Conspiracy Theories: Why Are We So Susceptible?

An ITV study found approximately 5 million anti-vax followers in the UK. Couple this with the news that 1 in 3 people are exposed to anti-vax messages (as found by Kings College London) and frustration mounts. The vaccine is our only way back to normality. It is the sole means by which we can simultaneously protect the most vulnerable whilst lifting lockdown restrictions. The idea, therefore, that so many people are sceptical and resistant to the vaccine is problematic. It threatens medical progress, but also begs the question of why humans are psychologically inclined to believe in conspiracy theories that have so little supporting evidence, and why more so in times of crisis?

Conspiracy theories are nothing new; they have been around for hundreds of years and saturate public discourse surrounding momentous events. Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t kill JFK; the moon landing was fake; 9/11 was an inside job; global warming is a hoax; Covid-19 is a bioweapon manufactured in a laboratory; the vaccine contains microchip-tracking devices. The list goes on. However ridiculous they may seem to some, for many people these theories condition entire worldviews, perpetuating an innate distrust in forces of government.

In 2017, a psychology study at University of Kent concluded upon three primary reasons why people believe in conspiracy theories: epistemic (a desire to make sense of our environment), existential (to feel safe and in control) and social (to perpetuate a positive view of the self and members of the conspiracy theorist group).

Epistemically, conspiracy theories seek to answer the innate human question of ‘why?’ They offer simple explanations for extraordinary and complicated events. Certainly, the idea that the moon landing was a staged event is far simpler than wrapping your head around the logistics of space travel.

The human mind has a negative bias; we are naturally drawn to bad things and obsess over them. Unfortunately, this bias becomes a breeding ground for conspiracy theories. Government’s necessarily withhold some information from the public; daily updates on terrorist threats would only a provoke mass hysteria to put ‘the toilet roll crisis’ to shame. However, for some this withholding of information translates into fears that the government is always lying to us to serve its own purposes. These rhetoric’s offer an outlet to express fears that those who govern us are not acting on democratic principles of transparency and representation, or in the best interest of the public.

The social aspect of conspiracy theories is undeniable, they have become the inevitable by-product of (predominantly) unregulated social media platforms such as Facebook and Reddit. Such communities’ function as echo chambers wherein those inside only consume information that which validates their worldview, seeking out like-minded individuals. This enables conspiracy theories to function as social groups, with some studies (Uscinski & Parent, 2014) finding that conspiracy theories tend to flourish among groups of people that typically feel underrepresented due to income status or political allegiance. The rhetoric of conspiracy theories offers a voice, and this in turn speaks to much wider structural problems around inclusivity and representation in society.

A friend of my mum’s recently turned down the vaccine because she read online that it ’caused dementia’. Yet to find any source that validates this, I am inclined to believe that not only do we need more rigorous regulation of fake news but also more constructive challenges and conversations around these unvalidated narratives, on private as well as public levels. Conspiracy theories are not endemic to America, they exist in Britain too and only through open conversation can we counteract the spread of unsupported theories that, in the case of the vaccine, threaten human progress and the possibility of overcoming national adversity.  

Lottie McGrath

Featured Image Source: Pexels

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