Why People Believe Conspiracy Theories

Why are conspiracy theories so prevalent, and how do they intersect with other phenomena such as climate change denial? Stephan Lewandowsky, chair of cognitive psychology at the University of Bristol, answered questions on the topic posed by the public on Reddit. The Conversation has curated the highlights.

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Conspiracy theories

Under what conditions do conspiracies spread? What can one do to convince people to be more sceptical of extraordinary claims in conspiracy theories?

In societies that are not transparent and less democratic, conspiracy theories flourish because the government cannot be trusted. In general, the people who believe in conspiracy theories are low on trust and feel that they have been treated badly by life or society.

Countering this is very difficult, but education and reducing inequality will go a long way.

Can you name one conspiracy theory that turned out to be true?

The tobacco industry is now known to have "conspired" against the public in their efforts to undermine the well-established scientific evidence linking smoking to ill health. One of the US judges famously said): "The US tobacco industry has engaged in a criminal conspiracy for more than 50 years."

What kind of cognitive traits does conspiratorial thinking exhibit?

There are some researchers who have linked conspiracy beliefs to personality variables. So yes, it is quite possibly a stable characteristic of some sort. The most striking thing is that conspiratorial thinking can be self-contradictory, for example people think MI6 killed Princess Diana while also thinking that she faked her own death.

To what extent do you see climate conspiracists denying climate change science as opposed to denying the feasibility of providing an economically acceptable solution to reversing its effects?

Very interesting question. I cannot be certain because I do not have data that speak to this issue directly. However, in general, conspiracism is just one form of "motivated cognition". There are others, such as worldview defence. The reason worldviews are inflamed by climate change is because of the threat of government interference with the free market that might result from mitigation efforts. It is for this reason that people who cherish free markets are less inclined to oppose mitigation when it is framed as providing an opportunity for the nuclear industry than when it is framed as pollution cuts.

Bottom line: It is pretty clear that fear of the solutions drives much opposition to the science. This manifests itself in motivated cognition, and one form of that is conspiracism. That said, it is notable that other science denial -- for instance HIV-AIDS -- also involves conspiracism, and the links to worldviews are less clear there.

Climate change denial

How important are political ideologies in understanding the rejection of climate science?

I can ask people four questions about the free market and I have roughly 67 per cent "confidence" (that is, variance) in their attitudes towards climate change.

As a conservative, I find myself in the frustrating position of being one of the few among my inner circle who is not a dogmatic climate change sceptic. It's happening and humanity is contributing in a major way. Something that does frustrate me, however, is misinformation about exactly what steps would need to be taken to seriously combat global warming effects. What are your thoughts on this?

Recycling is largely a farce. Yes, it is better to recycle that soda bottle than to throw it out. But what is far better is to reuse it or not use it in the first place. But there's no political will to move the needle on the economic to support such a system. (I do try to recycle anyway, by the way. I just don't pretend that it makes any significant difference.)

Gasoline use is even worse. The fact is that, without abundant sources of non-fossil-fuel power, we are going to burn every last bit of carbon we can pull out of the earth's crust. Me driving an electric vehicle (which I don't, by the way) just makes it that much easier for someone on the other side of the world to fill up their gas tank.

I think there is, however, some utility in the example that it sets. If my vegan friends make a dinner that is fantastic and satisfying, maybe their decreased resource consumption gives me some ideas how to reduce my consumption of meat. My neighbour's electric vehicle might convince me that I don't need to drive a gas-guzzling SUV, and might help incrementally advance the technology to make a wholesale change in power for transportation possible.

Overall, the micro-level stuff is small potatoes, and won't make a difference without the macro stuff. But I think the micro stuff can help sell the macro stuff, and that's the reason it matters.

Do you think that people with same views (no matter how absurd) will easily find each other and gather around somewhere?

Yes, there are cyberghettos and clusterings. This is a problem all in itself already, but to make matters worse, it creates an incentive for politicians to engage in more extremist dialogue. Work by economists has shown that it is advantageous for politicians to be extreme if messages to their followers remained inside an echo chamber. As a consequence, whereas politicians used to compete for the "median voter", it is now advantageous to be extremist. This has undesirable consequences for us all.

How much of an effect has science denial had on the progress of the science itself?

It is difficult to quantify, but there is some evidence to suggest that science denial has affected not just public discourse but also science itself. For example, an analysis of media coverage found that the IPCC reports in 2007 were more likely to underestimate than overestimate the risk from climate change. A more recent analysis expanded on this topic and argued that scientists' natural reticence biases them towards cautious estimates rather than alarmism, a tendency they call erring on the side of least drama.

