Crazy Beliefs, Sane Believers: Toward a Cognitive Psychology of Conspiracy Ideation

Preston R. Bost

Where do conspiracy beliefs come from? Recent behavioral research suggests that they do not reflect pathology or lazy thinking but may instead come from normal, rational minds.

As part of its educational mission, the Skeptical Inquirer regularly publishes critical investigations into conspiracy theories—claims that organizations of powerful, self-serving entities manipulate world events for their own benefit behind the scenes, away from the prying eyes of the public. Readers of this magazine are familiar with the common properties of conspiracy theories: their selective sifting of evidence (McHoskey 1995), their habit of growing more complicated and improbable over time to incorporate additional actors and events (Keeley 1999), their astonishing tendency to assimilate disconfirming evidence as further evidence in favor of the theory (Kramer and Gavrieli 2005), and their poisonous influence on discourse about public institutions and policies (Swami 2012). It is of little wonder that the skeptical community’s attempts at education are leavened with hostility. Much of our language, often in so many words, conveys the belief that conspiracy theories are the product of anti-intellectual and even psychologically disordered minds.

This palpable frustration is an understandable reaction to failing in the skeptical mission. And fail we have, at least in educating the populace not to believe in conspiracy theories. In the nearly four decades of this publication, belief in conspiracy theories (which I will term “conspiracy ideation”) shows no signs of abating, let alone disappearing. Conspiracy theories remain a staple of American popular culture (Kelley-Romano 2008) and are readily found in cultures across the globe (Sunstein and Vermeule 2009; Swami and Coles 2010). To compound skeptics’ frustration, they tend to coexist with paranormal beliefs (Drinkwater et al. 2012; Swami et al. 2011), especially New Age beliefs (Newheiser et al. 2011). And one well-known research finding is that conspiracy theories, like other deeply held beliefs, are strongly resistant to disconfirmation (McHoskey 1995; Nyhan and Reifler 2010; Sunstein and Vermeule 2009).

One irony of this state of affairs is that the skeptical community has engaged the discussion of conspiracies while missing a significant arrow in its quiver: a scientific understanding of the psychological underpinnings of conspiracy ideation. Until recently, there has been little behavioral research into the structure of conspiracy ideation, the people who adopt conspiratorial beliefs, and the circumstances under which they adopt them. This omission is puzzling because conspiracy theories exist not on the fringe but in the mainstream, enough so to be regarded as cognitively normal. As such they invite careful study of why they easily take root in the human mind (Bost and Prunier 2013; Drinkwater et al. 2012; Swami and Coles 2010). Fortunately, the number of peer-reviewed empirical publications on the topic has increased rapidly in only the last five years. As the literature has matured, our theoretical understanding of the origins of conspiracy ideation has begun to sharpen.

Perhaps the most consistent finding is that people are relatively consistent in their conspiracy ideation; if they believe one conspiracy theory, they tend to have other conspiratorial beliefs (e.g. Swami et al. 2011). This pattern holds if the second belief is a real-life conspiracy theory (Swami and Furnham 2012), a general belief that conspiracies regulate human events (Steiger et al. 2013), a fictitious conspiracy story (Swami et al. 2011), or a view of oneself as a victim of conspiracies in one’s own life (Butler et al. 1995). Interestingly, conspiracy ideation also can bridge contradictory theories; Wood and colleagues (Wood et al. 2012) observed that participants who endorsed the belief that Princess Diana had been murdered also tended to endorse the claim that she had faked her death. Researchers have taken these findings to confirm one of the first clearly articulated theories of conspiracy ideation: Goertzel’s (1994) concept of a monological belief system, in which conspiracy ideation is a world­view—rather than a collection of discrete beliefs—in which multiple conspiracy theories reinforce each other. Although researchers have found that certain conspiracy theories are bound to a particular social/political context and not predictive of general conspiracy ideation (Swami 2012), the literature is converging on the conclusion that in the main, conspiracy ideation reflects a generalized way of thinking about the world (Brotherton et al. 2013; Wood et al. 2012).

