Motivation and emotion/Book/2020/Conspiracy theory motivation

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Conspiracy theory motivation:
What motivates people to believe in conspiracy theories?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Diana, Princess of Wales with sons William and Harry.[Explain how this image is relevant to the chapter]

This book chapter focuses on those who are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories and what motivates those into believing them. Through questionnaires it was discovered what types of people were more likely to believe and actively engage in conspiracy theories. The focus of this book chapter was to discover what type of events needed to take place in order to evolve into a conspiracy theory. Case studies, including ones about the COVID-19 pandemic, were included in this chapter to shed light on situations that conspiracy theories are based off.

What is a conspiracy theory?[edit | edit source]

In order for an event to become a conspiracy theory, it requires the search for an explanation as to why an event occurred and/or who is responsible. The parties responsible for such deceptions usually include groups with ill intentions or groups more powerful in nature. Belief in conspiracy theories allows for individuals to hold onto a belief in times of uncertainty and contradictory environments. (Uscinski, J.E. 2018). Often people become attached to a conspiracy theory if a simple explanation is given to a powerful moment. The Kennedy assassination, walking on the moon and 9/11 sparked much outcry between conspiracy theorists and while in these cases there are established and long held explanations many people don't accept them and believe a more powerful cause explains these event's.

The prevalence of those who believe in conspiracy theory is ever growing and larger than many people realise (van Prooijen & Douglas, 2018). One example of this was Donald's Trump's win in the US presidential election 2020. Trump's campaign was surrounded by a flurry of controversy and debate. The win came as a surprise to many as his campaign was centred around a number conspiracy theories in order to target a specific demographic of voter. These theories were proven to be untrue and included 'climate change is a hoax', 'Barack Obama was not a United States citizen' and that 'vaccines cause autism' (van Prooijen & Douglas, 2018).

Belief in conspiracy theories includes three characteristics[factual?]
  1. Epistemic
    • Understanding our environment
  2. Existential
    • Being in control of our environment
  3. Social
    • Maintaining positive image

What motivates people to believe in conspiracy theories?[edit | edit source]

Belief in conspiracy theories is driven by motives that can be characterised as epistemic (understanding one’s environment), existential (being safe and in control of one’s environment), and social (maintaining a positive image of the self and the social group).

Researchers have described believers of conspiracy theories to have a particular cognitive style, or way of thinking[factual?]. This is due to the correlations found when researching why belief in conspiracy occurs[factual?]. Conspiracy theory belief, supernatural/paranormal belief, superstitious belief, delusional ideation are generally grouped together when describing a cognitive style for someone who believes in conspiracy theory (Dagnall et al., 2015).

Swami et al. (2011) conducted two studies and discovered correlations between conspiracist ideation and individual psychological factors, where belief in one conspiracy theory lead to the belief of others. Results also showed that individuals who believe in conspiracy theories also displayed support for democratic principles, had negative views about others and had high political cynicism. In their second study, an entirely fictitious conspiracy theory was created to test whether believers in conspiracy theory could believe something completely fabricated. As predicted, the results support the theory that one is more likely to believe a fabricated story when an individual already believes in a conspiracy theory (Swami., et all, 2011).

Epistemic theory[edit | edit source]

Epistemic theory involves finding a cause or an explanation in order for an individual to logically understand the environment around them (van Prooijen & Douglas, 2018). This type of reasoning is usually applied when there are gaps in information, allowing for confusion and becoming uncertain when unexplainable things or coincidences occur[factual?]. Epistemic theory allows an individual to believe in conspiracy theories, due to the lack of information readily available {fact}}. This enables the belief that there is more information being hidden to the public by a higher power, for example, the government (Douglas, Sutton & Cichocka, 2017). [for example?]

  • Epistemic responsibility

Over the last 200 plus years, researchers have looked into the way people think, how it is we come to a conclusion and why some opinions are ingrained in us and others, are a little more flexible. Vaccinations are a topic which has had conspiracy theories created around it, after one journal article found a link between autism and being vaccinated. Even though the article was later re-tested for validity and discredited (Eggertson, 2010), some individuals have continued to believe in this otherwise disproven research.

There are useful ways in which individuals think which encourages that a belief, especially a strong belief has the ability to cause harm and therefore, carries responsibility with it. This is due to the inability of having a personal belief that stays wholly with someone, even when holding a conversation and stating that something may be your personal belief, verbalising it, spreads it. Furthermore, even not verbalising it, having belief is part of what makes each person unique, and therefore influences our behaviours and actions and how someone is perceived by others, in this way your beliefs will subtly impact another (Valuewalk, 2016).

