Why Do People Believe in Conspiracy Theories?

It is a battle for trust, not facts.

By: Konrad Rudnicki

Why do people believe in conspiracy theories? After all, in the age of the internet it should be easier than ever to debunk misguided hypothesis and blatant lies.  

Instead, theories like the “flat earth” hypothesis are circulating, as are political theories such as “Pizzagate” and “QAnon,” which specifically target US Democrat politicians, accusing them of paedophilia and child trafficking. It started with rumours that some of these crimes occurred in the basement of Comet Ping Pong restaurant in Washington DC—a theory that is easy enough to debunk, as this restaurant does not have a basement. 

But rather than being dismissed, these theories gained power, capitalizing on these doubts to spread their theories even further. How is it possible that conspiracies are so resilient, even when they are debunked by facts and logic? 

A few factors in human psychology could shed light on why conspiracy theories are so appealing to the human mind, and even why they’re rising in popularity at this particular time. Let us start with an ordinary commute—one that is accompanied by the sounds of  cars honking on the street, planes soaring through the skies and a kaleidoscope of neon lit storefronts, illuminating the dawn. Despite the chaos, and the stimuli, most of us remain completely calm or even bored while we commute; we have seen the chaos thousands of times, and by now are completely used to it. We understand why traffic lights change colours, we trust the infrastructure that predicts when those giant steel monsters on wheels will stop in their tracks to let us cross the road. We are not afraid because everything we see is familiar. 

Now let us imagine one of our ancestors walking those streets. That ancestor does not even have to come from a long time ago–three hundred years would be more than enough. The fear and confusion experienced by such a time traveller would be unimaginable. The cacophony of sounds and colours would overwhelm and terrify them. They would not understand what is going on around them, what is safe, when to walk and when to stop. Nothing would be familiar and therefore everything would be threatening. Only spending more time in our world, slowly getting accustomed to these surroundings would assuage that fear.  

Evolution armed us with fear of the unknown for a good reason. It teaches us that something we have done before will likely not kill us if it hasn’t already, and therefore rewards us by activating parts of the brain associated with pleasure. In contrast, anything new or unknown quite literally triggers fear.  

A car driving at high speed may be intimidating at first, but after seeing it too many times we are desensitized; even our time travelling friend from the past would probably get used to it after some time. However, some of the things that we do not understand are not as easily tamed—the governments that rule our countries, the economic forces that shape our lives, and the actual capabilities of the most wealthy and powerful social classes. 

It is something that has complicated with time. As our civilization grew, our governments became more and more sophisticated, growing into bureaucratic mazes of laws and regulations. Soon, technology evolved to give us the marvels of a modern lifestyle—but as modern life evolved, our brains did not. It takes a degree in law to understand the inner workings of the courts and even lawyers have to specialize in specific areas of law, because it is impossible to keep all of its intricacies in one’s mind at all times. The era of individual inventors is long-gone and whole teams of scientists have to work now together on new inventions—the intellect of one person, and one alone is not enough for our modern lifestyles.  

As everything becomes more sophisticated, we are left with a conundrum:  “how do I feel safe again?” 

Simple answers to difficult questions have always been attractive. As the popular saying goes, “the simplest explanation is usually the right one”—but it could not be more wrong.  

Humans love simple explanations because they make them feel safe, with little effort. “Rules of thumb” applied to everything are easy to remember, provide the feeling that we understand the problem at hand, and can solve it easily. However, there are no reasons to believe that simple explanations are always correct. We know that politics is complicated, and that science is even more complicated—so much so that no one single person can understand them all. While Leonardo da Vinci was an expert in painting, drawing, sculpting, science, engineering, architecture and anatomy, it is impossible for a modern person to be an expert in all of these fields. 

As a result, we are all living in a world that we cannot fully understand. Just like our ancestors who had to come up with supernatural explanations to understand why it rains and why thunder strikes, we have to come up with our own explanations for how society works. Scientists and governments are working out these explanations in detail, but we cannot learn them all—leaving us with a dilemma. Do we trust others to tell us what is safe? This would mean trusting that politicians are working in our interest, that climatologists are right about climate change and that immunologists know what they’re talking about when they say that vaccines are safe.  

