2020 was a banner year for conspiracy theories. First there was the proliferation of QAnon, whose followers insisted that Donald Trump was all that stood between us and a “deep state” cabal that was running a global sex trafficking ring and harvesting a chemical from children’s blood. Then the COVID-19 pandemic provided fodder for a whole array of new fantasies: The outbreak was intentionally caused; the virus was created in a lab; the virus was caused by the rollout of the 5G cellphone network; the virus was spread by Bill Gates so that he could use a vaccination program to implant microchips into people that would let him track and control them; and, of course, the virus isn’t even worth worrying about. For a grand finale, we got the myth that the presidential election had been stolen—a “myth” that triggered an invasion of the Capitol.
These are not obscure beliefs, confined to a group of tin-hat-wearing crazies. Almost 4 out of 10 Americans believe that the death rate from COVID-19 has been “deliberately and greatly exaggerated,” while 27 percent think it’s possible that vaccines for COVID-19 will be used to implant tracking chips in Americans. One in three Republicans (33 percent) says they believe that the QAnon theory about a conspiracy among deep state elites is “mostly true.” Thirty-six percent of registered voters think voter fraud has occurred to a large enough extent to affect the election outcome.
Conspiracy theories arise in the context of fear, anxiety, mistrust, uncertainty, and feelings of powerlessness. For many Americans, recent years have provided many sources for these feelings. There’s been employment insecurity, stagnating wages, and thwarted social mobility. For some, technological leaps and social progress—expanding views of sexuality, and racial unrest—can feel destabilizing. Then 2020 brought a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, deep economic recession, widespread street protests, and a bitterly contested election. Any of these, taken alone, is enough to trigger anxiety, mistrust, and uncertainty. Americans are facing all of them simultaneously. For those who feel that everything is spinning out of control, a narrative that explains their feelings and encloses them within a safe community of believers comes as a soothing relief.
Not everyone deals with uncertainty by turning to a conspiracy theory, of course. So, who does? It’s not a matter of “ignorance” or “stupidity.” People with low levels of education are more likely than more-educated people to believe in conspiracy theories, but such theories are also common among the well-educated. For example, about half of Americans with a high school diploma or less education say the theory that powerful people intentionally planned the coronavirus outbreak is “probably” or “definitely” true. But 38 percent of those with some college experience but no degree, 24 percent of those with a college education, and 15 percent of those with postgraduate degrees also support the theory.
It’s also not simply a matter of politics. Yes, several studies have found conservatives to be more vulnerable than liberals to conspiracy theories. For example, a Public Policy Polling survey taken shortly after the 2012 election reported that 34 percent of Republican voters and only 15 percent of Democratic voters believed that a secretive power elite with a globalist agenda is conspiring to eventually rule the world through an authoritarian world government. But belief in conspiracy theories is certainly not limited to those on the right (15 percent of Democratic voters is, after all, a lot of people). “Politically motivated conspiracy theories find a receptive audience among both Democrats and Republicans,” said Daniel A. Cox, director of the Survey Center on American Life. People at the political extremes of both the “left” and “right” seem more likely to endorse conspiracy beliefs than more moderate groups on either side. There is also nothing distinctively American about belief in conspiracy theories. Recent examples of widespread conspiratorial thinking have been reported from Canada, Great Britain, Austria, Italy, Malaysia, Brazil, and Nigeria, among other countries.
What does predict belief in conspiracy theories? A cocktail of personality traits. Those who believe these theories typically show high levels of anxiety independent of external sources of stress, a high need for control over environment, and a high need for subjective certainty and, conversely, a low tolerance for ambiguity. They tend to have negative attitudes to authority, to feel alienated from the political system, and to see the modern world as unintelligible. Conspiracy theory believers are often suspicious and untrusting, and see others as plotting against them. They struggle with anger, resentment, and other hostile feelings as well as with fear. They have lower self-esteem than nonbelievers and have a need for external validation to maintain their self-esteem. They may have a strong desire to feel unique and special, and an exaggerated need to be in an exclusive in-group. Belief in conspiracy theories often also goes along with belief in paranormal phenomena, skepticism of scientific knowledge, and weaknesses in analytic thinking. Proneness to belief in conspiracy theories is also associated with religiosity, especially with people for whom a religious worldview is especially important. These traits are hardly universal among or exclusive to conspiracy theorists, but they help create a vulnerability to belief.
Conspiracy theories arise not only when they “fit” with certain mixes of personality traits but also when they fill psychological and ideological needs. Freud long ago distinguished between “errors” on the one hand and “illusions” and “delusions” on the other. Errors, he argued, simply reflect lack of knowledge or poor logic. For example, Aristotle’s belief that vermin come from dung was simply an error. Science all the time raises possibilities that are later disproved. In contrast, Freud argued, illusions and delusions are based on conscious or unconscious wishes. Columbus’ belief that he had found a new route to the Indies was an illusion, based on his wish that he had done so. Although Freud is out of favor with many contemporary psychologists, modern cognitive psychology suggests that Freud was on the right track here. The tenacity of many conspiracy theories in the face of facts suggests that these beliefs are not merely alternate interpretations of facts but are rooted in conscious or unconscious wishes, in what cognitive psychologists call “motivated reasoning.”
