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Why We All Fall for Conspiracy Theories

Believing conspiracy theories and superstitions can be both good and bad. Experts explain what they are and why we fall for them.

By Rachel Knight ‘18

In August the Texas Republican Party unveiled a new slogan that came from what would have been considered an unthinkable source in previous election years — QAnon, an internet-driven conspiracy theory. The party’s endorsement of the conspiracy theory marked the beginning of QAnon shifting from an online conspiracy theory to an offline political movement.

Throughout 2020, conspiracy theories about politicians and the coronavirus pandemic have quickly gained popularity online. People’s belief in these conspiracy theories have led to the nomination of 24 QAnon followers to the congressional races in the general election this year and have led to protests wearing masks to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Heather Lench, professor and department head of psychological and brain sciences, said there are two main processes that cause people to latch on to conspiracy theories.

“One would be that people naturally look for patterns,” Lench explained. “It’s completely natural and it’s how we make sense of the world. We do it automatically and based on our beliefs at the time. The second i people have a motivation to maintain control over events. When events are uncontrollable and particularly when they are threatening, people will look for explanations that give control or a direction of blame.”

Lench said there is some evidence that when people are turned inward or experiencing boredom, we become more prone to conspiracy beliefs. Examples of this have taken place through the COVID-19 pandemic.

For example, Lu Tang, associate professor of communication whose research focuses on culture and health communication, studied a conspiracy theory that said 5G cell phone towers help spread the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Some people immediately believed it because if you put COVID-19 infection in a map and 5G network in another map, you can see that the places with the most 5G coverage are also the places with the most reported cases of COVID,” Tang said. “Intriguing right? Furthermore, most of us don’t know much about either 5G or COVID. Both are mysterious to us. So people might think, ‘Hmm, maybe 5G does cause COVID.’ This is a typical example of a conspiracy theory that becomes extremely popular in a very short period of time.”

Population density maps explain the correlation between 5G cell towers and COVID-19 case numbers: people living close together in higher populations need more 5G towers and are more likely to spread contagious viruses.

Tang argues that although conspiracy theories are as old as human society, we are more susceptible to them today. Our society’s constant questioning of science and fact as well as our access to the internet enable us to spread false information easier, faster, and to more people.

“We choose to believe in things not because they are true but because they align with our beliefs and assumptions. Some scholars call it the ‘post-truth society,’” Tang said. “It is also much easier for conspiracy theorists to find like-minded people on the Internet.”

Political conspiracy theories are a good example of like minded people spreading the same false information. Johanna Dunaway, associate professor of communication and political science, said recent evidence suggests two main factors are key to predicting who is most likely to endorse political conspiracies: Those who are highly politically knowledgeable and those who are low in trust are most likely to believe false information that supports their way of thinking when it comes to politics.

“Conspiracy beliefs are about predispositions as much as they are about the information itself,” Dunaway explained. “So, for example, one of the things that will predict conspiracy belief or endorsement is whether it fits with partisanship—people are more likely to endorse the ones that make the other party look bad.”

Though it seems counterintuitive for people with high levels of political knowledge to be the ones who often accept and endorse conspiracy theories, they are also the people with the strongest political predispositions and convictions. Combine this knowledge with low levels of trust in the media and political institutions, and you have the perfect problematic combination for conspiracy endorsement, Dunaway shared. The internet allows these false conspiracy theories to spread rapidly.

“The problem is that the digital media environment lacks the gatekeeping structures of traditional media, and its affordances for peer-to-peer sharing allow for the rapid sharing of not very well vetted information,” Dunaway said. “We know that lies spread faster than the truth online. However, what we know far less about is how much people actually pay attention to that information. The fact that there are so many outlets willing to take one party’s side over the other doesn’t help because if partisans are listening to partisan media from their own side and those outlets are peddling these theories, they’ve an audience ready to receive them.”

Dunaway also said highly polarized periods in politics exacerbate conspiracy beliefs.

“We know that highly polarized contexts encourage motivated reasoning in the evaluation of political information, the same is true for false information, including conspiracy theories, misinformation, and other forms,” she shared. “For example, at times when elite partisans, such as party members in congress are highly polarized, like now – we are going to see more people endorse or accept conspiracy theories.”

Not all conspiracy theories are dangerous. Picking harmless conspiracy theories from dangerous ones is a matter of whether or not the actions we take because of our false beliefs will hurt ourselves or those around us, according to Lench.

“The biggest danger is that our belief about how the world works causes us to behave in different ways in that world,” Lench said. “It’s a cost-benefit issue,” Lench said. “If it’s wearing dirty socks because you think that makes you more likely to win a game, the risks are low. So the benefits of feeling more control and more confident in the game probably outweigh the risks. If your belief that a scientifically confirmed disease is fabricated is causing you not to protect yourself and others, then the benefits of control are probably not worth that risk.”

Lench said it’s important to recognize conspiracy theories and superstitions for what they are—natural human cognitive processes. She also said it’s important to understand the psychology behind these beliefs in order to find common ground with those whose inaccurate beliefs differ from our own.

“We all do it,” Lench shared. “Understanding psychology helps you recognize that these are people who for different reasons have developed a set of inaccurate beliefs. Maybe you have a superstition about wearing dirty socks, but other people believe that the Chinese government released coronavirus. It’s the exact same processes that led to both beliefs, and I think that helps us feel empathy toward and connect with people who have different beliefs from ourselves.”