The Mind of a Conspiracy Theorist

By now, scientists have roundly debunked the theory that the coronavirus was created in a lab. But that hasn’t stopped nearly 30 percent of Americans from believing it, according to a recent Pew survey—and many of these believers have made the leap from that premise to the theory that a powerful villain unleashed the virus to control the population. (Billionaire philanthropists George Soros and Bill Gates are on the short list, although conspiracy theorists aren’t ruling out the Clintons.) When the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum in the midst of the pandemic, another wave of believers embraced conspiracy theories linking the two phenomena, including the rumor that Soros had instigated the protests as the next step in his path to world domination.

Both Covid-19 and systemic racism pose real life-or-death dangers. So why are so many people becoming preoccupied instead with threats that have no grounding in reality? It’s partly because of the magnitude of the real threats, psychologists say. Studies show that conspiracy theories tend to snowball during times of crisis, when fear is rampant and clear explanations are in short supply. They appeal in part because they offer a straightforward narrative and someone to blame. But researchers are starting to pay more attention to these theories, and the motives and mechanisms that drive them, as it becomes clear that they aren’t a harmless method for coping with the unknown. They can have truly damaging consequences in the real world.

The coronavirus pandemic is a particularly fertile breeding ground for such thinking, says Roland Imhoff, a social psychologist at Germany’s Johannes Gutenberg University: It’s terrifying, not well understood, and happening on a massive scale. And in the face of pandemic-level panic, our minds have a tendency to seek explanations that match the intensity of our feelings. “To say that the whole world has come to a halt because a teeny-weeny virus jumped from a bat to another animal and then to a guy in a Chinese market seems too insignificant an explanation,” Imhoff says. “But a conspiracy theory that has thousands of people in cahoots? That seems more proportional.”

It’s no surprise that so many people are currently in thrall to this narrative. But studies show that some people are especially prone to these beliefs, even without the motivating uncertainty of a global health crisis. Researchers have found that this “conspiracy mentality” correlates with particular personality traits, including low levels of trust and an increased need for closure, along with feelings of powerlessness, low self-esteem, paranoid thinking, and a need to feel unique.

On its own, belief in conspiracies isn’t inherently dangerous or wrong, psychologists say. After all, sometimes powerful people really are hatching secret schemes. If Edward Snowden hadn’t suspected that top U.S. intelligence officials were engaged in a massive wiretapping conspiracy, for example, he couldn’t have exposed the NSA’s very real covert surveillance program.

Even more troubling, conspiracy thinking is correlated with a tendency toward violent thoughts and fantasies, and to some degree with real violence. University of Miami political scientist Joseph Uscinski found that people who were generally inclined to believe in conspiracy theories were twice as likely as non believers to agree that violence was an acceptable form of political protest. Some, such as Timothy McVeigh, whose suspicions of the federal government led to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, have even committed atrocities on the basis of conspiracy beliefs.

As the connections between conspiracy theories and real-world harm become evident, researchers are focusing more on beliefs they might have once shrugged off as a bit of innocuous eccentricity on the social fringes. “We can’t assume anymore that they’re trivial, harmless little things,” says social psychologist Karen Douglas of the University of Kent. “Some of them are reasonably popular—the belief that climate change is a hoax or that vaccines are dangerous, for example. These beliefs have real consequences. You can’t just dismiss them.”

How can we stop conspiracy theories from spreading? It’s a critical question, especially now, researchers say—and there’s no easy answer. After all, conspiracy theories have always existed, and no amount of counter evidence has been able to change the minds of people who still think the moon landing was fake or that JFK’s assassination was the work of a “deep state” conspiracy.

The difference is that the stakes have never been higher when it comes to believing misinformation. “The consequence of believing the earth is flat or the moon landing was staged is basically nothing—no one’s harmed by that. But in a pandemic, you could potentially have deaths on a massive scale if people believed the pandemic was a hoax,” says NYU social psychologist Jay Van Bavel.

And conspiracy theories seem to be spreading faster than ever, partly because of the way they are magnified by social media, Van Bavel says. His research examines why false information on social media travels faster and reaches larger audiences than accurate information. “The ‘Plandemic’ video was viewed by millions of people within days. There’s no editorial oversight. So it moves much faster,” he says.

Recent efforts by Twitter and Facebook to crack down on misinformation—including the QAnon conspiracy theories, which center on the belief that a powerful cabal of pedophiles and Satanists is working to undermine the president—are a step in the right direction, Van Bavel believes.

But social media isn’t solely responsible for the spread of these theories, Uscinski says. We can’t even say for certain whether conspiracy theories are any more prevalent or influential now than in the past—just look at the witch trials of the 17th century and the Illuminati panics of the early 19th century. The fact that social media can carry theories like these farther, wider, and faster doesn’t mean that a greater proportion of people will ultimately believe them.

Right now, people are just trying to make sense of a frightening, confusing time. The more facts they’re equipped with, the less powerless they’ll feel—and the harder it will be for conspiracy theories to take hold, especially when it comes to the coronavirus, Sternisko says. “The more we learn about this virus, the fewer gaps people have to fill with conspiracy theories,” she says. “If there is so much information that contradicts their false notions, at some point people who aren’t diehard conspiracy theorists will have to update their beliefs. They’re not deluded—they just want to understand and have certainty.”