There are a few motivations driving these wishes. They may be an effort to “protect or bolster one’s political worldview.” They may also protect or bolster a person’s own view of themselves. Anxiety, fear, and distrust can engender shame, resentment, jealousy, anger, or guilt. A person may disown their own feelings and project them onto others. The conspiracy theory can then serve to explain these feelings. Even outside of conspiracy theories, our brains are prone to making what social psychologists call the “fundamental attribution error”: We tend to explain our own negative feelings and actions as a result of situations or events outside of our own control, rather than as reflections of inner traits and dynamics, while we attribute others’ behavior primarily to internal factors such as personality or character or intentions. It is easier to pin our anxiety to the malevolent actions of others than to confront our own fears and worries. Thus, unacknowledged fear of becoming ill with COVID-19 might turn into fear that others are making up or exaggerating the pandemic for nefarious purposes.
Projection is the process whereby one’s own thoughts, feelings, motivations or action tendencies are attributed to others. Once a conspiracy theory forms, whatever its roots, believers seem immune to evidence that disproves their theory. This, too, isn’t wholly unique to the believers; we all tend to pay more attention and give more credence to information that confirms what we already believe. Psychologists call this “confirmation bias.” Social media, which makes it easy to find “information” supporting almost any position as well as to find others who share our beliefs, creates, as psychiatry professor Joseph Pierre put it, “confirmation bias on steroids.” We also try to maintain consistency in our beliefs. Information that is not consistent with our other beliefs and values gives rise to an internal sense of discomfort—what psychologist Leon Festinger called “cognitive dissonance.” Either the old narrative must go or we must find a way to discredit the new facts so that they can be incorporated into what we already believe. We may find “reasons” to disbelieve the counterevidence, or we may interpret the so-called facts that don’t conform to our theory as yet more evidence for the idea we’re maintaining itself.
The unchallengeable quality of a conspiracy theory may also be created and maintained by powerful figures who share the theory. In the past few years, this has been best exemplified by the role of Donald Trump, who has created what British novelist and journalist James Meek called “a self-contained alternative political thought space.” Loyalty to Trump became a social identity for many people. For the Trump loyalist, to challenge Trump and his beliefs became a threat not just to their loyalty to Trump, but to their own identity. So if Trump insists COVID-19 emerged due to Chinese aggression or that the 2020 election was rigged, who is the Trump loyalist to disagree?
At the same time, Trump leverages a growing mistrust of institutions. Trust in mainstream mass media has declined from its post-Watergate peak of 72 percent of Americans answering yes to having at least “a fair amount of trust,” to 32 percent today. Only 35 percent of Americans feel “a lot of trust” that what scientists say is accurate and reliable. The mistrust has in part, at least, been deliberately inculcated. The fossil fuel industry publicized studies to confuse the climate change debate; Big Pharma hid unfavorable information on drug safety and efficacy; tobacco companies continue to deny the harmful effects of smoking; and the president himself calls what reputable media “fake news.” Education, information, and those who have educations or information, far from being weapons against conspiracy theories, themselves become the target of conspiracy theories.
Some conspiracy theories can just be left alone. The popular belief that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone in assassinating John F. Kennedy is probably relatively harmless. But some conspiracy theories lead to actions and other beliefs that have negative social consequences. Belief in one or another conspiracy theory is associated with more acceptance of violent behavior, refusal to vaccinate school-age children, and opposition to actions to respond to climate change. In 2019, the FBI identified belief in the QAnon theories as a potential domestic terror threat. In the current COVID-19 crisis, believers in the many virus-related conspiracy theories are more likely to refuse to wear masks or maintain social distance. And, last Wednesday, thousands of Trump supporters, believers in the conspiracy theory promoted by the president that the election was stolen, invaded the Capitol and threatened American democracy itself.
Conspiracy theories such as these are especially dangerous when they’re believed by people who actually have power, who set an example and make policy decisions. As columnist Paul Krugman wrote, “Unlike the crazy conspiracy theories of the left—which do exist, but are supported only by a tiny fringe—the crazy conspiracy theories of the right are supported by important people: powerful politicians, television personalities with large audiences.” The widespread belief on the part of Trump supporters that Biden won the election only because of voter fraud, egged on by Trump himself despite the lack of any significant evidence, may leave a legacy of delegitimating the Biden administration and of delegitimating government and normal political processes themselves. And that, in fact, may be the point.