Why Do We Buy Into Conspiracy Theories?

Most Flat Earthers, according to the Flat Earth Society, think astronauts have been bribed or coerced into views that the Earth is round. (Photo: Elena Schweitzer/Shutterstock)

Questioning accepted information is not in and of itself a negative thing. Without people who pushed back against the status quo (even when their lives were threatened), we wouldn't live in such a technologically advanced society. The Wright Brothers would never have taken that first flight at Kitty Hawk. We wouldn't have a variety of religions — or atheists, for that matter — if we all accepted what we were told about spirituality.

It's an undeniably good thing that human beings have a skeptical, curious point of view.

But like any human quality, there's a flip-side. The ones who say, "Really? That doesn't make sense to me," can also do harm. Oftentimes, the people who take their questioning to extremes end up being labeled as "conspiracy theorists."

I'm a little defensive about that term because I've been called a conspiracy theorist. I was part of a group of young people who vigorously and vociferously argued that Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs), used to justify U.S. war against Iraq in 2003, didn't exist there. And it turns out they didn't. As Congress later concluded, the existence of WMDs in Iraq was "not supported by the underlying intelligence reporting." Sometimes ideas that are dubbed conspiracy theories turn out to be true.

That's the difference between a conspiracy theory and other kinds of theories. A true conspiracy theory is one that can't be proven or disproven.

With that in mind, let's dive into conspiracy theories and why they continue to flourish. As long as there are human beings, we'll see smoke where there is no fire.

Who becomes a conspiracy theorist?

A man wearing a tin foil hat
According to one study, about half of Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory. (Photo: Suzanne Tucker/Shutterstock)

It's not a shock that I believed in what was once considered a laughable conspiracy theory. I have quite a few of the qualities that conspiracy theorists tend to have: "... personality traits such as openness to experience, distrust, low agreeability, and Machiavellianism are associated with conspiracy belief," as detailed in a 2017 paper in the journal Social Psychology.

It's easy to claim a positive trait, like being open to experience. And I wouldn't be a good journalist if I wasn't at least somewhat distrustful and in search of the truth. Low agreeability is a less positive aspect to personality, but I'll admit it: There's a reason I work solo. I dearly hope that I don't have many Machiavellian traits, however, which is defined by psychologists as someone who will "... manipulate, deceive, and exploit others to achieve their goals." Yikes.

Those traits in conspiracy theorists all have been well-explored. In the study above, psychologists at the University of Grenoble Alps in France raised how important it is to have both scarce information and unique information to the people who tend to believe: "These studies suggest that conspiracy theories may serve people’s desire to be unique, highlighting a motivational underpinning of conspiracy belief."

Those who have information first are potentially "ahead of the game," which makes them feel good about themselves, and as the researchers write, "People who believe in conspiracy theories can feel 'special,' in a positive sense, because they may feel that they are more informed than others about important social and political events."

If you're an information junkie who likes to be the first to know about breaking news and sharing it, you probably have this trait. It's another part of our personality that can obviously be beneficial. After all, throughout human history, knowing information first meant you were more likely to survive. In modern times, the appeal of that feeling of specialness means you seek out stories in less-trustworthy places.

Why do we believe in conspiracy theories?

All of the above certainly explains most of the people I've seen interviewed about the Flat Earth conspiracy. They are clearly enjoying getting together at conferences and attracting attention (however negative), leading them to feel special.

So they may dive down a 9/11 "truther" video hole for a couple of hours, or be tempted to click on articles about monster planet Nibiru crashing into the Earth, why we might enjoy a book about the JFK assassination, or seriously contemplate whether Melania Trump might have a body double at certain events.

But while initially intrigued, most of us can pull back from these stories, start digging around and find plenty of conflicting information that leads us away from believing a conspiracy theory.

We also sometimes believe conspiracy theories because, fundamentally, we're insecure. There's a lot that goes on in the world that we have little control over, and that's scary. As the Grenoble Alps study details, "People who feel powerless may also endorse conspiracy theories as they also help the individual avoid blame for their predicament. In this sense, conspiracy theories give a sense of meaning, security and control over an unpredictable and dangerous world."

I would argue that there are positive aspects to those who are prone to believing, or at least exploring, conspiracy theories. I would wager that they're driven by the excitement and curiosity that "the world may not be what we think it is." For some, that's scary. For others, it's exciting. I'm part of the latter camp, which is why I'm comfortable admitting that I'll read almost any wacky idea on the internet. I'm not afraid of conspiracy theories, because they can be, at the very least, amusing. As a former scientist, I trust my BS detector.

The recent surge of people who believe in the Flat Earth theory is intriguing, not for the theory itself, but to see how people argue something that — if it were a conspiracy — would go back to Magellan's journey in 1522 when he circumnavigated the Earth for the first time. But to hear them argue and see how they make their points is useful. It makes it easier to see how people who spread untruths do it. Ironically, it's my fundamental skepticism that makes me disbelieve most conspiracy theories; most have way too many holes.

Still, about half of us believe in at least one conspiracy theory, which probably says something good, and bad, about all of us.