Conspiracy Theory Disorder: Understanding Why People Believe
John M. Grohol, Psy.D.
Whenever something new happens — whether it’s a pandemic that grips the world, a rise in a disorder’s diagnosis, or a new technology being rolled out — people have theories. Specifically, conspiracy theories.
More often than not, such theories are based upon specious links between one or more unrelated events. Rarely do conspiracy theories have any scientific backing. And when they do, it’s often a lone article or white paper published online. Or maybe just a YouTuber who “was told by my friend who works at so-and-so.” Friend-of-a-friend-of-someone-who-knows (or works there, someone in law enforcement, or a “scientist”) is regularly offered as “proof.”
What drives conspiracy theories and their dramatic increase in the online world? And could people who adamantly believe such theories in the face of overwhelming evidence otherwise suffer from a disorder?
Conspiracy theories have been with us as long as there have been conspiracies. The idea that there is a vast, insidious network of people who are perpetrating acts in order to forward their own sinister agenda is an old one (Goertzel, 1994). Whether it’s the multiple shooters theory of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy or the 9/11 bombings in the U.S. in 2001 being an “inside job,” whenever something significant happens in the world, there are a small but growing subset of people who believe it is happening for some insidious, evil reason.
More recently, people have also attributed the rise in autism rates with something having to do with either psychiatric medications or childhood vaccines. The novel coronavirus pandemic in early 2020 gave rise to the false belief that it was either a bioweapon engineered by the Chinese that accidentally escaped a lab, or due to the rise of the introduction of new 5G wireless towers.
Last year, a scientific study was published that examined what researchers know about conspiracy theories, and why they seem so prevalent in our online era (Goreis & Voracek, 2019).
Personality Traits Related to Conspiracy Theories
According to the researchers, “Fear and anxiety were reported as positive predictors of conspiracy beliefs. As people are anxious, fear a threatening situation, or have low perceived feelings of control over situations, they tend to conspiracies.” This was found to be especially true in people who have a need to exert control over their environment — they like the feeling of being in control at all times.
Conspiracy theories are a way of making sense out of events that oftentimes, at least initially, seem to make little sense.
That’s why the study also found that people who have a strong motivation to make sense of things also tended to be more likely to believe more. Because even if the explanations don’t make any scientific sense to the individual, their lack of highly-specialized knowledge in the subject matter makes it easier to believe them.
People who also believe in the paranormal were found to be more likely to believe conspiracy theories. Such people, unsurprisingly, also tend to doubt scientific knowledge.
All the internal biases humans use as thinking shortcuts — illusory correlations (“Full moons cause people to behave more wildly”), confirmation bias (“I believe smarter people are happier, and I see it in all the smart people I know”), and hindsight bias (“I knew it all along”) — seem to be stronger in people who believe in conspiracy theories. These cognitive biases offer an easy shortcut for our minds to make connections, even when they aren’t there.
People who have more narcissistic traits also tend to believe more: “Narcissism is positively associated with paranoid thinking, as narcissists are perceiving the actions of others intentionally targeted against themselves. [… Also,] conspiracies are appealing to people who lack confidence and excess self-promotional characteristics, such as self-esteem.”
Self-esteem instability resulting in self-uncertainty is also a characteristic associated with a greater likelihood to believe in conspiracy theories. People who don’t feel like they belong to any one group — a trait psychologists refer to as belongingness — are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories (van Prooijen, 2016).
Social & Political Factors Related to Conspiracy Theories
As modern society has become more complex and challenging to navigate, many people feel left behind in trying to keep up. Such people who feel alienation and disaffection from society are more likely to endorse these theories. It’s easier for them to blame some external factor for their own low socio-political or socioeconomic standing.
Any societal alienation appears to be connected to a higher belief in such theories. Whether it be unemployment, ethnicity, or even relationship status, many who suffer on the edge of society report stronger beliefs. Moulding et al. (2016) found that, “endorsement of conspiracy theories related […] with the alienation-related variables — isolation, powerlessness, normlessness and disengagement from social norms.”
Anything that may threaten the status-quo of society also appears related to these beliefs. Groups whose identity is tied up in traditional societal values and protecting the existing socio-political status quo are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. These are, unsurprisingly, often right-wing authoritarian groups and those with a social dominance-orientation (White supremacists, for example).
Rational thinking and intelligence are also tied to a lower belief in conspiracy theories. Those who aren’t as able to engage in analytical or logical thinking, as well as those of lower intelligence will often turn to the simple connections that these theories offer (Lantian et al., 2017).
Symptoms of Conspiracy Theory Disorder
Disorders are defined by a constellation of symptoms, symptoms that tend not to occur in similar patterns in the natural world, or in other disorders.
It’s not a stretch to consider that people who strongly believe in conspiracy theories may qualify for the proposed Conspiracy Theory Disorder (CTD). Taken from the research, the symptoms may be summarized as (6 or more needed for a diagnosis):
- Feeling anxious or fearful all the time, for no particular reason
- Inability to exert control (or feeling unable to control) the situation
- A need to make sense of complex topics or unrelated events, even with little or no topical expertise or knowledge
- A strong urge to make connections between a series of unrelated events or behaviors
- A belief in paranormal explanations for scientific phenomenon
- An overreliance on cognitive shortcuts, such as illusory correlations, confirmation bias, and hindsight bias
- Low self-esteem and/or high self-uncertainty
- A sense of not really belonging to any social group; isolation from others
- A greater alienation, disengagement, or disaffection from society
- A belief that the status-quo of society should be valued above all else
- The presence of the symptoms significantly impacts the person’s ability to function in their daily life activities, such as socializing with friends, going to work or school, or relationships with their family and others
Is Conspiracy Theory Disorder real? Well, not yet. But give it time and who knows? It may just be a part of the conspiracy to keep this disorder out of the next Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 😉
Goreis, A. & Voracek, M. (2019). A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Psychological Research on Conspiracy Beliefs: Field Characteristics, Measurement Instruments, and Associations With Personality Traits. Frontiers in Psychology. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00205
Lantian, A., Muller, D., Nurra, C., & Douglas, K.M. (2017). ‘I know things they don’t know!’: The role of need for uniqueness in belief in conspiracy theories. Social Psychology, 48, 160-173.
Moulding, R, Nix-Carnell, S, Schnabel, A, Nedeljkovic, M, Burnside, EE, Lentini, AF, Mehzabin, N. (2016). Better the devil you know than a world you don’t? Intolerance of uncertainty and worldview explanations for belief in conspiracy theories. Personality and Individual Differences, 98, 345-354.
van Prooijen, J-W. (2016). Sometimes inclusion breeds suspicion: Self‐uncertainty and belongingness predict belief in conspiracy theories. European Journal of Social Psychology, 46, 267-279.