The Psychology of Conspiracy Beliefs: Understanding the Appeal and Consequences

Have you heard of the Illuminati – the shadowy organisation that’s supposedly behind huge political movements across the globe? Or perhaps you’ve heard of people believing that the Earth is actually flat? The Internet is rife with conspiracy theories – and while it can be amusing to read up about them, conspiracy beliefs can have a negative impact on our minds and health too.

In this article, we look at the psychological factors that lead individuals to embrace conspiracy theories, despite how outlandish they may be. We also share the potential harm that these beliefs may have, and what we can do to strengthen our mind against conspiracies.

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Why do we believe in conspiracies?

Conspiracy theories can seem bizarre and impossible if you’re looking from the outside. However, we shouldn’t dismiss why people may believe in them. There are various reasons for why we do believe in conspiracies; and these include:

Need for meaning and significance

Our brains naturally search for a way to fill in the gaps when we’re presented with information. This is the basis for most optical illusions, where we ‘see’ something that may not be there because our brains are trying to make sense of the visual stimuli we’re presented with.

Similarly, with conspiracy theories, our brains are simply trying to organise disparate and often confusing (or even, distressing) information into a way that we can accept. Studies have found that conspiracy theories help people make sense of a confusing world, especially if they feel like events are beyond their control.

A conspiracy theory is a reason for why things may happen, no matter how improbable they may be. This can be soothing for those, who may find it difficult to accept the randomness and impassiveness of the universe – particularly if it pertains to traumatic events, like a pandemic.

Cognitive biases

Cognitive biases are a form of short-cuts that we take, when we’re processing information. These can affect the conclusions that we draw or the decisions that we make, and are the result of our brain trying to simplify the information we’ve encountered in a way we can understand.

Certain cognitive biases may make it more likely that we end up believing in conspiracies. For example: confirmation bias refers to the tendency to favour information that already aligns with beliefs or values that we hold. As such, if we’re presented with a conspiracy that affirms our current world view, we’re more likely to believe in it — regardless of whether it’s based in fact.

Group identity

As social creatures, we have a strong innate need to belong and fit in. Because of this, we tend to be influenced by the people around us — and group dynamics can play a strong role in shaping our belief systems.

Conspiracy theorists tend to find a strong community within individuals who hold the same beliefs as them. There is a strong ‘Us vs Them’ mentality — especially given how conspiracy theories tend to be more subculture, and have a slightly negative perception.

As such, in order to belong with this in-group, an individual may end up falling deeper into these conspiracy theories, to foster a stronger sense of community with their similar-minded friends. 


Researchers have found that certain types of cognitive styles and personality types may predispose someone into buying into a conspiracy theory. For example, conspiracy theorists tend to demonstrate traits like a stronger need to feel special, paranoid or suspicious thinking, and eccentricity.

That said, research in this field is still limited; and it’s definitely hasty to conclude that only certain types of people would end up believing in conspiracies. 

Harmful effects of conspiracies

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Despite how silly some conspiracy theories may sound, they can have a real-world impact on the individual as well as society. Conspiracies can affect us in these harmful ways:

On the individual

There is a certain amount of emotional toll and anxiety on the conspiracy theorists, particularly if it primes them into believing that the world is a more dangerous place than it actually is. Over a prolonged period, this can lead to a heightened level of psychological stress. 

When pushed to the extreme, this may lead to the individual committing unthinkable acts, while believing that they are actually protecting themselves or protecting society.

On society

Conspiracy theories that gain a foothold in society can erode trust in public institutions. See, for example, the backlash in certain countries against the Covid-19 vaccine; anti-vaxxers were obstinately against taking the vaccine, and this impacted the country’s ability to manage the pandemic.

Should misinformation spread too far, without any correction, conspiracies can end up splintering a community and turn people against each other. It can be dangerous to let a conspiracy go on without any factual correction – and even then, the strongest believers tend not to accept facts, even when they’re presented with them.

What can we do to alleviate this?

Building trust in reliable sources

Communication strategies for debunking conspiracies are key. For example, looking at reliable sources of information that is trusted across communities, and disseminating information through these platforms.

Targeting information campaigns may also be required, should there be specific conspiracy theories that are causing issues in the public sphere. Governing bodies would then need to tailor their education efforts, to ensure they are communicating effectively to the right individuals. This could mean working with key influencers or thought-leaders that these individuals would listen to, or conducting open dialogue sessions to better communicate with those who may believe conspiracy theories.

Increasing critical thinking education

More as a preventive measure, we should also look at how we can develop better critical thinking skills amongst the populace, so that they are able to discern between fake information and genuine facts. Educational systems need to incorporate a greater emphasis on individuality of thought and help students develop skills to evaluate information they’re being presented with.

On an individual level, we can look at reading books or reaching for resources that can help us to improve our media and scientific literacy. By equipping ourselves with such skills, we’re less likely to fall to the follies of our cognitive biases and the allure of a conspiracy theory.

Addressing underlying psychological factors

Speaking to a trained mental health expert can also be a good source of support, if you – or your loved ones – need help with dealing with conspiracies. Conspiracy theorists who feel high levels of distress or anxiety because of what they’re believing in can benefit greatly from working with a therapist or psychologist. Through their guidance, you’d be better able to manage your belief systems, and learn effective coping mechanisms to cope with these distressing beliefs.

Should you need to seek support, you can reach out to a therapist at A Space Between. Take a look through our therapist directory for our available experts, or get matched with a suitable counsellor through our client-matching service.


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