What factors affect a person’s susceptibility to believing in conspiracy theories?

In 2019 around 11% of US citizens believed that the moon landing was fake. 23% believed that the September 11 attacks were planned by the US government. Even outside of the USA many conspiracy theories are well known and believed in by great numbers of people. The internet made even more people able to learn about them. However, out of all the people who will encounter a conspiracy theory, not all will actually end up believing in it. What makes a person more likely to believe in conspiracy theories? There are several factors that have been found to increase one’s susceptibility to believing in them.

 

Feeling of social isolation

One study, conducted by a team led by Richard Moulding in 2016, found that people who feel socially isolated are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. Another research, conducted by Jan-Williem van Prooijen in 2016 found that people who do not feel a sense of belonging to any group are more likely to believe in conspiracies. First of all, people who feel isolated are more likely to turn to marginalized subcultures that endorse some conspiracies or strictly conspiracy groups for a sense of belonging. The feeling of being a part of the only group that is in on a specific secret deepens the feeling of community. Second of all, people who feel socially isolated are more likely not to believe the source of information they are receiving and look for it elsewhere. For example, people who feel that the ruling government alienates them and does not represent their views are less likely to believe in their explanations of an event.

 

 

A high need for feeling unique

Conspiracy theories make the people believing in them feel like they are in possession of scarce and hidden information. Moreover, many conspiracies are presented as completely hidden knowledge. Consequently, those who believe in them may feel more special and unique because of the feeling of being better informed than other people. That characteristic of conspiracy theories appeals most strongly to those people who have a high need for being unique. A correlation between belief in conspiracy theories and a heightened need for feeling unique has been found by for example a study conducted by Anthony Lantian in 2017.

 

Bad quality of education

People who have received bad quality education or have lower levels of it are more likely to be drawn to conspiracy theories. It is clearly not because they are less intelligent, but because they never acquired the tools to spot fake information. Many people did not ever receive a course on differentiating between credible and non-credible sources. That situation is made even worse by the fact that most people over-estimate their ability to spot non credible information. A study conducted in 2021 by a team led by Ben Lyons found that 3 out of 4 participants overestimated their ability to differentiate between fake and legitimate news headlines. This means that most people who do not know how to check If the information they found is fake will not even question that ability and continue to mistake fake for legitimate information. Consequently, people who never learned how to spot fake news are extremely susceptible to conspiracy theories.

 

Feeling of powerlessness

The study conducted by Richard Moulding also found that people who feel powerless and like they are not in control of their lives are more likely to believe in conspiracies. First of all, many conspiracy theories suggest that there are elites that are actually in control of what is happening I the world. That notion takes the blame off an individual who feels powerless and puts it on the elite. Second of all, conspiracy theories may give a sense of security and meaning for those who lack it and feel powerless.

 

 

Increased anxiety and uncertainty

Finally, people experiencing a period of increased anxiety and uncertainty are highly susceptible to believing in conspiracy theories. The most recent example is the COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine. That event led to many people feeling powerless and isolated, two factors mentioned previously. The situation was worsened by the unknown source of the pandemic, leading to speculation and creation of different conspiracy theories The COVID-19 pandemic was even more special, since the people who experienced quarantine had to relay on the internet for online learning and human interaction. The biggest medium through which conspiracy theories spread today is the internet, so this pandemic made people even more prone to believing in conspiracies than other periods of uncertainty. Different periods of anxiety have also led to proliferation of conspiracy theories, for example after the 9/11.

 

Sources:

https://www.statista.com/statistics/959480/belief-that-the-moon-landing-was-faked/
https://www.statista.com/statistics/959504/belief-september-11-inside-job-conspiracy-us/
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0191886916303221
https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1750698017701615
https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2017-30136-003
https://www.apa.org/research/action/speaking-of-psychology/conspiracy-theories
https://www.pnas.org/content/118/23/e2019527118

 

Aleksandra Jabłkowska, IB1