Why People Believe Conspiracy Theories | Opinion

Conspiracy theories have long been treated as fringe beliefs, tantamount to UFOs, ESP, and other popular delusions of mad crowds, and those who believe them as a bunch of mostly nerdy middle age white guys living in their parents' basements.

I debunked these myths in a 2021 study conducted with my colleagues at the Skeptic Research Center of the beliefs of over 3,000 randomly selected Americans on about 29 different conspiracy theories. The results were alarming: A quarter of all Americans believe that 9/11 was an inside job by the U.S. government, a fifth think that Barack Obama was not born on U.S. soil, that global warming is a hoax, and that QAnon is real, and over a quarter believe that the 2020 election was fraudulent.

People often act on their beliefs. Consider the video of Kevin Seefried walking across the rotunda in the Capitol Building dome on January 6, 2021, proudly waving a large Confederate flag representing the losing side in the Civil War. What went wrong with this man's beliefs and how can we reach him and the millions like him who embrace such conspiracy theories?

Almost nothing in human thought and behavior can be explained by a single variable, and that is certainly the case in trying to explain why people believe conspiracy theories. But there are a few components that repeatedly show up as proximate causes of conspiracy theories.

One is political affiliation. GMO conspiracy theories, for example, are embraced primarily by those on the Left, while climate change conspiracy theories are endorsed primarily by those on the Right.

Similarly, race is not a strong predictor of overall conspiracism, but it does partially determine which conspiracy theories are likely to be embraced. African Americans are more likely to believe that the CIA planted crack cocaine in inner-city neighborhoods for the explicit purpose of harming Black people and ruining their homes, whereas white Americans are more likely to suspect the feds are conspiring to abolish the Second Amendment.

Education appears to attenuate conspiracism, with 42 percent of those without a high school diploma scoring high in conspiratorial predispositions—compared to just 22 percent of those with postgraduate degrees. Still, that over one in five Americans with M.A.s and Ph.D.s believe in conspiracies tells us something else is going on here.

That something else is personality traits. Conspiracy believers tend to be untrusting, concerned about personal safety, and prone to detecting patterns and agency where none exists. Feeling anxious, uncertain, and out of control also makes us more conspiratorial in our thinking. Socially and politically, people who have little power tend to think those in power are up to no good.

The problem is, often, they're right—which is why many conspiracy theories have a proximity to the truth. They take something true and warp it by adding a deeper mythic, psychological, or lived-experience meaning.

David Reinert holds up a large "Q" sign while waiting in line to see President Donald J. Trump at his rally on August 2, 2018 at the Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. "Q" represents QAnon, a conspiracy theory group that has been seen at recent rallies. Rick Loomis/Getty Images

The O.J. Simpson murder trial is a perfect specimen of this kind of conspiracy thinking. Anyone who paid attention to the gripping day-by-day testimony of evidence in that case could not help but conclude that O.J. killed his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman. But Simpson's defense team floated a convincing conspiracy theory that led to an acquittal—that the police planted the evidence against their client. Even though no such police tampering in this case was ever proven, at least one of the cops was probably racist, and, more importantly, a great many other LAPD cops really were racist, and some really did plant evidence to frame Blacks.

Other conspiracy theories harbor elements of other beliefs, dogmas, and adjacent or preceding conspiracy theories long believed and held as core elements of political, religious, social, political or tribal identity. Current conspiracy theories often serve as stand-ins for earlier conspiracy theories with deep roots in history, and this accounts for the cross-pollination of conspiracy theories and the propensity for people who believe one to believe many.

Endorsement of a conspiracy theory also often serves as a social signal of loyalty to the tribe that embraces them as part of the group's identity. Publicly stating one's belief in QAnon acts as a social signal to one's fellow tribe members that loyalty to the group trumps the immediate truth or falsity of the specific conspiracy theory. In fact, the crazier the conspiracy theory, the stronger your loyalty is in endorsing it. This is absolutely at work in QAnon conspiracists.

The problem of today's conspiracism is urgent—arguably more pressing than at any time in our history. This is why we need a theory to explain who believes conspiracy theories and why, what evolutionary, psychological, social, cultural, political, and economic conditions fuel them, and how to determine which conspiracy theories might be true, inasmuch as some turn out to be so.

To that end, you might say that we're all conspiracy theorists now.

This OpEd is based on the forthcoming book Conspiracy: Why the Rational Believe the Irrational, by Michael Shermer, Johns Hopkins University Press. Pub date: October 25, 2022.

Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University, and the author of numerous books including Why People Believe Weird Things, The Believing Brain, The Moral Arc, and Giving the Devil His Due. His new book is Conspiracy: Why the Rational Believe the Irrational (Johns Hopkins University Press).

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.