Motivation and emotion/Book/2022/Conspiracy theory motivation

Conspiracy theory motivation:
What motivates people to believe in conspiracy theories?


Belief in conspiracy theories is a phenomenon found across history and culture (van Prooijen, 2017). Research suggests that cognitive processes have developed over evolutionary time to deal with the threat that ancient humans would have faced from other ancient humans (van Prooijen & Vugt, 2018). In the present, it is suggested that these processes produce a mostly detrimental (but occasionally beneficial) effect on individuals and groups (Douglas, 2021). These beliefs have been found to increase political apathy, polarisation of attitudes, extremism, radicalisation, violence, prejudice, discrimination and science denial (such as anti-vaccine, COVID-19 and climate change) (Jolley & Douglas, 2014; van Prooijen & Douglas, 2018; Douglas, 2021; Biddlestone et al., 2022; Pummerer et al., 2022). Overall, the motivation behind belief in conspiracy theories can be divided into three human needs which said [awkward expression?] beliefs fulfill: “epistemic (eg. the desire for understanding, accuracy, and subjective certainty), existential (e.g. the desire for control and security) and social needs (e.g. the desire to maintain a positive image of the self or group)" (Douglas et al., 2017, 538).

Figure 1. Novus Ordo Seculorum - image on the US $1 bill considered by some as evidence of the Illuminati's influence in US history.

What is a conspiracy theory?Edit

A conspiracy theory is an attempt to explain a malevolent phenomenon or event by means of reference to an elite and powerful group, organisation or secret society despite alternative, more grounded explanations being available ("Conspiracy Theory", 2022). When defining a conspiracy theory, it is important to note its[grammar?] difference to just a conspiracy. Conspiracies are clandestine activities between two or more powerful groups which are supported to have occurred by expert historical and scientific evidence (Douglas et al., 2019). For instance, the Watergate scandal is considered a conspiracy as reliable evidence implicating U.S. president Richard Nixon is available, while the belief that a secret society called the Illuminati controls and manipulates world affairs from behind the scenes is not upheld by historical, political or scientific evidence. More specifically, a conspiracy theory can be identified by the presence of five elements: pattern (interconnected people and events), agency (there is deliberate intentionality behind the conspiracy), coalition (involves a group of conspirators), threat (the goals of the conspirators are harmful or deceiving) and secrecy (van Prooijen & van Vugt, 2018).


The motivations behind conspiracy thinking can be broadly encapsulated into three categories (Douglas et al., 2019):

Epistemic motivesEdit

People appear to have a general need to protect their beliefs and worldviews from challenge (Douglas et al., 2019). For instance, one cognitive mechanism implicated in irrational or conspiratorial beliefs is pattern perception. Pattern perception is the instinctual ability of human’s to identify connections between stimuli (Zhoa, Hahn, & Osherson, 2014). This mechanism, however, is good at perceiving patterns, but less capable of identifying random from non-random stimuli (Zhoa, Hahn, & Osherson, 2014). In an experiment conducted by van Prooijen, Douglas and De Inocencio (2018) it was found that irrational beliefs (e.g. supernatural, conspiratorial) were strongly correlated with perceiving patterns in random coin tosses. In another series of experiments, Witson and Galinksy (2008) produced the feeling of lacking control in participants to produce a number of effects: an increased tendency to see patterns in random images, stock market data, conspiracies and superstitions.

Another mechanism implicated in conspiracy belief is agency detection, which is the ability of human's[grammar?] to recognise the motivations and intentions of other humans and animals (van Prooijen & van Vugt, 2018). It is theorised that hypersensitive agency detection serves an evolutionarily adaptive purpose (Gray & Wenger, 2010). Mis-identifying the intentions of a predator in the wild has a cost-benefit analysis leaning toward over-detection rather than under-detection. By investigating the tendency for participants to anthropomorphise moving shapes on monitor, Douglas et al. (2016) found a significant correlation between those most likely to anthropomorphise and those who agreed with a number of conspiracy theories. They also found a link between conspiratorial belief and education level[Provide more detail].

  • Discuss cognitive biases: confirmation bias, hindsight bias and cognitive dissonance (Shermer, 2020).

Existential motivesEdit

A need for certainty when the perception of a crisis event threatens a person's existence may explain why someone might turn to a conspiracy theory. Studies have found that feeling a lack of control and having a strong need for control are correlated with an increased likelihood of conspiracy belief (van Prooijen & Acker, 2015). Regaining a sense of control and power may be provided by a conspiracy theory, thus combatting psychologically negative consequences such as anxiety (Grzesiak-Feldman, 2013). In a study performed by van Harreveld et al. (2014), participants were induced into a state of ambivalence by reading an article on abortion which outlined both the pros and cons with equal weighting. They were then asked to perform an illusory pattern exercise. An ambivalent state was found to be linked with a compensatory need for control which produced feelings of uncertainty and anxiety. These negative feelings were then found to be correlated with an increased belief in conspiracies.

Social motivesEdit

The social psychology of groups, specifically in relation to in-group/out-group dynamics, has been commonly theorised to influence conspiracy theory belief (van Prooijen & Douglas, 2018). That there is a malevolent 'out-group' is a core feature of a conspiracy theory. Survey research has found that half of all Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory and this is driven in part by a general belief in a secret, unseen battle between 'good' and 'evil' groups being played out through history (Oliver & Wood, 2014). Fostering a desirable in-group identity and protecting said [awkward expression?] group from a hostile out-group's attacks becomes a motivating factor in the belief in conspiracy theories (van Prooijen & Douglas, 2018). For instance, collective narcissism is the overly exaggerated belief in the superiority of the in-group which is not recognised sufficiently by the antagonistic out-group (Golec de Zavala & Federico, 2018). It has been found to be a good predictor of conspiracy beliefs about other groups, such as those directed at other nations, minority groups and political parties (Cichocka et al., 2016; Golec de Zavala & Federico, 2018).

