By Janya Budaraju
When you hear the phrase ‘conspiracy theory,’ maybe you envision a middle-aged, balding man still living in his parents’ basement, posting angry comments on news articles and Facebook posts. Or perhaps you recall particularly bizarre theories, such as the illuminati or the belief that the Earth is flat. You likely picture ridiculous and laughable concepts, far removed from your daily life.
But in truth, exactly how far removed are they? According to a recent poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University, 63 percent of registered American voters believe in at least one conspiracy theory. But with everything that we know about science and logic, how could it be possible that most people believe in a conspiracy theory?
What is a conspiracy theory?
Political scientists Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent from the University of Miami use four characteristics to determine if a belief is a conspiracy theory.
First, the belief must center around a group — whether it’s government officials, Big Pharma or anonymous hackers. Second, the group must be acting or attempting to act in secret. Third, the group must be attempting to change an institution, conceal some truth or gain power. Finally, the group must be somehow acting against the common good, harming the larger population in some way.
Neuroscientist Shankar Vedantam furthers that a theory becomes a conspiracy when supporters continue to believe it regardless of facts or evidence that disprove or weaken it. In order to continue to support their theory, theorists often consider evidence that disproves the theory to be part of the coverup or conspiracy.
A Look at the Causes
According to a research paper published by psychologist Karen Douglas and her colleagues in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, a few reasons lead people to believe in conspiracy theories. First, people are fueled by their need for certainty and knowledge.
It’s natural for people to question aspects of their daily lives, even an intrinsic part of human nature. And it’s equally natural for people to seek answers to these questions. The problem arises when the answers aren’t based on reality or facts — instead, individuals often create or believe answers that support how they already view the world, according to Douglas.
A second large factor in believing conspiracies is the desire to feel in control of a situation. When a situation feels insurmountable or threatening, believing in a conspiracy theory can help an individual feel more in control. One example is climate change — if someone acknowledges its existence, they would need to accept the negative consequences worldwide and attempt to adapt their own lifestyle to minimize their impact. However, if they believe that it is falsified, then they don’t have to take any action or feel out of control — key motivators to believing such a theory.
This is corroborated by research from psychology professor Jan-Willem van Prooijen at VU University Amsterdam. Prooijen conducted a study in which he split 119 participants into two groups. He instructed one group to reflect and write down times they had felt in control of a situation and the other to do the same with times when they didn’t feel in control. When presented with a situation regarding a city council, the group that felt in control was significantly less likely to believe conspiracy theories about the council than the group that felt out of control.
Finally, people believe in conspiracy theories in order to increase their own self-image. A person who believes in a conspiracy often considers themselves to be more intelligent or aware of the world around them due to their ‘unique’ or ‘exclusive’ knowledge. Buying into a theory could help someone feel more knowledgeable than the rest of the world around them.
Biology teacher Pooya Hajjarian furthers that misinformation can be a factor in believing conspiracy theories.
“I think having an idea about something but not knowing the facts is a big contributor,” Hajjarian said.
History teacher Scott Victorine furthers that biased or questionable sources can fuel conspiracy theories.
“I feel a lot of times with conspiracy theorists, the sources are not always valid or reputable,” Victorine said. “You’ve got to consider where the information came from and how it is being used and interpreted.”
Impacts & Consequences
To some, conspiracy theories can seem silly and inconsequential — perhaps something to laugh about when it passes through the news, but nothing that would create significant impact. In fact, Victorine explains that there can be positive aspects of conspiracy theories.
“As a teacher, if it gets people researching or looking into things more than they otherwise would that’s a good thing,” Victorine said. “It’s only when people take them too seriously or that they take them to heart that it becomes an issue.”
Yet often, they may extend further than that, having real world consequences that may or may not be visible.
“I think sometimes conspiracy theories could just be for people to think about,” Hajjarian said. “But I think that they can cause a lot of misinformation.”
A study of 168 undergraduate and post-graduate students at a British university conducted by researchers Karen Douglas and Daniel Jolley shows more tangible results of conspiracies. The study revealed that individuals who believe conspiracies may not be as politically involved as those who don’t believe them. In fact, it found that people exposed to common conspiracy theories were less likely to vote, donate, or overall participate in local politics. Douglas and Jolley theorize that having exposure to anti-government conspiracies leads to the notion that one’s political actions will not make an impact, decreasing the motivation to stay politically engaged.
The impacts also extend to students at MVHS.
“My parents are always hesitant each year to get me vaccinated because of all the theories and news about vaccines having dangerous side effects,” an anonymous student said. “It’s stressful for all of us because I know that there aren’t any harmful side effects, but they aren’t sure, so it’s a struggle to convince them.”
Hajjarian believes that a harmful aspect of conspiracy theories is the misinformation they can cause.
“I think anytime you take something and you dismiss all the scientific facts and present it as something else,” Hajjarian said, “it’s false information and it’s dangerous.”