Psychologists reveal why we get so hooked on conspiracy theories

Kate Middleton, the Princess of Wales, has been subject to several conspiracy theories over the past few weeks. (Getty Images)
The Princess of Wales has been subject to several conspiracy theories over the past few weeks. (Getty Images)

If you happen to have been anywhere on the internet over the past few weeks, you have probably observed a strange phenomenon occurring. Namely, conspiracy theories about the Princess of Wales spreading like wildfire.

Kate was admitted to hospital for planned abdominal surgery in January, with Kensington Palace stating at the time that she would not be undertaking any official duties until Easter.

Yet, at some point in February people began to notice her absence and started questioning where she was – which led to another statement by the Palace – and a subsequent photoshopped Mother’s Day photo only added fuel to the flame.

Now, it’s easy to fall down a social media wormhole of conspiracy theories about the princess, and it seems as if many have adopted an almost herd-like mentality towards it all.

"It can be a herd mentality," Dr Malcolm Schofield, lecturer in psychology at the University of Derby, tells Yahoo UK.

"When many people get behind an idea, it can gain more traction, and of course, if hardly anyone believes in a particular conspiracy theory, then it dies out. Social media plays a significant role and allows theories to spread more rapidly."

What is a conspiracy theory?

First thing’s first: what actually is a conspiracy theory?

"A conspiracy theory is a belief that tries to find an explanation for events or situations, often without credible evidence to support them," Counselling Directory member Carrie Warren explains. "These might suggest secret political groups that work together to achieve some malevolent goal and are often based on word-of-mouth stories without hard facts."

Busy young woman text messaging on smartphone while working on laptop till late in home office
Social media has allowed conspiracy theories to gain more traction. (Getty Images) (d3sign via Getty Images)

How do conspiracy theories spread?

Psychotherapist Eloise Skinner says that while the existence of conspiracy theories are not new, social media has allowed them to gain more traction in recent years.

"Social media is a great example of the easily-spreadable nature of a conspiracy theory," she explains.

"As the theory develops, it's easy to add or embellish certain elements. As the story becomes more dramatic or attention-catching, its distribution accelerates. Online forums can have a similar effect. Conspiracy theories can also pass between people in more traditional ways - by word of mouth, or through printed publications."

Why do we get hooked on conspiracy theories?

Warren says that, as humans, our psychology is primed for the acceptance of conspiracy theories as they can hold a certain emotional appeal.

"Conspiracy theories tap into people’s fears, anxieties or desire for simplistic explanations," she adds.

"Our brains are very much narrative driven and need to be told a story in order for us to make sense of our reality and place in the world. In the absence of hard facts or ‘truth’, our brains will strive to find answers and meaning and will accept a conspiracy theory in order to find that feeling of safety and security."

Certain types of people believe conspiracy theories more than others

"The evidence is that people who believe in conspiracy theories are not stupid or gullible, but they might lack control over their own lives, and it gives them comfort to think that someone is in control and that there is a story to life," Dr Schofield says.

He adds that some people find conspiracy theories comforting as they can help to explain why things don’t just happen randomly.

"[These people] might hold similar beliefs, such as paranormal beliefs or other conspiracy theories, which might make them more open to believing in further conspiracy theories," Dr Schofield says. "My own research has shown there is a strong link between being more spiritual and believing in conspiracy theories."

It's easy to fall down a conspiracy theory rabbit hole. (Getty Images)
It's easy to fall down a conspiracy theory rabbit hole. (Getty Images) (Westend61 via Getty Images)

How to distinguish conspiracy theories from the truth

Dr Schofield points out that some conspiracy theories are true.

"Such as Watergate and the post office scandal," he adds. "So being critical is not bad. The best way to distinguish a conspiracy theory from the truth is to be open and consider the evidence, not jump to conclusions, and consider other explanations, such as that people make mistakes."

Skinner says the safest way to not get too deep into a conspiracy theory is to hold off constructing a theory or narrative until you have concrete evidence or data to support it.

"We might never know the ‘truth’ behind a conspiracy theory," she adds. "In that case, we should make sure not to jump to conclusions or take information at face value. Instead, we can attempt to gather as much data or information as possible, but retain a sense of perspective (in other words, that we might not be right about our theories)."

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