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Why Conspiracies Theories Are So Seductive

If you’re like millions of people worldwide, Kate Middleton, the Princess of Wales, is very much on your mind this week. That’s because of a royal kerfuffle that erupted recently, when Middleton—who had not been seen in public since January when she underwent abdominal surgery—released a cheery Mother’s Day photo of herself and her children. The next day, the Associated Press pulled down the photo because it turned out to have been digitally altered. Other news agencies followed suit, and Kensington Palace issued an apology signed by Kate.

Predictably, this was catnip to conspiracy theorists, who speculated endlessly online about her health, mental and physical well-being, and whereabouts. “None of it makes sense. Where is Catherine? Why is the palace being so secretive about the royals’ health? What are they covering up?!” wrote Margaret Hartmann of New York magazine, in a piece titled “Kate Middleton Photo Editing Made Me a Conspiracy Theorist.”

And so the Middleton saga joined other conspiracy theories involving Barack Obama (born in Kenya!), the 2020 presidential election (stolen!), the moon landings (faked!), and vaccines (deadly!). Why are conspiracy theories so seductive? And what can sensible people do to combat them?

They make us feel powerful

One of the greatest drivers of conspiracy theories, experts say, is power—or, more specifically, the lack of it. Move through a world in which you have authority and some agency, and you’re likely to feel a comforting sense of control. But when outside circumstances and anonymous people seem to have too much sway over your welfare, you’re more inclined to go looking for hidden patterns and purposes.

“If you have people who have been marginalized in society, then they’re at the bottom end of a power asymmetry,” says Joseph Uscinski, associate professor of political science at the University of Miami and co-author of the 2014 book American Conspiracy Theories. “Same thing with young people, who aren’t fully integrated into society and are trying to climb their way up. They tend to believe more conspiracy theories than older people who are comfortable in the system because they’ve succeeded.”

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Clinging to conspiracy theories can make people feel better about themselves. One paper published in the European Journal of Social Psychology found that when people feel like they are in possession of privileged knowledge, that’s enough to provide something of an ego boost. “A small part in motivating the endorsement of…irrational beliefs,” the researchers wrote, “is the desire to stick out from the crowd.”

Power imbalances make politics an especially toxic spot for conspiracy theories. Somebody will win every election and somebody will lose, and the backers of the people who are denied high office are sometimes inclined to reject the legitimacy of those who achieve it. According to a January poll conducted by the Washington Post and the University of Maryland, and reported by The Hill, only 31% of Republican adults believe that President Joe Biden was legitimately elected four years ago. A Gallup poll taken in 2001 found that after the disputed 2000 vote, more than a third of Democrats insisted that then-President George W. Bush had stolen the election. “Being out of power tends to add fuel to the fire,” wrote Joseph Parent, a professor of political science at Notre Dame University and Uscinski’s co-author, in an email to TIME.

However, in politics and elsewhere, not all conspiracy theories are unwarranted. “Like germs, they’re always with us and not always unhealthy,” wrote Parent. “You do tend to see surges when there are [real] conspiracies (Watergate) and coverups (Warren Report).” The COVID-19 pandemic fueled no shortage of conspiracies regarding the origins of the virus, and no one yet knows with certainty what its source was.

Famous people are mega targets 

Celebrity helps conspiratorial ideas bubble up. Middleton is about as big a celebrity as it’s possible to be. So is Taylor Swift—and Uscinski reports that after the Feb. 11 Super Bowl, he received 10 calls in the course of a week from journalists wanting to know if Swift’s romance with the Kansas City Chiefs’ Travis Kelce and her appearance at the big game was a prelude to a conspiratorial plan to endorse Biden for reelection.

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“Almost by definition,” conspiracy theories involve high-profile people, says Parent. “[They] are about plotters working in secret to deceive us. No one would care if the plotters were powerless.”

Fear fuels conspiracy theories

Fear plays a role too, impelling people to find reasons for mortal perils. This is true on an individual level; in a 2022 paper published in PLOS One, Uscinski studied how enduring 30-plus conspiracy theories were, and many were about deaths, shootings, or assassinations. It’s also true on a societal level. The pandemic, for example, was a time of terror about a borderless disease that swept the planet in a matter of months. Uscinski and his colleagues found that early on, in March of 2020, fully 31% of Americans already believed that the virus was “purposely created and released.” By 2021, that figure had dipped only slightly, to 29%.

Conspiracy theories may seem more prevalent now—but they’re perennial

A common notion is that social media turbocharges conspiracy theories, giving believers a platform from which to spread their messages. But Uscinski is not convinced. “If it was the case that there was something new driving these beliefs, whether it be social media or the Internet, you might expect [conspiracy theories] to be going up, up, up, up, up in very measurable ways, but we just don’t find that,” he says. If you think the old days were better—that “we all just believed true things and we agreed on everything,” he adds—you’re misremembering.

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Indeed, the pre-Internet era was not remotely a golden age of conspiracy-free thinking. In his 2022 paper, Uscinski and his coauthors documented a past that was rife with conspiracy theories, with belief in them fading only as they receded from the news cycle. In 1981, for example, 59% of respondents said that there was a conspiracy to kill the Rev. Martin Luther King; in 2021, the figure was down to 33%. In 1995, 34% of people said there was a police plot to frame O.J. Simpson; in 2021, it was 11%. 

“It’s not necessarily the case that just because something’s old means it’s necessarily going to be forgotten,” Ucsinski says. “It’s just maybe people latch on to other ideas.”

How not to fall for conspiracy theories

When you’re confronted with a conspiracy theory, one strategy is simply to listen to what the person has to say. “Why not take their beliefs seriously and take them to their logical conclusion?” asks Parent. “If they pass fair standards of logic and evidence, maybe there’s something to them. If they don’t—well, people are free to believe whatever they want.”

To guard against falling prey to conspiracy theories, it’s important to embrace failures or setbacks without looking for someone else to blame. “Experiencing loss and needing a scapegoat or an epicenter of evil are ripe circumstances [for conspiracy theories],” wrote Parent. It’s also wise to remember the counsel of the 14th-century philosopher and friar, William of Ockham, who is celebrated for developing the “law of parsimony”—better known today as Occam’s razor—which posits that the simplest solution to any question is almost always the best. Shave away any extraneous assumptions, including those involving complex conspiracies, and what you’ve got left is usually the truth.



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