Case study: COVID-19Edit

Figure 2. Coronavirus.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, conspiracy theories proliferated. Pushed by disinformation in the media, conspiracies which circulated included that the virus was produced by the Chinese in a Wuhan lab; that the US was using the virus to attack China; and that Bill Gates created the virus; along with a general increase in xenophobic and anti-Semitic sentiment (Fogarty & Hagle, 2020). If these beliefs, in the face of the significant threat that COVID-19 represents, were to weaken the necessary actions of people to combat its spread, then means of preventing or challenging those conspiracy beliefs would be desirable.

Pummerer et al. (2022) conducted a three part study which included a survey, experimental and longitudinal section. They predicted, based on prior research, that belief in a political COVID-19 conspiracy (PCC) would foster anti-social behaviour and sentiments in participants. What they found was that participants who believed in such conspiracy theories were less likely to trust government authority, follow regulations and practice personal safety measures, such as social distancing (Pummerer et al., 2022). Furthermore, in a survey study which assessed participants[grammar?] willingness to undertake COVID-19 preventative interventions, vaccination hesitancy and conspiracy beliefs, Romer and Jamieson (2020) found that COVID-19 conspiracy beliefs was a good predictor of whether someone was resistant to preventative actions and vaccine acceptance.


The motivation to believe in conspiracy theories can be broadly encapsulated in epistemic, existential and social needs.

See alsoEdit


Cichocka, A., Marchlewska, M., & de Zavala, A. G. (2016). Does self-love or self-hate predict conspiracy beliefs? Narcissism, self-esteem, and the endorsement of conspiracy theories. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 7(2), 157-166.

Conspiracy Theory. (2022, August 22). In Wikipedia.

Douglas, K. M., Sutton, R. M., Callan, M. J., Dawtry, R. J., & Harvey, A. J. (2016). Someone is pulling the strings: Hypersensitive agency detection and belief in conspiracy theories. Thinking & Reasoning, 22(1), 57—77.

Douglas, K. M., Sutton, R. M., & Cichocka, A. (2017). The psychology of conspiracy theories. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26(6), 538—542.

Douglas, K. M., Uscinksi, J. E., Sutton, R. M., Cichocka, A., Nefes, T., Ang, C. S., & Deravi, F. (2019). Understanding conspiracy theories. Advances in Political Psychology, 40(1), 3-35.

Gogarty, K., & Hagle, C. (2020, February 28). A guide to right-wing media reactions and conspiracy theories surrounding coronavirus. Media Matters for America. https:// media-coronavirus-reactions-and-conspiracy-theories

Golec de Zavala, A., & Federico, C. M. (2018). Collective narcissism and the growth of conspiracy thinking over the course of the 2016 United States presidential election: A longitudinal analysis. European Journal of Social Psychology, 48, 1011—1018.

Gray, K., & Wegner, M. (2010). Blaming God for our pain: Human suffering and the divine mind. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14(1), 7-16.

Grzeskiak-Feldman, M. (2013). The effect of high-anxiety situations on conspiracy thinking. Current Psychology, 32(1), 100-118.

Jolley, D., & Douglas, K. M. (2014). The effects of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories on vaccination intentions. PLoS ONE, 9(2), 1—9.

Marchlewska, M., Cichocka, A., & Kossowska, M. (2017). Addicted to answers: Need for cognitive closure and endorsement of conspiracy beliefs. European Journal of Social Psychology, 48(2), 109-117.

Oliver, J. E., & Wood, T. J. (2014). Conspiracy theories and the paranoid style(s) of mass opinion. American Journal of Political Science, 58(4), 952—966.

Pummerer, L., Böhm, R., Lilleholt, L., Winter, K., Zettler, I., & Sassenberg, K. (2022). Conspiracy theories and their societal effects during the COVID-19 pandemic. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 13(1), 49—59.

Romer, D., & Jamieson, K. (2020). Conspiracy theories as barriers to controlling the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. Social Science & Medicine, 263, 113356.

Shermer, M. (2020). Why people believe conspiracy theories. Skeptic, 25(1), 12-17.

van Prooijen, J. W. (2017). Conspiracy theories as part of history: The role of societal crisis situations. Memory Studies, 10(3), 323--333.

van Prooijen, J., & Acker, M. (2015). The influence of control on belief in conspiracy theories: Conceptual and applied extensions. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 29, 753-761.

van Prooijen, J., & Douglas, K. M. (2018). Belief in conspiracy theories: Basic principles of an emerging research domain. European Journal of Social Psychology, 48, 897-908.

van Prooijen, J., Douglas, K. M., & de Inocencio, C. (2018). Connecting the dots: Illusory pattern perception predicts belief in conspiracies and the supernatural. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(3), 320-335.

Zhao, J., Hahn, U, & Osherson, D. (2014). Perception and identification or random events. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 40(4), 1358—1371.

van Prooijen, J. W., & van Vugt, M. (2018). Conspiracy theories: Evolved functions and psychological mechanisms. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(6), 770—788.

Whitson, J. A., & Galinsky, A. D. (2008). Lacking control increases illusory pattern perception. Science, 322(5898), 115—117.

External linksEdit

A guide to right-wing media reactions and conspiracy theories surrounding coronavirus - Media Matters