Psychology & Conspiracy

Grapples with the multiple definitions of ‘conspiracy theory’. A scientifically supported narrative of the world of conspiracy theories.

Definitions of ‘Conspiracy Theory’

There are several definitions of the term ‘conspiracy theory’ floating around, both in the mainstream and in scientific literature. Let us examine a few of them here. The following is the Oxford definition: ‘a belief that some covert but influential organization is responsible for an unexplained event.’

Another, proposed by Van der Linder, is ‘A conspiracy theory purports that some covert and powerful individual(s), organization(s) or group(s) are intentionally plotting to accomplish some sinister goal’

A definition used is another study ‘Conspiracy theories can be treated as both rational narratives of the world as well as outcomes of underlying maladaptive traits’.

And yet, another definition commonly encountered in relevant literature. ‘A conspiracy theory usually refers to a subset of false narratives in which the ultimate cause of an event is believed to be due to a malevolent plot by multiple actors working together’.

The Problem of Multiple Definitions

The lack of consensus on a clear definition seems problematic. Upon closer inspection you will see that there is nothing in the former three definitions that imply that the theory is intrinsically false, only that it is alternative and involves conspiring forces.

The latter definition is closer to the implication of the falsehood of such theories, but falls short by using the word ‘usually’. This is problematic for the coherent categorization of alternative or anti-establishment theories as true or false. It lacks conscientiousness and does not provide us with a clear framework on which to operate, when investigating the causes, correlations and effects of the belief in these theories. It enables us to categorize any alternative-to-mainstream theory, that involves conspiring parties as a ‘conspiracy theory’. Which, although not explicitly stated in the definition, is generally presumed to be false.  

Did Hitler not conspire against the Jewish people? Was Julius Caeser not conspired against by the group of senators that eventually murdered him? Does believing in these historical events make me a conspiracy theorist?  I hope this is enough to illustrate the convoluted nature of a having multiple definitions for a word that is so frequently used in both mainstream and science.

This Review

For the pragmatic purpose of being able to continue with my narrative, to be able to justifiably include results from various studies, I will set the definition as ‘an alternative, unpopular view involving the covert conspiracy of influential forces’.

However, I would like it to be made clear that I am not making any assumptions about whether such theories are true or false. There is an overwhelming amount of ‘conspiracy theories’, some far more difficult to swallow than others. I have not addressed them and falsified them one by one, nor do I believe, has anybody. The remainder of this post is simply to review some surrounding factors involving conspiracy theories.

I will review some individual (internal) and environmental (external) factors that predict the belief in such theories, alongside the effects of conspiracist ideation on a societal and individual level.

What causes belief in conspiracy theories?

Results from a representative survey in the U.S reported that half of the American public believes in at least one conspiracy theory. This raises concern, considering it’s correlation with negative health and psychological outcomes.

Social unrest, uncertainty and the occurrence of very consequential events results in an increase in conspiratorial thinking. This is reflected by the serious rise in conspiratorial ideation that has occurred in parallel with the Covid-19 pandemic.  Some researchers have suggested that this is a type of defensive response to a complex problem. This perspective states that conspiracy theories help to regulate levels of acute stress prescribing an all-encompassing explanation for an otherwise very complicated problem. It does this by reinstalling the sense of order, control and predictability, after exposure to an external threat.

Conspiracy and personality

There are several individual factors that predict the belief in conspiracy theories. Studies have shown that people with a higher level of education, socioeconomic status and analytical thinking are less likely to endorse such theories. They also suggest that individuals who are mistrustful and cynical by nature tend to engage more in conspiratorial thinking. This brings me to an interesting personality type.

The Schizotypal Personality

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The bells of familiarity will ring for many of us when we hear about a character, more likely male, that is somewhat detached from society and social relationships. This character is often considered a loner, and usually has very strange supernatural and superstitious beliefs. They are often paranoid about the intentions and loyalty of other people, even those who are presumably close friends of family members.

Such individuals often endorse the existence of a magical realm and have strange perceptual experiences accompanying their strange beliefs. They likely experience a good deal of social anxiety, and sometimes lack the appropriate emotional responses, often appearing dull to others. They are not loners because they do not have social contacts, rather they isolate themselves by choice, feeling that nobody understands them. This is the Schizotypal personality.

Due to its maladaptive nature, it is considered a disorder, and resides on the lower end of the schizophrenic spectrum. It turns out that the Schizotypal personality is a very strong predictor of conspiratorial thinking, which makes sense when considering their intrinsically mistrusting nature.

In my opinion, it is not the role of mental health professionals to tell others whether their philosophical world view is right or wrong, and none of us can say with full certainty whether there are ‘supernatural’ elements to our world. This will remain true as long as we do not know everything about the universe. However, what is helpful, is aiding people in understanding what elements of their cognitions are resulting in their own suffering, and helping people make informed choices about how to orient their lives.

Consequences of Conspiracist Ideation

Although we cannot say whether the long list of all conspiracy theories out there are true or false, we can measure what effect the have on society.

We know that exposure to conspiracy theories decreases willingness to engage in politics and reduces prosocial behaviour, namely, reducing one’s carbon footprint. It also predicts the tendency and willingness to engage in everyday crime. Furthermore, it is associated with higher levels of anxiety.

A Suggested Antidote to False Beliefs

Don’t just believe everything you read at face value. Know the difference between a reliable source and an illegitimate source. Be willing to listen to reason.


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Author: Naiyie Lamb

Naiyie is a writer and editor with a background in psychology, eastern philosophy, and digital marketing. Her creative experience includes writing custom blogs, press releases, and memoirs.

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