Psychology Behind Conspiracy Theories


There is new information out that indicates over half of US adults believe there is a medical conspiracy afoot – one in which the government spikes the water with lithium, or that US government regulators are bent on preventing Americans from finding natural cures to a variety of ailments or that everything that society has been led to believe is, in reality, a hoax.  There is a psychology of sorts behind most conspiracy theories, however, whether they are medical or otherwise.

Many believe in medical conspiracies, for instance, because the conspiracy is often far easier to believe than the complexities of the medical process itself.  Many people tend to shut down during a meeting with their doctor where they receive news about their medical condition.  Generally, they hear the scary word – cancer, or multiple sclerosis, or melanoma, or whatever the case may be – and then everything following that becomes a blur.  That is the human brain protecting itself until there is an ability to appropriately process the information – the psychology behind that mechanism is self-preservation.  The conspiracy theory that they may hear regarding their medical condition seems more reasonable than the complicated medical information they may receive about their condition.

Perhaps the biggest conspiracy theories that abound today are the ones revolving around September 11, 2001.  From an international view, such a direct, blatant attack on the United States from within its own borders seemed incredible to believe, and so, people came out with conspiracy theories ranging from the sort of logical to the sublimely ridiculous.  Douglas T. Kendrick, Ph.D, author of Sex, Murder and the Meaning of Life, argues that in general, humans were designed to distrust.  He notes that humans lie daily and, perhaps more troubling, humans are absolutely terrible at picking up whether or not the person is lying, even though they themselves may have a talent for prevarication.

That is not where the psychology of conspiracy theories end, though; given humans by their very nature are trained to have their brain go on high alert when they are in danger, it comes as no surprise that those who live in rundown areas of town that may experience more criminal activity tend to believe more in conspiracy theories than those who might live comfortable middle class existences.  Those who live in dangerous areas are used to having their brains on high alert, so it only makes sense that they would be more prone to believe in conspiracy theories, as they need something to explain the danger they are faced with daily.

A recent study that examined 1,351 adults exposed these adults to six different medical conspiracy theories.  The results of the research, published in the magazine JAMA Internal Medicine, shows that those who believe in conspiracy theories are also less likely to follow regular prescriptions that they may require.  The research group, headed by J. Eric Oliver from the University of Chicago, concluded that while the prevailing attitudes about conspiracy theorists may lead people to think that conspiracy theorists are really paranoid and possibly crazy.  He says that this is not the case, and that the research indicates that people who are conspiracy theorists may actually approach their own doctor with a more than healthy dose of skepticism.

According to Oliver, the psychology of conspiracy theories indicates that people are far more likely to pursue alternative medicines and therapies rather than following a doctor’s prescription if they believe in conspiracy theories, even if the doctor says they need to follow a prescription.  Oliver says this indicates that doctors should be aware of their patients’ beliefs when it comes to conspiracy theories and that could have some play in how doctors treat their patients in the long run.

By Christina St-Jean




Psychology Today

Psychology Today

2 Responses to "Psychology Behind Conspiracy Theories"

  1. Russell Rawlings   March 24, 2014 at 2:26 am

    Conspiracy’s are denied corruption…Innocent until proven guilty!
    Some are obviously delusional but not all. Anxiety and depression
    are a response to internal underlying mechanisms.

  2. Chris Smith   March 19, 2014 at 1:04 pm

    Hospitals, doctors and public health organizations routinely give certain drugs to media journalist to make them liberal and stupid. Unfortunately this is not a conspiracy or a myth.


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