Existential motives[edit | edit source]

Research shows that people are more likely to believe in conspiracy theory when they feel they lack power and become anxious in their environment[factual?]. Because conspiracy theories rely on the belief that important outcomes are in the control of more powerful people with malevolent intentions. It is likely that believers in conspiracy theories can be persuaded by pro conspiracy material without being aware of it[explain?] (Douglas, Sutton & Cichocka, 2017).

  • Existential Threats

There is a causal effect found in empirical research regarding existential threat and its link to the belief of conspiracy theories[factual?]. Anxiety and uncertainty will often drive a perceived understanding to believing in conspiracies, even when the event has since passed. As with the assassination of JFK and 9/11 terrorist attacks, large groups still endorse such beliefs. Studies have also found that individuals are more likely to believe an event as a conspiracy if the end result is out of their control[factual?]. For example, while scenario testing if a high profile figure dies in a car crash, over surviving a car crash[grammar?]. This supports the notion that beliefs in conspiracy theories are higher when an event is perceived as a higher threat, such as death, and affects society on a larger scale (van Prooijen, 2020).

Social motives[edit | edit source]

Due to an individual's need to belong, conspiracy theory believers will usually group together[factual?]. If not for any other reason than to maintain a positive self-image among peers. In this case, individuals seek a secure common group with others who share similar beliefs. Conspiracy theorists suggest that the coming together of common conspiracy theory believers is a way of validating their belief with others who agree[factual?]. Additionally, it allows conspiracy theorists to shift blame onto those in power (Douglas, Sutton & Cichocka, 2017).

  • Personal motives

Although social motives help individuals belong and become part of a group who share similar beliefs[grammar?]. There is a lot to be said if believing in conspiracy theories really fills that void of individuals feeling fulfilled and no longer alienated. Due to the nature of conspiracy theories usually involving a high power such as a government, there is a flow on effect that creates further disbelief and trust in scientists and politicians. This increases the lack of understanding and control that would have originally swayed an individual to begin believing in conspiracy theories to begin with. The research also suggest that a growing number of conspiracy believers will continue to feel frustrated and continue to make individuals feel like undervalued members of society (Douglas, Sutton & Cichocka, 2017).

Who is motivated to believe in conspiracy theories?[edit | edit source]

Darwin et al., (2011) research concluded that the incorporation of schizotypy, paranoid ideation and conspiracy belief were found to be the best fit model that support links between processes of an individuals' personality and conspiracy theories.

Conspiracy theory testing[edit | edit source]

The Conspiracy Theory Questionnaire (CTQ) assess the belief in conspiracy theories. It contains 38 items measured using a 10 point likert scale. The items ask question such as 'there are specialised government services who attempt to silence UFO witnesses'. Although the questionnaire is not published, it was used in combination with the schizotypal personality disorder test (SPD) and the paranoid ideation scale (PIS) and demonstrated a high internal consistency during Darwin et al research.

Schizotypy testing[edit | edit source]

The study of schizotypal personality disorder (SPD) as well as schizotypy in non-clinical populations is both challenging and understudied. SPD is hard to recognise, often misdiagnosed and can be hard to treat. SPD can present itself in schizophrenia phenotypes and can assist in the treatment of related personality or psychotic illnesses. Originally introduced in the DSM 3, and remaining unchanged throughout the DSM-5, the diagnosis of SPD consists of ideas of reference, usual[spelling?] perceptual experiences and bodily illusions, odd beliefs or magical thinking, odd speech and thinking, suspiciousness or paranoid ideation, behaviour or appearance that is odd, eccentric or peculiar, inappropriate or constricted affects, excessive social anxiety to those other than close relatives, small number of close friends. Out of the nine criteria, five are required for a diagnosis of SPD. (Rosell et al., 2014)

The current instrument for screening schizotypal personality disorder is the Schizotypal Personality Questionnaire-Brief (SPQ-B). The SPQ-B is a shortened version of the original 74 items SPQ which is easily administered and has 22 questions (answered by yes or no). It examines schizotypal personality disorder, or dimensional schizotypy in non-clinical samples or environments. (Raine & Benishay, 1995)

Paranoid ideation testing[edit | edit source]

Research shows that belief in conspiracy theories has various behavioural and personal attributions to consider. Negative intentions, malevolent activities and distrust in government agencies are commonly known to be displayed by conspiracists[factual?]. When an individual feels that they are faced with a possible threat, the adaptive behaviour often results in paranoid anxiety[factual?]. This behaviour can be triggered by feelings of deception, feelings of isolation from internal groups as well external groups and an overall feeling of being threatened[factual?]. The [what?] findings demonstrated that their sample experienced suspicious thoughts weekly by between 30% and 40%. The figures also demonstrated a hierarchy of paranoia, based on the most common types of suspicious thoughts experienced by the sample. As the severity of a possible harm increases, the less common is the thought[explain?]. Nevertheless, suspiciousness over organised harm and conspiracy was at the top of the [what?] hierarchy.

