Conspiracy Theories: Research On Why People Believe Them

Conspiracy Theories: Research On Why People Believe Them

conspiracy theories

Over the past few years, the prevalence of conspiracy theories has spun out of control thanks to the ease of sharing false information through social media and efforts from several quarters to promote anti-intellectualism.

Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy theories are speculation and explanatory beliefs of events or systems whereby multiple actors are assumed to secretly conspire to pursue and achieve malicious goals.

People who accept it as truth tend to make harmful decisions that negatively impact both themselves and other people. For example, there are many conspiracy theories about the origin of COVID-19, such as the idea that it was created in a lab for biological warfare and there is a conspiracy between world governments to hide the fact, as it is an attempt by governments to control the masses. This has led many citizens to ignore protective health guidelines from public health officials since they are supposedly “in on the conspiracy”. As a result, COVID-19 is still devastating large swathes of populations because conspiracy theorists refuse the vaccines.

…people who accept conspiracy theories as truth tend to make harmful decisions that negatively impact both themselves and other people


Negative characteristics of conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories have been found to have strong relationships with:

  • Refusal of healthcare
  • Climate change denialism
  • Conflict between social groups, based on negative beliefs about one another
  • Higher crime rates
  • More antisocial behaviour
  • Negative emotions like
    • anxiety
    • self-uncertainty
    • powerlessness
    • a lack of control or uncontrollability

These negative effects however, often spread and have a knock on effect on other people in their communities.

Why believe?

A core question is, given the impact of conspiracy theories, why are they so readily accepted?
There appears to be a variety of influences related to thinking and how people regulate their emotions. Emotional intensity, or the degree to which people experience positive and negative emotions, appears to play a role people’s responses to explanations. For example, when some people experience anxiety, uncertainty and powerlessness, they frequently gravitate towards premature sense-making in order to manage the intensity of their feelings. Latching onto any explanation they can find, including conspiracies, to explain why something stressful is happening may give temporary comfort, even if the long-term effects are still negative.
Further, it has also been found that some people seek out experiences that increase anxiety and uncertainty. Believing conspiracy theories that portray the world as more dangerous is appealing, if you thrive on risk-taking. This form of sensation-seeking is often based on intentionally trying to create and increase negative feelings, because the stimulation is exciting and entertaining. Horror movie fans are examples of high sensation-seekers; they regularly scare themselves and increase anxiety levels to experience more stimulation.

Whilst these theories cause measurably harmful effects, for some they may also provide psychological benefits, like entertainment value.

Why believe conspiracy theory

Previous research

Previous research looking at reasons why people believe conspiracy theories and negative effects has found that:

  • Societal crisis situations significantly increased the rates of acceptance of conspiracy theories throughout history.
  • Events that are more emotionally impactful, especially negatively, significantly   increase conspiracy beliefs in populations.
  • Investing in conspiracy beliefs is associated with boredom.
  • Any information that is attention-grabbing and captivating has an increased chance of being accepted as truth.
  • Conspiracy beliefs are strongly associated with decreased analytical and critical thinking and an increased dependence on emotional reasoning.
  • Conspiracy theories promote harmful behaviours, like vaccine refusals, and a decreased effort to preserve the environment and practise sustainability.

A new study

A new study by researchers from VU Amsterdam and the Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement in the Netherlands has looked at why people choose to believe conspiracy theories, since believing them has measurable consequences.


The study found that:

  1. People tend to believe and invest emotionally in conspiracy theories more when they provide psychological benefits such as entertainment value.
  2. The presence of intense emotional experiences predicts the acceptance of conspiracy beliefs.
  3. Both negative and positive emotions can increase conspiracy beliefs. 
  4. People with higher sensation-seeking tendencies tend to be more receptive to conspiracy theories.
  5. People who practise sensation-seeking more often associate entertainment with conspiracy theories.
  6. Reduced levels of critical and analytical thinking also predicts conspiracy theory beliefs


van Prooijen, J. W., Ligthart, J., Rosema, S., & Xu, Y. (2021). The entertainment value of conspiracy theories. British Journal of Psychology.

Conspiracy theories: what the research says about why people believe them


Disclaimer: This is a research review, expert interpretation and briefing. As such it contains other studies, expert comment and practitioner advice. It is not a copy of the original study – which is referenced. The original study should be consulted and referenced in all cases. This research briefing is for informational and educational purposes only. We do not accept any liability for the use to which this review and briefing is put or for it or the research accuracy, reliability or validity. This briefing as an original work in its own right and is copyright © Oxcognita LLC 2024. Any use made of this briefing is entirely at your own risk.

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