The next question, therefore, is how this mode of thought arises. The research agenda so far has strongly emphasized the pursuit of the “conspiracy theorist”—the person with a constellation of traits that predisposes him or her to conspiracy ideation. To what extent can we draw a sharp distinction between the psychological profiles of the conspiracy believer and the conspiracy skeptic? The research on this question has been, to put it mildly, mixed. First, a surprise: conspiracy ideation does not appear to reflect an inability or disinclination to think critically. For instance, conspiracy ideation has not been linked to lower levels of education (Bogart and Thorburn 2006; Clark et al. 2008; Parsons et al. 1999; Simmons and Parsons 2005). In fact, in certain cases education may enhance conspiracy ideation; those educated about documented race-based conspiracies, such as the infamous Tuskeegee syphilis study, are more likely to endorse race-based conspiracy theories in which the United States government is alleged to be targeting the African-American population (Nelson et al. 2010). Further, conspiracy ideation is not correlated with “need for cognition”—a reliable measure of the inclination to engage in complex critical thinking (Abakalina-Papp et al. 1999). Neither is it associated with “need for cognitive closure,” a trait characterized by oversimplification of complex issues and biased assimilation of evidence (Leman and Cinnirella 2013).

What about personality? An examination of the Big Five dimensions (openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism), which together capture the primary vectors of human personality, has been only marginally revealing. Swami and colleagues (Swami et al. 2010; Swami et al. 2011; Swami and Furnham 2012) have observed that conspiracy ideation is associated with lower levels of agreeableness (a trait that captures one’s ability to get along with others and accept them as good-faith actors), but this association has not always been replicated (Furnham 2013). Negative associations between conspiracy ideation and other dimensions, such as neuroticism and openness to experience, have been reported (Furnham 2013; Swami et al. 2013), but overall the correlations between conspiracy ideation and Big Five traits tend to be small and/or unstable (Brotherton et al. 2013).

protestor's sign that reads '911 TRUTH NOW'

Demographic variables present a mixed bag. Conspiratorial worldviews are not generally related to either age or sex (e.g., Parsons et al. 1999; Simmons and Parsons 2005). Racial and political affiliation also are not associated with general conspiratorial ideation, but do appear to predict belief in particular conspiracies to which one’s group may be vulnerable (e.g. Abakalina-Paap et al. 1999)—an important pattern to which we will return later. For example, African Americans, much more so than whites, endorse conspiracy theories in which African Americans are the targets—such as the claim that the United States government created the HIV virus to exterminate the black population (e.g. Bogart and Thorburn 2003).

Although numerous researchers have argued that psychopathology is insufficient to account for the prevalence of conspiracy theories (Kramer and Gavrieli 2005; Steiger et al. 2013; Swami and Coles 2010; Uscinski et al. 2011), others have forcefully argued for a conceptual relation between conspiratorial ideation and the distortions of reality characteristic of paranoia (Zonis and Joseph 1994). Researchers have consistently found that conspiracy ideation is associated with low levels of trust (Abakalina-Papp et al. 1999; Goertzel 1994) and even subclinical paranoia (Darwin et al. 2011; Grzesiak-Feldman and Ejsmont 2008). Research also has probed whether conspiracy ideation is related to schizotypy, a personality disorder characterized in part by lower-grade, dispositional suspicion of the type found in some forms of schizophrenia. Using a scale called the O-LIFE (Mason et al. 1995), which measures four discrete dimensions of schizotypy, Swami and colleagues (Swami et al. 2013) observed that conspiracy ideation is associated with higher scores on the Unusual Experiences Scale, which measures suspicion as well as other perceptual and cognitive distortions. It appears therefore that conspiracy ideation is reliably related to suspicion. Because suspicion requires selective attention to another’s motive, these findings connect with the observation that acceptance of fictional conspiracy stories increases when the story highlights the potential motive of the alleged conspirator, even when the documented evidence of a conspiracy is poor (Bost and Prunier 2013). Importantly, the connection between suspicion and conspiracy ideation does not in itself imply that the suspicion is pathological. Numerous authors have argued that a degree of suspicion is an adaptive trait in humans, who rely on it to promote equity in the transactions inherent to social living (for one such argument, see Vohs et al. 2007). Attention to others’ motives, although characteristic of paranoia (Darwin et al. 2011), is therefore an ingredient in everyday social interaction (e.g., Cosmides and Tooby 1992). Seen in this light, conspiracy ideation represents not an irrational departure from reality but perhaps rather an intensified focus on information that all humans regularly rely on in social cognition. In other words, some conspiracy ideation may be grounded in the rules of human cognition, which employ a dose of suspicion as a protective mechanism. This notion is broadly consistent with Sunstein and Vermeule’s (2009, 208) suggestion that conspiracy theories require that all events be seen as the product of some actor’s intention.

