A new review adds to growing evidence that there are many complex reasons why people believe in conspiracy theories, contrary to the cliché that it's a lack of knowledge.
"Conspiracy theorists are not all likely to be simple-minded, mentally unwell folks – a portrait which is routinely painted in popular culture," says Emory University clinical psychologist Shauna Bowes.
"Instead, many turn to conspiracy theories to fulfill deprived motivational needs and make sense of distress and impairment."
Analyzing 170 studies – mainly from the US, UK, and Poland – Bowes and colleagues explored the motivation behind people's beliefs.
While there are many influential factors, the data suggest that people seem motivated by a need to feel safe, to understand one's environment, and an increased need to feel socially secure if those other two needs are not being met.
This is bad news, as the world around us becomes more dangerous and our future increasingly uncertain.
"Our findings reveal that motivations at large are important, perhaps even essential, pieces of the conspiratorial ideation puzzle," the team explains in their paper.
They found social threats were more strongly linked to conspiracy thinking than other threats, which is also tightly interwoven with trust. Trust has long been identified as playing a key role in our belief in a phenomenon called cultural cognition.
Bowes and colleagues also found personality traits like lower analytical thinking ability and higher anxiety had a significant but surprisingly low correlation with conspiracy thinking.
The researchers explain that this might be due to not considering a long enough time frame or how the different traits interact with each other. More research is needed to pry these aspects apart.
People perceiving social threats were more likely to believe event-based conspiracies rather than abstract theories, which were more favored by individual traits like narcissism and paranoia. For instance, the US government planned the 11 September terrorist attacks, rather than the government is planning to retain power through harmful means.
"These results largely map onto a recent theoretical framework advancing that social identity motives may give rise to being drawn to the content of a conspiracy theory, whereas people who are motivated by a desire to feel unique are more likely to believe in general conspiracy theories about how the world works," explains Bowes.
The role of safety and security would also explain why there's a rise in conspiracy thinking during times of crisis, including during the pandemic, as people encountered financial hardships and health uncertainties.
Understanding these factors is crucial for helping people avoid these thinking traps and limiting the harm they can do.
This research was published in the Psychological Bulletin.