Is it a waste of my time trying to convince those that don't believe in climate change or should I just focus on helping those that do become more educated?

The answer is pretty nuanced: There are some people who are so entrenched in their contrarian views that there is little point in talking to them about anything other than solutions. In the end, it doesn't matter what a person thinks about climate change if they put a solar panel on their roof -- and who wouldn't in Geraldton, Western Australia?

However, there are also people who really want to know more, and whose reticence to accept the science arises from lack of information. I would send those people to Skeptical Science. Differentiating between entrenched contrarians and those who are open to knowing more is challenging because sometimes it is difficult to know at the outset.

What kind of dialogue may perhaps serve to move the national discussion in a more productive direction, given your insights into the psychology of denial?

My views are: first, the public is currently being denied the right to be fully informed about the risks it is facing. Second, there are many reasons for this, from "doubt-mongering" to ideologically-motivated denial. Third, we know from much research on misinformation that people cannot dismiss "noise" or misinformation unless they are given a reason to do so. This is why it is important for the public to understand who the people are who oppose climate science.

In a nutshell: underscore the consensus which will move all but the hardcore, and identify who the hardcore contrarians are so the remainder of the population can make an educated choice about who to listen to.

I will graduate this year with an MSc in Climate Change. What should someone with my skills be doing in order to do a job which benefits the planet?

I think that scientists themselves could refine their messaging. Often they put the uncertainty first, without saying what we do know or without saying that uncertainty is a compelling reason to mitigate. That said, also remember that the problem is compounded by the role of worldviews. To overcome that, emphasising the consensus is only a partial tool.The Conversation

Stephan Lewandowsky is Chair of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Bristol. He receives funding from the Australian Research Council, the World University Network, and the Royal Society.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


    Can you name one conspiracy theory that turned out to be true?
    Yes. Mobile phones are being used to spy on us.
    No one believed it. The manufacturers all said they werent. Apple was caught out. The manufacturers admitted it. Then everyone is like "oh, ok. We will put up with it."

    But lets rattle off a bunch. . .
    Fast and Furious (no, not the movie)
    Fluoride bad for teeth
    NSA spying

      Fluoride is bad for your teeth? since when

        Since the American Dental Association says it is.

          I think you must be thinking of the "American Toothyologist Association"...

          According to the ADA: "The American Dental Association unreservedly endorses the fluoridation of community water supplies as safe, effective and necessary in preventing tooth decay. This support has been the Association's position since policy was first adopted in 1950."

          Or are you saying the conspiracy is that they actually believe the opposite of their public policy statement??

          source: http://www.ada.org/4045.aspx

          American Dental Association says:

          "Studies conducted throughout the past 65 years have consistently shown that fluoridation of community water supplies is safe and effective in preventing dental decay in both children and adults. Simply by drinking water, children and adults can benefit from fluoridation's cavity protection whether they are at home, work or school.

          Today, studies prove water fluoridation continues to be effective in reducing tooth decay by 20 – 40%, even in an era with widespread availability of fluoride from other sources, such as fluoride toothpaste.

          The American Dental Association continues to endorse fluoridation of community water supplies as safe and effective for preventing tooth decay. This support has been the Association's position since policy was first adopted in 1950. The ADA's policies regarding community water fluoridation are based on the overwhelming weight of peer-reviewed, credible scientific evidence. The ADA, along with state and local dental societies, continues to work with federal, state and local agencies to increase the number of communities benefiting from water fluoridation."


            The Lancet, the world's oldest and most prestigious medical journal, recently published a report classifying Fluoride as a dangerous neurotoxin. The report puts Fluoride in the same category Arsenic, Lead, and Mercury.
            Its a dangerous chemical that disrupts the health of our brains, especially in children.


            CNN have disclosed the same:


            And Harvard have recently published a study proving that fluoride lowers IQ in children:


            It also cause discolouration (yellowing or brown spotting) of teeth, which is more of a cosmetic thing. Children's toothpaste doesn't contain fluoride because it can strip the protective enamel layer from the teeth.

              That Lancet study cites one Chinese meta-study which found a possible correlation. The CNN report notes that the study was disputed. It would appear to be an area that warrants further investigation, but you're heavily overstating the case.

                Possibly. But for how long did we think artificial sweeteners were good? But the few were trying to warn us of the dangers. Now we all know how unhealthy they are and we shouldn't be having them.
                Will it be the same with fluoride?

