Why do people believe in conspiracy theories? A new study could have the answers

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Lauren Geall
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Understanding why people believe in conspiracy theories can be tricky – but a new study sheds light on one of the possible reasons why.

From the idea that the Covid-19 vaccine is actually a microchip in disguise (it isn’t) to claims that 5G caused the virus to emerge in the first place (it didn’t), the coronavirus pandemic has been the subject of multiple conspiracy theories since it first began – many of which have led to negative outcomes, both for those who believe them and society in general. 

But what is it that makes people subscribe to these (frankly outlandish) narratives?

As Stylist’s Kayleigh Dray previously explained, one of the most commonly accepted explanations is that conspiracy theories provide a sense of comfort and safety to those who feel powerless against an unknown or unseen threat.  

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It’s for this reason why conspiracy theories often gain support or emerge more frequently during times of crisis – when people feel anxious and out of control, falling back on a conspiracy theory, and taking action in response to that theory (for example, protesting against the installation of 5G masts) can help them reclaim a sense of agency.

However, new research suggests this isn’t the only reason why some people believe in these kinds of theories. According to the study, conducted by Jan-Willem van Prooijen and his team at the Free University Amsterdam and published in the British Journal of Psychology, conspiracy theories elicit a more intense emotional reaction than the truth (aka, they’re more ‘entertaining’) – and this reaction could encourage more people to believe in them.  

Coronavirus vaccine illustration
Conspiracy theories have run rife during the pandemic.

To find out more about the ‘entertainment value’ of conspiracy theories, and how this encourages people to believe them, the team started by asking a group of participants to read either a conspirational or non-conspiratorial account of two events: the Notre Dame fire, or the death of Jeffrey Epstein

In both cases, the results were clear: not only did reading the conspiratorial texts elicit “stronger entertainment appraisals and intense emotions,” but those who read them were also more likely to believe there was a conspiracy at play in those two events compared to those who didn’t. 

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Further tasks given to the participants confirmed these results, and showed that those who have the “sensation-seeking” trait – people who seek out and enjoy thrills and exciting experiences – are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories for this reason.

While this study doesn’t exactly give us a framework through which to tackle conspiracy theories, it’s interesting to understand how people come to believe these kinds of stories. If anything, it’s a reminder that, while the truth may sometimes sound ‘boring’, it’s the most important tool we have to fight misinformation and fake news – something we’ll need to continue to do as the pandemic goes on. 

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time.