The Psychology Behind a Conspiracy Theorist — According to a Psychologist


The global coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc around the world. Spreading just as fast, it seems, are conspiracy theories and theorists, who are not only causing problems with what they are spouting but putting people in serious danger at the same time.

Research conducted at the University of Kent said that conspiracy theories have a tendency to arise in moments of crisis. They tend to bloom in periods of uncertainty and threat, where we seek to make sense of a chaotic world.

These theories have to come from somewhere — and more often then not, they are created by “Conspiracy Theorists”.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, these people believe that an event or situation is the result of a secret plan made by powerful people.

Psychologist Dr Bec Jackson says that “conspiracy theories are driven by people, not facts” and often, others will join in as a “desire to feel special and the holder of secret knowledge”.

“There is also some evidence that there is a higher degree of narcissism among those who promote these beliefs,” she said in an interview with TheLatch—.

“Conspiracy theories aren’t going away, for as long as there are people who have a need to believe in them, they will continue to expand and thrive,” she said.

Here, Dr Jackson explains the psychology behind conspiracy theories and why people believe them instead of cold hard facts.

Conspiracy Theories
Getty Images.

Anita Anabel: Hi Dr Jackson, can you tell me what psychological factors drive the popularity of conspiracy theories?

Dr Bec Jackson: Researchers have been hard at work examining why a small minority of the population believes, and even thrive, on conspiracy theories. There are some personality traits such as openness to experience, distrust, low agreeability, and Machiavellianism [which refers to a personality trait which sees a person so focused on their own interests they will manipulate, deceive, and exploit others to achieve their goals] which are associated with conspiracy belief.

Socially, conspiracy believers are more socially isolated, be higher in powerlessness, and ‘anomia,’ which is broadly defined as a subjective disengagement from social norms.

Such disengagement from the normative social order may result in greater conspiratorial thinking for a number of related reasons. First, those who feel alienated may consequently reject conventional explanations of events, as they reject the legitimacy of the source.

Due to these people feeling alienated from their peers, they may also turn to conspiracist groups for a sense of belonging and community, or to marginalised subcultures in which conspiracy theories are potentially rife.

AA: Why do people believe in a conspiracy theory even when all the facts are presented to them? 

Dr J: Our best explanation is that people are more likely to be influenced to believe a conspiracy when there are deficiencies or inconsistencies in available information and when the motivation to think critically in undermined.

I think sometimes

“When people feel overwhelmed by the information and powerless to take action, they are more likely to be influenced by an alternative narrative.”

AA: Why do conspiracy theorists create fear and unrest?

Dr J: It’s an interesting paradox because it is also fear and unrest which usually gives rise to the opportunity for conspiracies to take root in the first place.

When the human brain faces complex and uncertain environments, we first have a survival response — fear or threat — and then we try to make sense and meaning from the circumstances.

During the COVID Pandemic, there has been plenty of uncertainty which is a ripe context for conspiracies to thrive.

The problem compounds because the addition of conspiracy theories to the official narrative creates more confusion, fear and unrest when the professional narrative is trying to create calm and pockets of certainty for people.

AA: Of course everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but when should we keep it to ourselves?

Dr J: I think that it is psychologically healthy and preferable that we each hold opinions about important social and global issues.

I also believe that those opinions should be informed both by credible information and personal experience. Opinions need to be held lightly and with openness to new information.

When we hold onto our opinions and beliefs with extreme conviction, not only conspiracy theories but political, social and religious beliefs, we feel the need to defend them as part of our own identity and this can create conflict in our social interactions as well as blind us to alternative points of view.

My view is cognitive flexibility, the ability to concede that we may be wrong, or that alternate perspectives exist, is a far more productive and prosocial way to go.

“I also believe that those opinions should be informed both by credible information and personal experience.”

AA: When it comes to a conspiracy theory, why is it important to listen to professionals, such as medical professionals, and not take notice of a theory?

Dr J: These conspiracy theories are driven by people, not facts.

People who believe in conspiracy theories hold often fear or paranoia based beliefs that, when confronted with contrarian factual evidence, will dismiss both the evidence and the messenger who brings it.

That’s because conspiracy theories are driven by the people who believe and spread them not on the factual support or logical reasoning of the theory itself.

Facts dispel fear.

We know that from a mental health perspective people need evidence-based and factual information to reduce feeling fearful and uncertain.

Conspiracy theories reject authoritative accounts, professional narrative and generally accepted beliefs. They start with disbelief of conventional wisdom and professional argument in favour of a secret, malevolent and hidden “real story” which attempts to explain often inexplicable and complex events, such as the pandemic.

The problem with this is it further drives confusion, mistrust and uncertainty which is psychologically unhealthy.

Dr Bec Jackson has spent 20 years building her professional expertise across clinical psychology, academia, therapy and education in clinical, forensic and organisational psychology roles. 5 Years ago she founded The Jackson Company, a bespoke para-disciplinary consulting practice which combines her unique skills, experience and expertise. You can find out more about her here.

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