Some are willing and able to put their trust in others, but as the sophistication of the system grows, it becomes more and more difficult—this is where conspiracy theories come to the rescue. 

A group of researchers from the University of Kent studied the phenomenon by performing an experience where they presented participants with several popular conspiracy theories and asked whether or not they agreed with the statements. One was that Princess Diana was murdered, another is that Osama Bin Laden is still alive and the third is that Princess Diana is still alive. The results appeared contradictory—it turned out that if someone believes that Princess Diana is still alive they were also more likely to believe that she was murdered. How is this possible? Upon closer inspection, it turned out that the same people who were likely to indicate that the Princess is both alive and dead were likely to do so because they believed that the government is involved in some sort of conspiracy; the single believe that the government is lying is the core belief around which their understanding of the world was built, and this overrides the logic of debunking a contradictory statement. 

This brings us to QAnon, a conspiracy theory that was born in 2017 on online imageboards 4chan and 8chan. A person who identified themselves as a high-ranking government official started posting cryptic messages about US politicians and the military, asking loaded questions, alluding to large concepts, while actually saying very little. An example would be, “Was the election supposed to be rigged? Did good people prevent the rigging?” Another might be “Who guards former Presidents? Why is that relevant?” 

The cryptic messages continued until the conspiracy took a more concrete root, implying that top US government officials, primarily Democrats, were involved in a global child-trafficking paedophile ring—and that Donald Trump was going to take them down. At this moment, QAnon fused with another conspiracy, Pizzagate, which accused certain Democrats of paedophilia based on an email exchange—the theory was fuelled by the arrest and alleged suicide of billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, who was accused of many paedophilia-related crimes. However, what made it even more confusing was that many people had already blown the whistle on Epstein’s activities with a child prostitution ring, but this was dismissed as a conspiracy theory at the time. Now this string of coincidences bolstered the QAnon theories. 

Conspiracy theories are easy explanations that make us feel like we have insider knowledge. Even though numerous claims made by the QAnon turned out to not be true (e.g., that Hillary Clinton is going to be arrested) it does not matter to the people who subscribe to the conspiracy. Just like it does not matter if Princess Diana was murdered or is still alive, all that matters is that the government is corrupt to the bone—and as long as one is right about this, the truth is incidental. 

It is not the only thing that makes conspiracy theories enticing—casting children as “victims” of the system plays on our brains, as we are predisposed to feeling compassion for children, and anger towards anyone who would bring them harm. On numerous occasions when an oppressed minority was ostracised, it was also accused of harming children—Jews were accused of murdering Christian children, and using their blood in dark rituals, “blood libel.” These accusations were especially useful for the European monarchs trying to expel Jewish communities, and fuelled their persecution. Similarly, Roma people were also often accused of kidnapping children through the ages. Even in modern Eastern Europe, the majority of sentiments against LGBT people are focused around the idea that they harm children by sexualizing or molesting them. 

The QAnon conspiracy could not come at a worse time. After all, we know that many politicians and show-business celebrities used the services that Jeffrey Epstein provided—but because QAnon exists, politicians accused of paedophilia will have an easy excuse to hide behind if there isn’t strong enough evidence. In the flood of false accusations, vague claims and conspiracy theories, criminals may get away with real atrocities. 

When experts discuss conspiracy theories and contemplate how to combat them they often say that people should be educated more—often, those with left-wing beliefs say, “educate yourself.” However, education can no longer compete with conspiracy theories—“debunking” theories with graphs, charts and facts just makes the conspiracy theorists move on to their next talking point, not reconsider their beliefs. It is a battle of trust, not facts—and that is why the Pizza conspiracy theories do not believe that the child-trafficking ring was located in the basement of Comet Ping Pong restaurant, but believe that it happened because the government is corrupt, which means they are likely harming children and doing horrible things out of all of our control.  

Building trust in other people and the institutions of society is the only way to limit the spread of conspiracy theories. It is easier said than done, and it will take as many people to revive this trust as it does to come up with a vaccine, machine or any other feat of modern technology. If they will not provide a way to make their people feel safe again, someone else will.