Why do people adopt conspiracy theories, how are they communicated, and what are their risks?

This project is a multi-disciplinary literature review on the emergence, transmission, spread, and countering of conspiracy theories.

This project is a multi-disciplinary literature review on the emergence, transmission, spread, and countering of conspiracy theories.

Conspiracy theories affect people’s perceptions, beliefs and actions and thus may influence whether people justify violent action, cooperate (or not) with a particular agency, or even justify a decision to go to war.

This project encompasses different disciplinary perspectives – psychology, political science, sociology, and information engineering. It considers how risks from conspiracy theories might vary across different areas of the world, across different political climates, at different levels (individual to state), and in different media (e.g., face to face vs online).

Research questions

  • Why do people adopt conspiracy theories? (Psychological, political and social factors.)
  • How are conspiracy theories communicated?
  • What are the risks associated with conspiracy theories?

Project resources

The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories

What psychological factors drive the popularity of conspiracy theories, which explain important events as secret plots by powerful and malevolent groups? What are the psychological consequences of adopting these theories? We review the current research and find that it answers the first of these questions more thoroughly than the second. Belief in conspiracy theories appears to be driven by motives that can be characterized as epistemic (understanding one’s environment), existential (being safe and in control of one’s environment), and social (maintaining a positive image of the self and the social group). However, little research has investigated the consequences of conspiracy belief, and to date, this research does not indicate that conspiracy belief fulfills people’s motivations. Instead, for many people, conspiracy belief may be more appealing than satisfying. Further research is needed to determine for whom, and under what conditions, conspiracy theories may satisfy key psychological motives.

(From the journal abstract)

Karen Douglas, Robbie M. Sutton, and Aleksandra Cichocka. 2017. ‘The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories’. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26 (6): 538–42. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721417718261.

Understanding Conspiracy Theories

Scholarly efforts to understand conspiracy theories have grown significantly in recent years, and there is now a broad and interdisciplinary literature. In reviewing this body of work, we ask three specific questions. First, what factors are associated with conspiracy beliefs? Our review of the literature shows that conspiracy beliefs result from a range of psychological, political, and social factors. Next, how are conspiracy theories communicated? Here, we explain how conspiracy theories are shared among individuals and spread through traditional and social media platforms. Next, what are the societal risks and rewards associated with conspiracy theories? By focusing on politics and science, we argue that conspiracy theories do more harm than good. We conclude by suggesting several promising avenues for future research.

(From the journal abstract)

Karen Douglas, Joseph E. Uscinski, Robbie M. Sutton, Aleksandra Cichocka, Turkay Nefes, Chee Siang Ang, and Farzin Deravi. 2019. ‘Understanding Conspiracy Theories’. Political Psychology, 40 (S1): 3–35. https://doi.org/10.1111/pops.12568.

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