Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?

Last weekend the Independent newspaper reported on recent research that revealed “Almost half of the British population believe that the coronavirus is a ‘man-made creation’” and that “8 per cent of people think that 5G technology is spreading the virus”. Whenever I hear of such reports, or become aware of certain ‘conspiracy theory’ campaigns, I become haunted by the question: What leads people to believe in these and other conspiracy theories? From my perspective it’s certainly not any actual evidence. In fact, such theories fall foul of the same ‘evidence’ problem as many religions – you can’t prove that something doesn’t exist. My concern here isn’t so much the fact that people believe strange stuff on the basis of little or no evidence; it’s that some believers are further motivated to adopt dangerous or anti-social behaviour – there have, for example, been several incidents of telecommunication masts being subject to arson attacks.

A recent meeting of my Town Council’s Environment & Social Wellbeing Committee, which I chair, received a presentation from a group of very sincere local campaigners who believe that 5G technology is not only unsafe, but that our government is lying about its safety. They go as far as to say (in the leaflet they handed out) that “there is no defence in law for complicity to commit genocide”. Their implication being that that is the government’s intention. It was the very dubious wording of this leaflet that prompted me to do a little research into this technology. For example, it included the sign “Danger Non-ionizing radiation”. Now I am no scientist, but I was fairly sure from my fire service days that the main dangers of ‘radiation’ came from ionizing radiation, from x-rays and gamma rays. My memory hadn’t failed me. Non-ionizing radiation includes ordinary radio waves, visible light, as well as the millimetre wave (microwave) radiation used by 5G. In and of itself, non-ionizing radiation is not a danger. If it were, there would be no life on this planet.

This isn’t to deny that microwave energy, applied at a high enough level, can cause harm to biological tissue. However, the evidence suggests that this new technology will expose us to nowhere near such dangerous levels of microwave energy. As reported in The Guardian (on 12th March), the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), a German based scientific body, have found overwhelming evidence that 5G technology is safe and that exposure from base stations reaches about 1% of the maximum level of millimetre-wave non-ionizing radiation. So, my question remains: Why, despite evidence to the contrary, do people still believe in these conspiracies?

I haven’t (yet) got a convincing answer to this question, but I suspect that the answer may be found in two different directions, not the irrationality of the conspiracy theorists themselves. The first relates to our intuitive need to read agency into social phenomenon. We have not only evolved the ability to interpret social interactions from the perspectives of others, an intuitive ‘theory of mind’, but have a strong propensity to over interpret social situations; to ascribe meaning and purpose to events that, for a variety of reasons, are without such agency. We all do this. In evolutionary terms it is safer to over interpret than under interpret. But why, for some of us, does this intuitive and non-voluntary trait become so out of control?

A second direction concerns our attitude to governments in general and politicians in particular. Another piece of research I came upon recently (sorry, I can’t remember the source) suggested that in this country Brexit supporters and people who distrust the political system are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories than others. And in a similar vein, Futurism magazine (29th April) quotes what they call a ‘Trumpian conspiracy theorist’ as saying “the scariest thing about this pandemic is not the virus itself, it’s seeing Americans so easily bow down and give up their blood bought freedom to corrupt politicians who promise their safety.”

Now it’s obvious that not everyone who distrusts the political system and wants it either replaced with a radically different one or just eradicated altogether is open to the adoption of conspiracy theories, so there must be a lot more to it than this. Does our intuitive ability to over detect agency in social phenomenon contribute or interact with extreme distrust of the political system? And if so, how? It’s too easy (and probably quite unfair) to suggest that those people who do start believing in conspiracies are cognitively impaired. So, what is the answer? How can this phenomenon be explained? If anyone can point me in the direction of some relevant research I would be very grateful. Alternatively, if anyone wants to share their own ideas on conspiracy theories I would love to hear them.

One thought on “Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?

  1. Trust in government is only 43% in OECD countries (source available). We contantly see our politicians patently lie and cheat on TV to achieve their objectives. Whilst I do not believe in conspiracy theories I question why our government was initially planning to risk 380,000 vulnerable lives and countless health workers to achieve herd immunity. I question why the people of Lancashire who voted against fracking were overruled by Sajid Javid. I question how a proven liar and a cheat has become PM.
    Is it so terribly far fetched for ordinary people to believe that our government would risk people’s lives if there was money or influence at stake.


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