                  Wow, everybody's inner conspiracy theorist is coming out in this comment thread. To counter warcroft's argument that artificial sweeteners are dangerous, that is a very broad and vague claim to make. To counter the first interpretation which is that they cause cancer (cos cancer is so scary and stuff and everybody seems to care about cancer, but not for, say cardiovascular or pulmonary disease which are larger killers than cancer):
                  I tried to find the article that one of my uni lecturers spent a whole afternoon ranting about how an observational study of 10k+ 'Frenchies' found no correlation between artificial sweetened soft drink and bowel cancer, but my google skills fail me.
                  If by 'dangerous' you mean 'eat more food' (and thus get a heart attack because you're obese and sedentary) then, (again with the weasel words) possibly there may be a link between artificial sweeteners and increasing appetite but if the alternative is to drink sugary drinks, artificial for me any day of the week.
                  Full disclosure, myself and 90% of my (former) med school friends choose coke zero (or pepsi max, but they're heathens) on a regular basis for our sweet beverage of choice, though since coming to Bundaberg, I've started drinking diet ginger beer.
                  This also reminds me of how I started drinking coke zero; back in 2008 when I did a paeds term at Ochsner in New Orleans, the staff cafeteria at their Jefferson centre only had artificially sweetened stuff. Not just the drinks, but the deserts, sweet tea (artificially sweetened tea is terrible) and basically anything else that is sweet. Outside for the patients, there were vending machines for regular coke, pepsi etc but for staff, they only had diet drinks. So for $1 USD I could get a 500mL cup of diet drink, or pay $1 for a can of high fructose corn syrup. My med student wallet lead the way (also laziness in walking out after buying lunch to grab a can of drink) and now I choose coke zero. They also had a free staff gym (which was pretty decent, 10 treadmills, 6 stationary bikes, almost every type of weights machine you could imagine and free weights too, all well maintained and well kept, as well as showers, free towels etc), which none of the tertiary centres in Brisbane have. Read into that however you like.
                  Anyway on the topic of conspiracy theories that have turned out to be correct I present:
                  1. Oseltamivir (Tamiflu) is (practically) useless (except for making you subjectively feel better)
                  The CDC really dropped the ball here. Even the FDA said it was useless, but someone at the CDC didn't get the memo and ok'ed USA's stockpiling of it. After USA, the other major nations fell into line. Although I don't completely buy into whole Donald Rumsfeld/Gilead Sciences/Roche conspiracy though, I do think we shouldn't have trusted the drug companies and actually tried to dig into this as much as the good old BMJ did. The BMJ also support our plain packaging legislation and are trying to get their government to copy us! Go Australia! And dare I say it, Gillard has left a decent legacy!
                  2. The current influenza vaccine is not as effective as advertised in highly at risk populations (young and elderly):
                  Although the way I read into this is that older children, teenagers and adults have a responsibility to be vaccinated against influenza, to stop spreading it to their younger siblings, kids, nephews/niece, parents, grandparents etc and that the Australian Government should vaccinate the whole population for free(*).

                  *Depending on what your GP charges you for your gap fee and what the pharmacy charges you, but hey, if you can't fork out $30 gap to see a GP, you shouldn't be spending that money on cigarettes or tattoos.

                  Last edited 17/04/14 8:58 pm

      Erm, where was apple caught out spying?

        A couple of years ago. Someone discovered that Iphones were tracking, recording and storing the users travels without their knowledge or consent. It was a big shit storm.

        But the 1996 telecommunications act says that all mobile phones must be tracable and trackable "for emergency purposes".

        Lastly, about 10 years ago my mother worked on the court case where the police and NCA brought down a large organised crime ring. They detailed how they were able to tap into their mobile phones and use them as a listening device. Even if the phone was turned off they were able to turn them on and listen in without their knowledge.

      Manhattan Project
      Ultra Secret (device to decode German communications)
      the Cold War itself. (we all lived in fear, nuclear Armageddon never came, but we all paid a LOT of taxes, and cheered on the massive buildup of the military industrial complex)
      Federal Reserve Bank
      Tax Structure
      War on Drugs
      Domestic Surveilance
      WMD in Iraq
      Bernard Madoff

      Basically, the ABOVE ARTICLE is a form of conspiracy. People lie, and sometimes they lie to their own advantage. When two or more people tell the same lie together to gain some advantage, it’s a conspiracy. Many situations are not as they appear on the surface, and there is an agenda of those currently in power (and always is) to undermine skeptics and naysayers who question the status quo. Study the concept of marginalization used by intelligence services and secret police the world over.

      Remember the Wizard of OZ? "Pay no mind to the man behind the curtain..."

