Conspiracy theories are everywhere. It only takes a quick search on Google and you’ll find hundreds.
This got us wondering about what makes them so intriguing, so to find out more we spoke to a psychologist who specialises in conspiracy theories, Dr Dan Jolley.
First of all, he defines a conspiracy theory as:
An attempt to explain a cause of events, usually caused by a powerful ‘other’ acting in their own interests, as opposed to an every day explanation.
And it turns out that they can actually be really dangerous. Dr Jolley also added that the perception that these theories are for ‘crazy’ people is incorrect.
According to him the rate at which conspiracy theories spread is flourishing, and there are many reasons why. The most important, he claims, comes down to our psychology.
He told UNILAD:
The world is complex, and complex things happen, and conspiracy theories make us feel better.
For example, when a plane goes missing or a princess dies in a car crash we don’t feel great.
A conspiracy theory makes us feel in control, laying blame in situations that sometimes can’t be controlled.
Dr Jolley has been exploring this field for the past five years, and has already noticed a shift in the conventional wisdom about them.
While they were once considered harmless, it is quickly becoming apparent that the negative effects of conspiracy theories can actually be quite pronounced, he explains.
This is because of the personality traits that are exacerbated by the belief in a certain theory.
I think they’re quite dangerous, all the biases that people hold are normal, but they can lead to some dangerous beliefs.
If people think that Bush did 9/11, then they mistrust the government, then they are less likely to vote.
If they don’t believe in climate change, they’re less likely to engage in green activities.
If they don’t believe in vaccinations, they won’t get them for their children.
These beliefs, while the prerogative of the person who holds them, could end up having a real negative impact on the rest of society.
Of course, the damage depends on the particular conspiracy theory, but some are more harmful than others.
Take for example the ‘Flat Earth Theory’:
The ‘Flat Earth Theory’ can lead to distrust, especially of authority. If there’s a distrust there, then you can distrust them on anything, including the moon landing.
People who believe one theory could believe multiple. If they distrust one source, they are more likely to distrust others.
It’s a distrust of experts, authority and people in power that can actually be quite dangerous.
That’s not to say that there aren’t positive aspects, namely the feeling of control or safety that is felt after an event happens.
There is also a sense of community among those who ascribe to certain conspiracy theories, that can potentially have a positive effect on people.
Dr Jolley says that it also encourages a questioning nature, which is healthy, but also adds that it’s possible to be questioning without going so far as to put all your faith in unvalidated theories.
He told us how the more insidious nature of conspiracy theories might take hold:
You don’t necessarily have to believe them at first, but it can lead to disengagement, which then allows a conspiracy theory to move in and it becomes a big cycle.
Lots of people don’t realise they have that power when they’re watching the videos on YouTube.
Once a conspiracy theory starts to make sense to someone, believers engage in something called ‘confirmation bias’. We are all guilty of this psychological habit, but those with a distrusting nature are more likely to engage in it.
Confirmation bias is something that even the most ‘intelligent‘ people are guilty of. Basically, Dr Jolley explains, if we believe the earth is flat, for example, then we deny any evidence that goes against it.
This is what makes a conspiracy theory so difficult to disprove, as people do not want to listen to evidence that contradicts whichever theory they believe in.
This ‘dangerous’ aspect can have wider manifestations, according to Dr Jolley. While ‘Fake News’ and conspiracies are different phenomena, the latter can flourish in an environment where false news is prevalent.
There is also the possibility of prejudices between communities.
Dr Jolley explains:
It can change how you see others around you. It can increase prejudices towards other people, for example believing Jewish people are involved in international affairs will inspire a distrust of Jewish people in general.
All the consequences we’ve looked into are worrisome.
After all that, next time you’re four hours deep into some crackpot YouTube ‘research’ at 3am on a Tuesday, maybe you should think twice about the information you’re consuming. And get some sleep for fuck’s sake.