The Paranoid ideation Scale (PIS) has 20 items where responses are recorded on a 5 item likert scale. It was originally designed to assess paranoid thoughts in college students. The overall discussion around this scale focuses on paranoid characteristics and cognitions of everyday thought. (Freeman et al., 2005)

Case study[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

COVID-19 pandemic[edit | edit source]

While there is no shortage of conspiracy theories[grammar?]. It is important to acknowledge a topic which has affected the general population on a mass scale.

In early 2020, nothing prepared the world for the SARS-CoV-2 or what is more commonly known as COVID-19 or coronavirus pandemic. Like the Spanish influenza, SARS and Ebola, COVID-19 spread quietly and quickly.

Initially, the theories started with the belief that the virus was a bio-engineered virus[factual?]. The argument that the virus had been artificially created was put to rest at the hands of an article by Nature medicine explaining that COVID-19 mostly resembled a virus closely related to bats[factual?]. At the time very little study had been made on the virus as it was not believed to be harmful to humans. (Andersen et al., 2020)

Similarly, the virus was later accused of being a product from China that would be used as a biological weapon[factual?]. After further research, this theory was debunked by the confirmation that biological weapons programs had failed in most countries and therefore the virus cannot be considered as genetically engineered. (Taylor, 2020)

The pandemic has lead to groups of people demonstrating their existential motives, or belief that a greater power is attempting to control their environment[factual?]. Research has shown how motives change in non compliance groups depending on who the information source is[factual?]. In situations where health precautions are encouraged, conspiracy believers are less likely to comply if the information is coming from someone with authority, such as the government[factual?]. However, they are more likely to be health cautious, and avoid things like social gatherings if the information is delivered by a non-government authority. This type of behaviour is referred to as counter-normative and displays itself in actions such as extremist protesting. This research contributes to a better understanding of the risks and behaviours of individuals more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, as well as how to best respond for the continuation of the pandemic. (Marinthe et al., 2020)

In order to understand COVID-19 discussions and topics online, (Jiang et al., 2020) reviewed hashtag usage in the United States (US) with respect to temporal and geospatial dimensions. The views and opinions of users were also studied to identify the characteristics of each polarising group. It's no surprise that the response and messaging provided by their leaders of the US were going to be a topic of interest, as 2020 is an election year. The findings demonstrate a clear attitude divide in the discussions being had online, where states considered more conservative supporting their current president and were found to have aversions to actions promoting health. In comparison, states considered more liberal were critical of [missing something?] in their political views. This also suggests that liberal supporters are more likely to promote health awareness and make conscious decisions to minimise or prevent the spread. (Jiang et al., 2020)

Similarly, research by Uscinski et al uncovered that individuals supporting the current president, were also found to be predisposition[grammar?] to conspiracist thoughts. The conspiracy theories behind COVID-19 are interesting in that they cover both belief and disbelief in the virus. Where there is psychological predisposition to deny authoritative information and partisan views on a topic, there are also strong motivations to believe in conspiracy theories. Once an individual becomes in denial[awkward expression?], they will also demonstrate high levels of conspiracy thinking[factual?]. This unfortunately, makes it even more difficult for an individual to be persuaded to change their mind. This is due to the already existing distrust in authoritative figures (as most conspiracist believe they have malevolent motives)[factual?].

Moreover, conspiracy thinking and predispositions are motivated by the product of epistemic, existential and social motivations as previously stated. However, predispositions can be limited if not minimised by providing a heightened sense of control as well as producing evidence based information to reduce uncertainty, therefore portraying a positive image of the self-and/or group.

An example of this was demonstrated during early 2020 when current President, Donald Trump made misinformed references that COVID-19 was linked to the common flu in terms of the level of threat it had on the population[factual?]. Due to partisan views, and the research explaining how certain groups of people are more likely to follow this belief, Trumps[grammar?] supporters displayed taking the pandemic less-seriously[factual?]. However, if spreading conspiracy theories as part of an election campaign to like-minded groups is a strategy, there is hope for reducing conspiracy theory belief by limiting the misinformation circulating during an event. (Uscinski et al., 2020)

Due to the vast media coverage around the topic, there are many mediums for errors and miscommunication depending on the news source. Because conspiracy theories initiate from a lack of reason or cause, or rather a search for cause and effect the COVID-19 pandemic is a classic place for theories to be created.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

A conspiracy theory evolves after a significant event occurs, usually perceived as being out of the general populations[grammar?] control. Often the blame will sit with with an external group, who is believed to have malevolent intentions. What attracts others to believe in conspiracy theories is often when a simple explanation cannot be given to a moment or event. There is a process in which this occurs, involving any three or possibly all three epistemic (understanding our environment) ,existential (being in control go out environment) and social (maintaining positive image) motives.

