracy theories may be a natural consequence of the way that human beings think and process information.
Other evidence suggests that belief in conspiracy theories may be a response to people’s individual circumstances. For example, conspiracy theories appear to resonate more with people who lack power, (Whitson and Galinsky 2008
) or feel uncertain about things that happen to them (van Prooijen and Jostmann 2013
). Perhaps, if people feel that the world is stacked up against them, conspiracy theories offer an explanation for their predicament. Even believing in contradictory conspiracy theories may not be completely irrational if the conspiracy theories together support an overall worldview that conspiracies are possible (Wood, Douglas, and Sutton 2012
And conspiracies are, of course, possible. In 1972, Republican officials spied on the Democratic National Headquarters from the Watergate Hotel. Whilst there was much suspicion about underhanded dealings taking place at the time, this was not confirmed until 1975 when White House tape recordings linked President Nixon to the break-in. Or consider the Tuskegee Syphilis Study in which the US Public Health Service carried out a clinical study on 400 poor African American syphilis sufferers between 1932 and 1974. Adequate treatment was intentionally withheld so that the agency could study the course of the disease.
If we know that events like these are possible, is it really irrational to give conspiracy theories a second thought?