New research published in the British Journal of Psychology suggests people tend to believe conspiracy theories for the same reason they enjoy a good fantasy novel or science fiction movie. The fantastic, often convoluted, views are exciting and entertaining.
The bulk of past research has primarily focused on the negative psychological and pathological aspects of conspiratorial thinking. However, a team of social psychologists from Vrije University in Amsterdam set out to examine what positive reinforcers might facilitate conspiracy theories.
“Research stresses that conspiracy beliefs have mostly negative consequences,” study author Jan‐Willem van Prooijen and associate professor of psychology at VU Amsterdam told PsyPost. “What interested me was the question: If conspiracy thinking really is associated with only negative feelings and negative consequences, then why are so many people so irresistibly drawn to them? What is the payoff of believing in conspiracy theories?”
Researchers ultimately found that the more exciting and entertaining a conspiracy theory is, the more likely people believe them. In essence, people can become consumed by conspiracy theories for the same reason people become hardcore fans of fantasy series such as Star Wars or Star Trek. Because they’re fun.
However, unlike the average “Trekkie” at a Star Trek convention, because conspiracy theories involve real-world events, they afford believers the ability to implicitly be a part of the “adventure.”
The recent study aligns with previous research, suggesting that some of the appeal of a conspiracy theory comes from mirroring the structure of being complex, alternative reality, live-action role-playing games (LARP).
BACKGROUND: Why Do Conspiracy Theories Thrive?
The idea that tragic events can be explained as the work of powerful, sinister groups is hardly limited to recent history. Thanks to the internet and social media, people today have the unparalleled ability to share, support, or create conspiracy beliefs.
In an interview with The Debrief, Dr. Viren Swami, a professor of social psychology at Anglia Ruskin University, said the impact of conspiracy theories on the modern world today is unprecedented.
“There’s often this claim that conspiracy theories have always existed,” said Swami. “Yes, that’s sort of true. There were kind of minor conspiracy theories, [but] they didn’t influence politics in the same way that they do now. And they certainly weren’t as widespread.”
Past research has found that people endorsing conspiracy theories tend to be less educated, have weaker social networks, and generally perceive themselves as of a lower social status compared to others. Studies have also found that paranoia, psychological projection, Machiavellianism, or “illusory pattern perception” often correlates with “conspiracist ideation.”
Consequently, most research has likewise suggested that belief in conspiracy theories can be psychologically harmful or pathological. Recent events like the January 6th storming of the U.S. Capitol or Christmas Day bombing in Nashville, Tennessee, offer unfortunate examples of when conspiracist ideation can lead to tragic or deadly outcomes.
So while the bulk of research concludes that conspiratorial thinking has the most substantial support from persons already under mental duress, the willingness to believe in conspiracy theories is a bit of a paradox.
Believing that 9/11 was a government-controlled plot or that the world is controlled by a nefarious cabal of powerfully corrupt pedophiles (perhaps reptilian-aliens) only exacerbates feelings of anxiety, paranoia, or powerlessness.
Since these hypothesized and unproven ideas typically based on circular reasoning only provide negative reinforcement to believers, why do people so quickly turn to them?
Most psychologists and sociologists say the contradictory reward in conspiratorial thinking is that conspiracy theories allow people to feel a sense of power and understanding in otherwise complex and uncontrollable situations.
“If you are experiencing some form of crisis, whether personal or social, whether you’re balancing some gap in knowledge, or whether you’re experiencing something that’s quite complex and triggers quite difficult emotions, the conspiracy theory simplifies all of that and packages it quite nicely,” Dr. Swami told The Debrief.
“A lot of people need a simple argument which says, look, now my world is much more controllable. I understand what’s happening now. I understand what I can do about it,” explained Dr. Swami explained. “That, I think, is really the reason why conspiracy theories have become so popular.”
ANALYSIS: What Star Wars and Conspiracy Theories Have in Common
Investigating what positive reinforcement conspiracist ideation might provide, Dr. Jan-Willem van Prooijen and his colleagues conducted five separate studies to explore the influence entertainment value has on conspiracy theory beliefs.
