Rumors and Conspiracy Theories

by Trey Poche | May 2021

How do conspiracies spread, and why do we believe them?

Conspiracy theories are captivating because they provide explanations for confusing, emotional and ambiguous events especially when official explanations seem inadequate. If we can't rely on recognized sources of information, we might become paranoid, unsure of where to look for explanation.

This “paranoid style” of thinking in American politics has a long history. The periodic emergence of narratives about clandestine, malevolent actors secretly plotting political and social calamities influences policy debate about vaccine regulations, genetically-modified food labeling, foreign diplomacy and domestic elections. But conspiracy theories are not the delusions of paranoid minds -- recent polls show that more than 50 percent of Americans believe in one conspiracy or another. What makes conspiracies an interesting phenomenon is that they have loyal followers and are believed, more or less, by ordinary people.

A few common characteristics of conspiracy theories are that, first, they locate the source of unusual social and political phenomena in unseen, intentional and malevolent forces. Second, they often interpret political events in terms of the struggle between good and evil. And third, most conspiracy theories suggest that mainstream reporting of public affairs is a ruse or an attempt to distract the public from a true source of power. 

  • According to a study conducted by the University of Chicago: 19% of Americans believe the government was behind the 9/11 attacks;
  • And 11% believe the government mandated a switch to compact fluorescent lightbulbs in government buildings because “they make people obedient and easier to control”

Although conspiracies  are frequently outlandish and contain implausible assertions, their power lies in the fact that they confirm what people want to believe

People naturally try to make sense of their world. Motivated reasoning is a psychological phenomenon that describes how people rely on biased cognitive processes while assessing, constructing and evaluating beliefs.  Prior beliefs and attitudes “anchor” the evaluation of new information. These motivations, or biases, affect our perceptions of an issue and how we then assign blame. An important point is that the motivation to be accurate is often the driving factor while encountering. However, accuracy-goals are in constant tension with the motivation to arrive at a particular conclusion that confirms one’s prior beliefs. Partisan and emotionally evocative messaging often overwhelms to desire to be accurate. When this happens, we engage in motivated reasoning.

Motivated reasoning occurs via three distinct processes:

  1. Confirmation Bias or Biased Assimilation: A person is more likely to seek out information that is consistent with their pre-existing beliefs, while simultaneously avoiding incompatible information that may challenge their beliefs.
  2. Disconfirmation bias: A person will spend more time and effort denigrating and counter-arguing opposing arguments.
  3. Attitude-congruence bias: Those who hold a definite position on an issue tend to see supporting arguments as stronger than opposing arguments

Some researchers propose that the “motivational view” can be explained by psychology. People draw self-serving conclusions not because they want to, but because certain conclusions seem more plausible given their prior beliefs and expectations. 

The influence of motivated reasoning is more pronounced for highly-engaged individuals for whom an issue is most important. The more knowledge an individual accumulates about a particular issue, the more likely they are able to effectively argue against conflicting information or avoid conflicting information altogether.


CONSPIR: The Seven Traits of Conspiratorial Thinking

Lewandusky & Cook, 2020

The CONSPIR Acronym; text only version follows

Conspiracy theories are based on thinking patterns that are known to be unreliable tools for tracking reality. Learn about these problematic thinking patterns below.

Conspiracy theorists can simultaneously believe in ideas that are mutually contradictory. For example, believing the theory that Princess Diana was murdered but also believing that she faked her own death. This is because the theorists’ commitment to disbelieving the “official“ account is so absolute, it doesn’t matter if their belief system is incoherent.

Conspiratorial thinking involves a nihilistic degree of skepticism towards the official account. This extreme degree of suspicion prevents belief in anything that doesn’t fit into the conspiracy theory. 

The motivations behind any presumed conspiracy are invariably assumed to be nefarious. Conspiracy theories never propose that the presumed conspirators have benign motivations. 

Although conspiracy theorists may occasionally abandon specific ideas when they become untenable, those revisions don’t change their overall conclusion that “something must be wrong” and the official account is based on deception.

Conspiracy theorists perceive and present themselves as the victim of organized persecution. At the same time, they see themselves as brave antagonists taking on the villainous conspirators. Conspiratorial thinking involves a self-perception of simultaneously being a victim and a hero. 

Conspiracy theories are inherently self-sealing—evidence that counters a theory is re-interpreted as originating from the conspiracy. This reflects the belief that the stronger the evidence against a conspiracy (e.g., the FBI exonerating a politician from allegations of misusing a personal email server), the more the conspirators must want people to believe their version of events (e.g., the FBI was part of the conspiracy to protect that politician). 

The overriding suspicion found in conspiratorial thinking frequently results in the belief that nothing occurs by accident.3Small random events, such as intact windows in the Pentagon after the 9/11 attacks, are re-interpreted as being caused by the conspiracy (because if an airliner had hit the Pentagon, then all windows would have shattered ) and are woven into a broader, interconnected pattern.