People have been donning tinfoil hats to explain large-scale events and incite mass panic for over a century. But with the rise of social media, conspiracy theories have begun to spread at an unprecedented rate. President Trump in particular is infamous for sharing misinformation on Twitter—from claiming President Obama was born in Kenya, to downplaying the severity of COVID-19, to most recently falsely declaring himself the winner of the 2020 U.S. presidential election. The spread of misinformation is a clear and present danger to Americans across the political spectrum and can potentially undermine our democracy. As Trump’s base of supporters and GOP allies continue to make false claims of election fraud, it’s worth examining why conspiracy theories are so popular, who is most prone to conspiratorial thinking, and how we can protect ourselves from accepting misinformation.
Research in psychology suggests that there are three primary motivations for believing in conspiracy theories: epistemic (explaining shocking or confusing events in the world), existential (feeling safe and in control), and social (viewing ourselves and our social groups positively). How could a lone gunman take out John F. Kennedy? Why did my otherwise healthy child develop autism? How did a deadly global pandemic spread in 2020? The answers to these questions are unsatisfying and difficult to understand, but conspiracy theories provide simple and straightforward explanations: the CIA was behind the Kennedy assassination, vaccines cause autism, the pandemic is a hoax. These theories offer certainty where none seems to exist, and can make us feel more in control of our surroundings as a result. They also affirm the positive beliefs we have about ourselves by painting others as villains causing tragic or unjust events.
“But who could believe such things?!” you may be asking yourself. According to social and cognitive psychology, the answer is just about anyone. Survey data across multiple studies suggest that people buy into conspiracy theories regardless of age, gender, personality, education, or critical thinking skills. But more recent research suggests that political ideology may have a significant impact on people’s willingness to endorse conspiracy theories. Both liberal and conservative extremism have been linked to belief in conspiracy theories. Still, people on the far right seem to be most prone to adopting false beliefs, especially if those beliefs are pro-establishment. Not all conspiracy theories are the same, however, and people are most likely to believe those that align with their worldview. In a 2013 poll, 36% of Republicans said they believed that President Obama’s supporters committed significant voter fraud in the 2012 election, and 37% of Democrats thought the same of President Bush’s supporters in the 2004 election.
We all crave epistemic, existential, and social validation, but these motives can blind us to reality under the right—or wrong—circumstances. Stressful life events make us more likely to believe conspiracy theories, making it all the more important for us to be vigilant against misinformation in this politically unstable, pandemic-ridden moment. We can prevent ourselves from buying into fake news by getting information from a wide array of reputable sources and checking those sources for political bias. We can also stop the spread of misinformation by calling out false reporting when we see it and reading beyond the headline before sharing a report with others. Above all, be critical of the news you read, especially if it supports your point of view. And remember, the truth is out there!
Peer edited by Ana Cartaya
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