The extent to which the suspicion of a conspiracy believer is primary (that is, ingrained as its own personality trait) or instead derives from other cognitions or circumstances is unclear. One of the earliest and most interesting findings in the literature is that those who believe in conspiracies demonstrate higher levels of powerlessness and alienation from institutions (Goertzel 1994; Abakalina-Paap et al. 1999; Swami et al. 2010). These findings suggest that conspiracy theorists perceive themselves as vulnerable to exploitation—a circumstance that would call for heightened suspicion. Kramer and Gavrieli (2005) have argued that threat perception—really, hypervigilance to threat—is central to conspiracy ideation. If true, this notion may explain a pattern discussed earlier: that even those who are not predisposed to conspiracy ideation may nonetheless accept a conspiracy theory if the alleged target is their racial, social, or political affiliation. Again, this framework ascribes a type of rationality to the conspiratorial mindset, grounding it in the defensive posture of someone with a heightened sensitivity to potential threat.

person with hand on their chin appearing to be thinking

Recent findings confirm the basic idea that threat perception and/or perceived vulnerability contribute to conspiracy ideation. In one particularly important study, Whitson and Galinsky (2008) conducted a series of experiments manipulating the extent to which participants perceived control over their worlds—for instance, by having them recall different types of autobiographical memories in which they were more or less in control of events, or by describing the stock market as either random (i.e., unpredictable or out of control) or stable, or by having them engage in a novel cognitive task in which the feedback to participants was either meaningful (suggesting that the participant had control over the outcome) or random. Across the experiments, participants whose sense of control had been undermined consistently tended to over-perceive patterns in subsequent stimuli by making illusory correlations, seeing visual images in random dots, and—notably—perceiving a greater likelihood of conspiracy behind a fictitious event. The authors argued that these false alarms reflect not oversimplification of the available data but a sophisticated exercise in pattern perception. These findings lend some empirical support to a proposal articulated by Michael Shermer: that conspiracy theories are a byproduct of an innate human tendency to seek patterns in the environment, preferring false alarms to misses (Shermer 2011; for elaboration on this point, see Kramer and Gavrieli 2005). Whitson and Galinsky (2008) refine this perspective by defining some of the conditions in which enhanced pattern-seeking may be invoked—specifically the experience of a threat to one’s sense of control over events in one’s life.