      That said, there are certainly URBAN LEGEND style "Conspiracy Theories", and ironically, these may be part of a CONSPIRACY to discredit critics and whistleblowers of actual conspiracies. Unsophisticated people tend to fall for such wild tales uncritically and parrot them without evidentiary confirmation or sober reasoning being applied. Thus one or more competing Urban Legends may be contradictory. Much like adherents to all of the world’s major religions, and cult members, these folks can’t be talked out of outlandish beliefs because their model of the world is not anchored in reality as understood by a long line of Civilization’s greatest thinkers . This in no way exonerates corrupt government and business power players from the high stakes games they play at common people's expense.

      Saying "there are no Conspiracies", is essentially being PART OF THE "CONSPIRACY".

      Try this instead; Apply the knowledge of Human History, Human behavior, and typical greedy and or power mad motivation on the part of the worst possible people among us. Notice that they tend to rise to positions of authority and influence because they won't hesitate to consistently cause harm to others while pursuing their own goals. Now, in any given situation, just assume that such a person, or group of them, is willing to harm YOU, repeatedly, to get their way (cash, sex, power, occult ritual, even your mere humiliation). You will discover that the ASSUMPTION of such a conspiracy by this aberrant personality type is more often than not justified. By carefully monitoring our so called leaders, conspiracies will regularly be discovered, and thus possibly stopped.

    Climate Change is real. Global Warming is not. They are 2 separate things.

      I present exhibit A.

        My post below exactly states and predicts what you have just done Darren! Shout down the "naysayer"!

        The world was flat a few hundred years ago and you were a heretic if you disagreed! Things haven't changed that much!

    First rule is to shout down and make anyone that disagrees with the norm fell like an idiot! Tried and tested.

    Any scientist that does disagree with the shovelled "version" of truth leads to being ridiculed and having their funding cut!

    To add a few more that are true.

    The "War" on drugs.
    Leading on the drugs war, Amercian prisons are privately owned and run! They are paid by the amount of beds they have filled, think about that for a few minutes, then re-think the war on drugs.

    The "War" on Terrorism. The perfect war. Open ended that will carry on for decades, perfect profit maker! Think about the disbandment of the Iraqi army, then look at all the contracts awarded to private security firms!

    The complete freefall of 3 huge towers in NY caused by plane hits, seriously if people still believe the official version they are living in a dreamworld! - Read this then go back and read the "War" on terror!

    One massive loop of money, power, oil! Themost hilarious thing about all of this is, it all stems from oil, then they tax the hell out of us again for using that oil, then tax us again for "climate change", it really is brilliant!

    The thing is if people really, really opened their eyes to what goes on behind the scenes, they would want to close them again pretty quickly and go back to not knowing what goes on, it's that scary, which is what most people do!

    Last edited 17/04/14 9:36 am

      I was going to comment then I saw your username. Well played

    A very interesting article. I have friends who are deeply entrenched in the conspiracy theory trap, and even used to believe them myself. Without critical thinking ability, it's easy to fall prey to unsubstantiated assertions. I agree our best tool to stop people being misled is education; not even a lot of it - a few hours browsing http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Category:Logic would be enough to do many people a world of good.

    The same reason people believe you can cook a chicken by strapping 10 mobile phones to it.
    People generally have little idea of how things work, and are easily swayed. Even things that can be tested *yourself* people don't bother to check.

    US Congressman shocked after reading 28 redacted pages from 911 report showing foreign state involvement, and these pages will likely NEVER be declassified within your lifetime, there's still stuff from WW2 that's classified.

    Why does the west continually turn a blind eye to saudi arabia?
    They make such a big fuss about russia and lgbt, but no outrage over saudi arabia's human rights record, women not being allowed to drive, rape victims getting imprisoned by police, stoning people to death, censorship and more!

    It's all about money and power, it always has been
    History is full of conspiracies, and you are an idiot if you think there are no conspiracies anymore because you live in the 21st century

    Even after Edward Snowden made some of the largest revelations in world history, single handedly proving what many conspiracy theorists have been saying since the 90s, people can still say with a straight face that there are no conspiracies.

    Geez, and they said the nazis and communists were brainwashed...
    This is a whole other level of hypnosis.

      Completely agree. It's far easier to watch My Kitchen Rules or Master [email protected] than it is to actually learn and read about some of the processes that are guiding our everyday lives!

    His point about recycling and using electric cars is bang on. Given how much energy it takes to recycle something or produce batteries, any environmental benefit from these is mostly cancelled out. They're basically just "awareness raising" exercises.

    Yup that's the only conspiracy theory that's ever come true.

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