The truth is out there

Why do we believe in conspiracy theories? Do they influence others more than ourselves?

We've written briefly about conspiracy theories before. In our previous post, Cass Sustien, co-author of Nudge, wrote: “A distinctive feature of conspiracy theories is their self-sealing quality. Conspiracy theorists are not likely to be persuaded by an attempt to dispel their theories; they may even characterize that very attempt as further proof of the conspiracy. Because those who hold conspiracy theories typically suffer from a crippled epistemology, in accordance with which it is rational to hold such theories, the best response consists in cognitive infiltration of extremist groups.

In the psychologist, Viren Swami and Rebecca Coles take a look our belief in conspiracy theories.

One of the reasons they uncovered when exploring the history of literature on conspiracy theories was our craving for certainty: “To the extent that conspiracy theories fill a need for certainty, it is thought they may gain more widespread acceptance in instances when establishment or mainstream explanations contain erroneous information, discrepancies, or ambiguities. A conspiracy theory, in this sense, helps explain those ambiguities and ‘provides a convenient alternative to living with uncertainty'.”

You're probably thinking that conspiracy theories influence other people and not you. The evidence says otherwise. In one study, Douglas and Sutton had participants read material containing conspiracy theories about Princess Diana's death before rating their own and others' agreement with the statements, as well as their perceived retrospective attitudes. They found that participants significantly underestimated how much the conspiracy theories influenced their own attitudes.

One of the more important conclusions from their work, Swami and Coles note, is that people who believe in one consipracy as more likely to believe in other, unrelated conspiracy theories.

If you've ever wondered why conspiracy theories gain acceptance in our minds, I'd recommend giving this a quick read.