What types of perceived threats appear related to conspiracy beliefs, and where do these perceptions come from? Grzesiak-Feldman (2007; 2013) has studied the relationships among dispositional anxiety (“trait”), anxiety in the moment (“state” anxiety), and beliefs in specific conspiracies, yielding inconsistent findings. It appears that the arousal of simple anxiousness is insufficient to evoke conspiratorial ideation, and that the perceived threat must instead have a particular flavor. In some cases the threat is more general and dispositional. Newheiser et al. (2011) observed that existential threat—anxiety related to one’s mortality—was a predictor of belief in the Da Vinci Code conspiracy. For others, the threat appears to be more specific and experiential: Bogart and Thorburn (2006) noted that African-American men, who report more experiences with discrimination than African-American women, also report greater belief in conspiracy theories related to the medical establishment, which plays a prominent role in claims that the HIV virus was created to eradicate the African-American population. For still others, the threat may be political: Uscinski and colleagues’ (2011) inventory of letters to the New York Times found that conspiracy allegations tracked with the movement of political parties in and out of power, with minority-party affiliates primarily responsible for propagating government-related conspiracy theories. Sometimes the threat emerges from a specific event. Rothschild et al. (2012) found that when participants read about environmental destruction caused by unknown forces, they attributed the blame to a scapegoat—an entity with the means and desire to subvert others’ well-being for its own gain. Blaming the scapegoat restored participants’ feelings of control. Importantly, participants given a chance to affirm their feelings of personal control were less likely to blame the scapegoat.

Taken together with Whitson and Galinsky’s (2008) findings, this pattern of results suggests that a lack of control over one’s fate—a sense of being vulnerable to outside forces—tends to heighten vigilance, increasing the tendency to look for patterns and for someone to blame; such is the raw material of conspiracy theories. Increasingly, therefore, those who study conspiracy ideation have been forgoing references to pathology, substituting instead the language of cognitive adaptation. There is a long tradition in the cognitive sciences of seeing “errors” in reasoning as reflections of the normal operation of our goal-oriented information processing systems, and perhaps we can think of conspiracy theories this way as well. As Kramer and Gavrieli (2005, 248) put it, “. . . Conspiracy theories can be construed as complex forms of social cognition that are the end product of an intendedly adaptive sensemaking or coping process.” Given that humans possess the cognitive apparatus required to avoid exploitation (Cosmides and Tooby 1992), it seems reasonable—though not theoretically definitive at present—to consider that conspiracy ideation could be a natural byproduct of such a system, triggered by cues such as perceived vulnerability, or the perception that the alleged conspirator has a motive to engage in subterfuge (Bost et al. 2010; Bost and Prunier 2013; Sunstein and Vermeule 2009).

This article began with the suggestion that we have had little success in beating back conspiracy theories in part because we have failed to study sufficiently the psychological processes underpinning such beliefs. Though a full discussion of the topic is beyond the scope of this article, researchers continue to argue that conspiratorial ideation has harmful effects on both public discourse and personal behavior (e.g., Jolly 2013) and is therefore worth fighting. What hope does the recent surge in research offer? One suggestion implicit in the literature is that we may have to live with some level of conspiracy ideation as a byproduct of the cognitive architecture that comes with communal living. A person without the capacity for suspicion is a target for exploitation, and the necessary kernel of suspicion that exists in all of us might well become turbocharged under the proper circumstances.

And here is where the research has begun to make significant strides: in shifting the conversation ever so slightly from the image of foil-hat-wearing, conspiracy-believing “other people” to a more forgiving conception of conspiracy ideation arising in normal people exposed to the proper triggers—for example, circumstances that evoke feelings of vulnerability. With research having failed so far to draw a bright line between the forensic profiles of conspiracy believers and nonbelievers, searching for additional triggers may be a fruitful avenue for further investigation. Those of us in this young field should also push forward in refining the operational definition of “conspiracy ideation.” Researchers have crafted many different surveys to measure conspiracy beliefs, most of them with uncertain psychometric properties (Brotherton et al. 2013). Agreement on properly validated measurements will ultimately help the research community determine which of the current findings merit our confidence over the long term. In the meantime, the skeptical community may find reason to be less frustrated with conspiracy believers. The research findings so far have done much to humanize them.


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Preston R. Bost

Preston R. Bost, PhD, is professor of psychology and the director of institutional research at Wabash College.