The Mechanism Behind Conspiracy Theories


In the beginning of 2008, I was not really aware of how pervasive and important the issue of conspiracy theories had become. But in the next 4 years I lost 2 friendships to arguments over conspiracy theories. I now see those losses as caused by a psychological and sociological pest that has invaded the minds of a lot of people and societies all over the world. There has been a huge surge in conspiracy thinking since the rise of the internet.

Conspiracy theories can be defined as theories that explain an event or set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by (usually) powerful conspirators. Some well known events that famous conspiracy theories have been created around are: the assassination of president John F. Kennedy, the first moon landing, the death of Diana (Princess of Wales), the 9 ⁄ 11 terror attacks, the 2010 Polish plane crash in Russia (in which many Polish top political and military leaders died) and also of course the coronavirus pandemic.

But there are also conspiracy theories that are more generally concerned with some secret group controlling the world behind the scenes, wanting to create a one world government. That group supposedly wants to create a New World Order in which national boundaries will dissolve, along with people’s identities, thus gaining total authoritarian control.

When something happens that is unexpected, extreme and profound, people can react very differently to what happened. For example, after the assassination of JFK, there were basically two groups of people in this regard. One group perceived what had happened as a set of circumstances in which some crazy guy succeeded at killing the president and they accepted it because it did not contradict their basic view of reality.

The other group did not want to accept what happened. In my view, they didn’t want to believe that something so irregular could have occurred; that life could be so uncertain. For that group of people the notion of a conspiracy was more comforting than the absence of it. Because if there is a conspiracy, at least there is a plan and therefore some form of control.

When people experience an important event that does not fit their picture of reality, it feels to them like a loss of control. The less people feel they have control over their lives, the more likely they are to try and regain control through mental gymnastics, like believing in a conspiracy theory.

But whether those mental gymnastics will involve believing in conspiracy theories has to do with their basic view of reality. Research shows that if you believe in one conspiracy theory, you’re likely to believe in other conspiracy theories as well (T. Goertzel, Belief in conspiracy theories, Political Psychology, 1994). This is something that people who believe in conspiracy theories seldom want to hear, probably because they know that this is an indication of their biased way of looking at reality.

Conspiracy theories can also be self–serving in a different way. Some people have the narcissistic tendency of always wanting to be right. For some of them a conspiracy theory is great because it is hard to disprove it. Because if you debunk one piece of their ‘evidence’ for some conspiracy, they immediately dismiss that and move on to another piece of ‘evidence’ they found on some website.

Using this strategy they can always point to some conspiracy theory to support their ideas and you can seldom prove them wrong in their eyes. Narcissistic case in point: Donald Trump and his deep state theories, fake news deflections and his ‘birther’ conspiracy about Barack Obama.

This type of behavior is to be expected, though, because the use of conspiracy theories arises from the emotional need to be comforted and to consolidate one’s identity. It is not the result of rational, scientific and falsifiable research.

If people deeply believe in conspiracy theories and it even starts to control decisions they take in their life (like not getting their kids vaccinated), the dysfunctional nature of conspiracy theories becomes very evident. Deeply believing in conspiracy theories can be related to the mental disorder paranoia, which is characterized by a pervasive suspiciousness and mistrust of others.

That is the essence of conspiracy theories: a lack of trust. For most this means being suspicious of the government and the mainstream news. Globalization probably has a lot to do with the loss of perceived individual control of many people. So theories about a New World Order are one way of trying to make some sense out of this rapidly evolving world. But it would be healthy to be aware of what kind of psychological games we play, trying to connect the dots.