In one study, 300 participants from the United Kingdom were randomly assigned to read an article that described the Notre Dame fire in Paris as a deliberate conspiracy or a second version that detailed the event as being the result of a tragic accident.
Similarly, in a second study, a sample of 301 Americans was asked to read one of two articles discussing the death of convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Epstein’s death was described as a murder carried out by a powerful hidden group fearful of his testimony in one article. In another article, Epstein’s death was described as a suicide.
500 U.S. participants read an article about an emotionally contested election in another fictional country in the third study. One version of the story contained emotionally evocative language, while another was written using detached and purposefully bland language.
In a fourth study, researchers found that out of 296 U.S. participants, persons who scored higher on a sensation-seeking assessment equally tended to endorse “organizational conspiracy theories” or “beliefs among employees that their managers secretly conspire to pursue malevolent goals.”
In the fifth and final study involving 410 U.S. participants, Dr. van Prooijen and his colleagues found that sensation seeking was statistically significant in predicting an increased belief in specific conspiracy theories, such as those surrounding the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Apollo moon landings.
Examining all five studies, researchers found participants were more likely to endorse a conspiracy theory over the official version of an event, the more interesting, entertaining, engaging, exciting, frightening, and attention-grabbing the conspiracy theory was.
“Conspiracy theories have a storyline that actually has a lot in common with entertaining works of fiction, such as a scary movie or a detective novel,” said van Prooijen. “This also explains their appeal: People find conspiracy theories entertaining, that is, interesting, exciting, and attention-grabbing narratives. This is important because our results show that the more people feel entertained by conspiracy theories, the more likely it is that they believe them.”
OUTCOME: But Star Wars Fans Never Stormed The Capitol
Study findings offer new insights into why conspiracy theories can be so appealing, demonstrating conspiracist ideation can have a psychological payoff for perceivers. However, researchers caution that the results do not predict the value one places on any particular conspiracy theory.
“Not all forms of entertainment are likely to increase belief in conspiracy theories,” explained van Prooijen. “For instance, one may find the flat earth movement really funny, but that does not mean one also buys into the notion that the earth is flat. We believe that only forms of entertainment that include a serious fascination are driving these effects, but we need more research to establish that.”
Though entertainment value may stimulate conspiracist ideation, as with all social phenomena, belief in conspiracy theories is complicated and cannot be easily explained by a single influencing factor.
“One of the things that makes it conducive for conspiracy theories to spread is a lack of political, economic, and social power among people,” said Dr. Swami. “If you lack social power, if you lack political power, you’re much more likely to believe in conspiracy theories because it gives you a sense of agency. So there are socioeconomic and political conditions that make it much more likely for people to hold false beliefs.”
Dr. Swami also points out that another significant influence in today’s climate of conspiratorial thinking comes from monological belief systems being reinforced by political leadership as a means of mobilizing their political support.
“Where in the past many conspiracy theories would have emerged organically among communities, trying to make sense of what’s happening in the world, today, the same conspiracy theories are being used in a much more top-down approach,” said Dr. Swami. “You have politicians who are engaging with conspiracy theories as a means of mobilizing their support.”
While things like banning conspiracy theory content by major online outlets like YouTube, Twitter, or Facebook can have a positive impact, Dr. Swami says because of the underlying nuanced complexities, diminishing the willingness to turn to conspiratorial thinking is no easy task. “I don’t think we’re ever really going to get rid of conspiracy theories until you get rid of the reasons why conspiracy theories emerge in the first place,” said Dr. Swami.
Researchers do hope that their recent findings can have some positive impact on how current information is shared.
“Our studies also show that sensationalizing news events (such as an election) to increase their entertainment value heightens conspiracy beliefs,” van Prooijen told PsyPost. “This, I think, entails a lesson for how news is often presented. It may be tempting to sensationalize news, as it gains higher viewer ratings. But these findings suggest that such sensationalizing may increase citizens’ tendency to believe conspiracy theories. For the benefit of us all, a boring truth is preferable to entertaining misinformation.”