Anyone Can Fall for a Conspiracy Theory — Even You

Illustration: María Medem

It took almost no time for the conspiracy theories to emerge. Coronavirus is an engineered bioweapon made by the Chinese. It originated in a lab in Wuhan, or was created by the U.S. military. It’s an evil plot devised by Bill Gates to enforce mass vaccination and control us. It was caused by 5G masts broadcasting electromagnetic waves.

Conspiracy theorists have existed for decades, but in recent years, they’ve become more prominent and their beliefs more mainstream. Recent data from the Pew Research Center suggest that a third of Americans believe coronavirus was created in a laboratory. In 2018, a study out of Cambridge found that 60% of Brits believe in at least one conspiracy theory, including that the “harmful effects” of vaccines are being deliberately hidden from the public by the British government.

And now, with the spread of coronavirus and the subsequent economic fallout, it feels like more people than ever are giving credence to wild theories. Here’s why strange times invite conspiratorial thinking, and how to combat it when you see it in action.

Conspiracy theories are about comfort…

Few people imagined a global pandemic would infect millions around the world in just a few months, killing hundreds of thousands of people and ravaging economies. Conspiracies can provide a sense of security in a time of crisis. With our health, lives, and jobs upended, many are feeling unsettled and looking for answers.

“Conspiracy theories derive their appeal from the fact that they can be comforting,” says Jovan Byford, a senior psychology lecturer at the Open University whose research focuses on shared beliefs and conspiracy theories.“This may seem counterintuitive, as at first sight, there is little that is comforting in a tale of evil people seeking to cause harm to the public, destroy whole nations or religions, or establish a sinister ‘world order.’ But what these theories do is provide a sense of control.”

In times of war, social and political crises, and pandemic, our social machinery breaks down. The available ways of making sense of the world often seem inadequate. By contrast, conspiracy theories paint a world that is ordered, with what appears to be a clear path forward: “All that is needed is for the conspiracy to be exposed and its architects eliminated, and the world would get back to normal,” Byford explains.

While people who are anxious may be drawn to conspiracy theories to find answers and reduce their anxiety, this strategy doesn’t actually work, says Karen Douglas, a professor of social psychology at the University of Kent.

“People seem to turn to conspiracy theories in an effort to reduce feelings of uncertainty and discomfort,” she says, but “if anything, they can make things worse. Reading about conspiracy theories can make people feel less — not more — powerful, and less certain. They also increase feelings of disillusionment.”

… and Power

Research also shows that people who feel powerless — such as those who have lost loved ones, jobs, and incomes as a result of Covid-19 — may be more likely to be drawn to conspiracy theories as a way of reclaiming some power.

In a 2011 paper, the University of Miami political science professors Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent suggest that vulnerable groups in a state of political powerlessness use the “strategic logic” of conspiracy theories to “sharpen internal cohesion and focus attention on dangers.”

The same reasoning can be applied to the current situation, explains Byford. “In times of crisis, having some knowledge about the world is a currency of power and influence,” he says. “Being seen by others as being ‘in the know’ about what is going on, and having some arcane knowledge that goes beyond the official explanations, is an important generator of self-esteem. It creates a sense of importance and superiority.”

4 ways to talk to someone who believes in conspiracy theories

Although it’s easy to laugh off people who believe 5G is spreading coronavirus, being empathetic and sensitive is important. Conspiracy theories can be emotional, rooted in feelings of resentment, despair, and disenchantment with the world — which, right now, is a scary place.

Be empathetic

Recognize the pain and confusion people are experiencing — and that their conspiracy theory may be leading to more pain and confusion.

Show respect

Strongly held beliefs are very difficult to challenge and change. “Arguments are likely to be dismissed and the person is likely to close down further if arguments are too strong or hostile,” says Douglas. “Ridicule is also likely to be counterproductive, because it is likely to make the person even more closed off and to feel more marginalized.”

Appeal to critical thinking

Another strategy Douglas recommends is to approach the conversation on completely rational terms. “Many conspiracy believers view themselves as critical thinkers, so perhaps try to turn this around on them,” she says. “For example, ask them to think critically about their sources of information. Are they credible?”

You could also point your friend to evidence. Like this: “Fact-checkers in at least 14 countries have debunked the theory that coronavirus is a grand plan masterminded by Bill Gates to implant microchips into humans along with a vaccine.”

Be patient

A lack of evidence of a conspiracy is often taken by people as evidence of a cover-up. So be patient and challenge the facts while being sensitive to their arguments — and be prepared to fail.

Remember, those who believe in conspiracy theories don’t always have a sinister motive. Like anyone, they’re trying to make sense of a confusing world.

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