Conspiracy theories flourish in times of crisis. From the great fire of Rome in A.D. 64 to the plague outbreaks in 1349, and the recent Coronavirus pandemic—history is full of examples where people explained significant social or political events through alleged conspiracies, and scapegoated certain social groups or individuals in this process.

A conspiracy is a secret plot by powerful people, the alleged conspirators. These conspirators pursue their interests regardless of the consequences for others or society as a whole, which is why conspiracies tend to have harmful consequences for the general public. A conspiracy belief is the conviction that a conspiracy has taken (or is currently taking) place. Well-known examples are the belief that Bill Gates is using the Coronavirus vaccines to gain control over the world population, or that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were an inside job by the U.S. government.

And yes, you might wonder—actual conspiracies do happen in the world. Consider for example the Volkswagen emissions scandal: a secret plan by a powerful group that had harmful consequences for society. Or, arguably, the systematic covering up of sexual misconduct in the Catholic church. These 'real' conspiracies differ from more implausible conspiracy theories in that they involve different actors with different aims and goals, and are restricted to a limited amount of people, events, and institutions. In contrast to implausible conspiracy theories, 'real' conspiracies are less overarching, and more limited by time and geography. They also tend to become uncovered by official means of investigation.

Why Do People Believe in Conspiracy Theories?

Obviously, some people do, even when the theories appear implausible and there is no convincing evidence to support them. This question has kept researchers busy for many years. Social psychological research so far suggests that fundamental needs for security and certainty play an important role in the adoption of conspiracy beliefs. While official explanations for events like the pandemic are often complex and incomplete, conspiracy theories offer seemingly simple answers that leave no questions open. On top of that, conspiracy beliefs allow a person to brush off any counter-evidence very easily: If anyone says something against the theory, well, then that person must be in on it, too!

These characteristics of conspiracy beliefs have sparked the idea that they may be especially appealing to people who do not deal well with uncertainty, a proposition that has been supported by research. Conspiracy beliefs have an additional feature that makes them attractive, particularly to individuals who strive to feel safe and in control: Since conspiracy theories posit that the world is controlled by a small group of powerful people, they imply that the world is, in fact, controllable. Such a worldview may be more comforting than believing in a world where nobody is in control, and bad things happen just by accident.

But Do Conspiracy Beliefs Actually 'Work'?

Can they be beneficial in the sense that they make people feel safer, less anxious, and less distressed by uncertainty? This is the question that my coworkers and I set out to answer at the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic. We conducted two studies that asked the same people several times, over a span of time, about the extent to which they (a) experienced a range of anxiety symptoms, (b) felt distressed by uncertainty ("uncertainty aversion"), (c) felt insecure and in danger ("existential threat"), and (d) believed in conspiracies (for example, by asking their agreement with statements like "I believe that events that at first glance seem unrelated are often the result of secret activities").

Would changes in conspiracy beliefs be followed by changes in anxiety, uncertainty aversion, and existential threat at a later time point? If conspiracy beliefs were actually beneficial for people, then one would expect increases in conspiracy beliefs to be followed by decreases in these undesirable feelings.  

But this is not what happened. Instead, when we interviewed participants four times every two weeks, we found the opposite result: Increases in conspiracy beliefs were followed by subsequent increases in anxiety, uncertainty aversion, and existential threat. That is, being more convinced of a conspiracy actually made people feel worse. In a way, this is not surprising: Conspiracy theories consist of a worldview that is filled with suspicion and mistrust, and provide many additional triggers to feel anxious and uncertain about.

However, we did not find this harmful effect of conspiracy beliefs in a second study, which had more people and longer time gaps (four months) between measurements. Together, the two studies suggest that conspiracy beliefs are most likely not beneficial with regard to the experience of anxiety, uncertainty, and threat. Whether they are actually harmful to the well-being of individuals needs to be confirmed by future research.

What Do People Get Out of Conspiracy Beliefs?

Many possibilities come to mind. Embracing conspiracy theories may simply be an entertaining way to overcome boredom. Or it may offer people a sense of connection and a community of like-minded others. Nevertheless, despite these potential benefits, it is important to keep in mind that people who believe in conspiracies may also suffer from their beliefs. Most likely, they are worried about the consequences of the alleged conspiracy for themselves and their loved ones. They should be approached with empathy and sensitivity.

For Further Reading

Douglas, K. M., Sutton, R. M., & Cichocka, A. (2017). The psychology of conspiracy theories. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26(6), 538–542.

Douglas, K. M., & Sutton, R. M. (2023). What are conspiracy theories? A definitional approach to their correlates, consequences, and communication. Annual Review of Psychology, 74, 271–298.

Liekefett, L., Christ, O., & Becker, J. C. (2023). Can conspiracy beliefs be beneficial? Longitudinal linkages between conspiracy beliefs, anxiety, uncertainty aversion, and existential threat. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 49(2), 167–179.

Luisa Liekefett is a doctoral candidate at the University of Osnabrück in Germany. She studies psychological responses to societal crises, such as conspiracy beliefs, collective action, and protests.