There is support in the literature to test for personality traits, who would determine if someone is more likely to believe in conspiracy theories[grammar?][factual?]. These included schizotypy and paranoid ideation, which include questioning over suspicious behaviour. However, there is also support that belief in conspiracy theory, on some level affects most people[factual?].

The case study in this chapter,[grammar?] discusses the early messaging that was used during the COVID-19 pandemic and how it effected[grammar?] the United States in terms of health, belief in health and what actions people chose to take. Moreover, disproving a conspiracy theory such that COVID-19 was created as a bio weapon by the Chinese government can make people feel even more untrusting and sceptical.

A practical way for an individual to determine their beliefs, [grammar?] is by educating themselves about a topic using multiple credible sources. One source of information can reek havoc in beliefs and as previous cited, believing in one conspiracy theory will often lead to the belief of others. It is also important not [missing something?] push beliefs onto others, whether it be verbal or not, as our beliefs shape who we are as individuals, and therefore can be picked up my others.

See also[edit | edit source]

  1. Conspiracy theory criticism (Wikiversity)
  2. Psychometric instrument development (Wikiversity)
  3. Pandemic flu (Wikiversity)

Popular conspiracy theories:

  1. The death of princess Diana, Princess of Wales
  2. Moon landing hoax
  3. 9/11 conspiracy
  4. [[wikipedia:Assassination_of_John_F._Kennedy#Conspiracy_theories|The assasination[spelling?] of John. F Kennedy]]
  5. Area 51
  6. List of conspiracy theories

References[edit | edit source]

Andersen, K., Rambaut, A., Lipkin, W., Holmes, E., & Garry, R. (2020). The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2. Nature Medicine, 26(4), 450-452.

Darwin, H., Neave, N., & Holmes, J. (2011). Belief in conspiracy theories. The role of paranormal belief, paranoid ideation and schizotypy. Personality And Individual Differences, 50(8), 1289-1293.

Douglas, K., Sutton, R., & Cichocka, A. (2017). The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories. Current Directions In Psychological Science, 26(6), 538-542. https://doi:10.1177/0963721417718261

Eggertson, L. (2010, February 8). Lancet retracts 12-year-old article linking autism to MMR vaccines. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 182(4), E199–E200.

Freeman, D., Garety, P., Bebbington, P., Smith, B., Rollinson, R., & Fowler, D. et al. (2005). Psychological investigation of the structure of paranoia in a non-clinical population. British Journal Of Psychiatry, 186(5), 427-435.

Jiang, J., Chen, E., Yan, S., Lerman, K., & Ferrara, E. (2020). Political polarization drives online conversations about COVID ‐19 in the United States. Human Behavior And Emerging Technologies, 2(3), 200-211.

Marinthe, G., Brown, G., Delouvée, S., & Jolley, D. (2020). Looking out for myself: Exploring the relationship between conspiracy mentality, perceived personal risk, and COVID‐19 prevention measures. British Journal Of Health Psychology.

Raine, A., & Benishay, D. (1995). The SPQ-B: A brief screening instrument for schizotypal personality disorder. Journal of Personality Disorders, 9(4), 346-355.

Rosell, D., Futterman, S., McMaster, A., & Siever, L. (2014). Schizotypal personality disorder: A current review. Current Psychiatry Reports, 16(7).

Swami, V., Coles, R., Stieger, S., Pietschnig, J., Furnham, A., Rehim, S., & Voracek, M. (2011). Conspiracist ideation in britain and austria: Evidence of a monological belief system and associations between individual psychological differences and real-world and fictitious conspiracy theories. British Journal of Psychology, 102(3), 443-463.

Taylor, A. (2020). Experts debunk fringe theory linking China’s coronavirus to weapons research. The Washington Post, p. 1. Retrieved 14 October 2020, from

Uscinski, J.E. 2018, “The Study of Conspiracy Theories [Special Issue]”, Argumenta 3, 2, 233-245.

van Prooijen, J. (2020). An existential threat model of conspiracy theories. European Psychologist, 25(1), 16–25.

van Prooijen, J., & Douglas, K. (2018). Belief in conspiracy theories: Basic principles of an emerging research domain. European Journal of Social Psychology, 48(7), 897-908.

Uscinski, J., Enders, A., Klofstad, C., Seelig, M., Funchion, J., & Everett, C. et al. (2020). Why do people believe COVID-19 conspiracy theories?. Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review.

ValueWalk: Anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theories & epistemic responsibility (2016).Chatham: Newstex. Retrieved from