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Useful Illusions: The Normalizing of Conspiracy Theories

What leads a seemingly "normal" person to conspiratorial thinking?

Key points

  • The widespread acceptance of conspiracy theories may be surprising to many.
  • Unexpected and undesirable shifts in culture create a diminished sense of stability. Some turn to conspiracy theories to be assuaged.
  • Individuals who feel isolated can be susceptible to the sense of belonging created within groups with a conspiratorial mindset.

Most people who embrace one or more of the conspiracy theories floating out there in the cultural stratosphere are sane, functional citizens.

Recently, the National Butterfly Center in Texas had to temporarily close its doors because of death threats and physical confrontations to staff members by conspiracy theorists. This occurred after a blogger claimed the center was a cover for human sex trafficking and the exploitation of children.

The center was founded by Dr. Jeffery Glassberg, the developer of DNA fingerprint analysis. One of the visiting conspiracy advocates, a congressional candidate, got into a confrontation with the center’s director. ”Unhinged people,” Dr. Glassberg said, “come out of the woodwork.” There isn’t a scintilla of evidence to the allegations.

It’s understandable when mentally ill individuals who become irrational and paranoid might buy into conspiracies. Shane, a defendant I was asked to examine, greeted me with a fixed glare and a menacing mien as I entered the interview booth at my local jail. He was arrested for stabbing his long-term girlfriend Hilary to death. He became convinced that she was a member of the Illuminati, an organization that is allegedly conspiring to control and mastermind world events. As one of the group’s operatives, Hilary “had to go.”

But how to explain that multitudes of normal, everyday people subscribe to various conspiratorial treacheries? One survey found that 49% of New York residents believe the U.S. government was complicit in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Scores of people without a mental disorder believe the Illuminati exists, secretly colluding to perpetrate malevolent ends. This, even though there’s no evidence whatsoever of its reality. This is the definition of a conspiratorial belief.

As a specific example, consider Justin who was profiled in an ABC News segment. He had been committed to the QAnon conspiracy. After years of preoccupation with the QAnon message board and related websites, he was hooked. Believing President Trump was fighting to remove Satanist pedophile politicians from power, he traveled to Washington on January 6, 2021, to overthrow the government and ensure Trump, not President-elect Biden, would serve a second term. After the January 6th debacle and after hours of talks with distraught family members, Justin described how his conspiratorial beliefs were slowly “chipping away.”

Sometimes, conspiratorial beliefs have a grain of truth, which further mucks up the difference between reality and subterfuge. For instance, do corporations and their lobbyists wield undue influence on political leaders? Likely, but such an assertion, described by a charismatic and gifted orator can morph a social problem into an Illuminati-like conspiracy that a cabal of execs are “pulling all the strings and are running the country.” Once conspiratorial belief systems take hold, it could have pernicious repercussions, ranging from the spread of prejudicial attitudes to social violence or threats. That’s what happened at the butterfly center.

Factors that lead to conspiratorial thinking

So, what are the factors that lead seemingly normal, non-psychotic individuals to conspiratorial thinking? A number of individual and social factors have been identified that prompt some among us to only gaze down the “rabbit hole,” while others take a flying leap.

Strong group identity. Individuals who are emotionally insecure are especially influenced by a collection of like-minded and culturally similar others. Membership in such a group is powerfully palliative to those with feelings of isolation and without a sense of belongingness. Strong identification with a particular group also has the potential to engender hostility towards those “others” who appear different, culturally or in physical appearance.

An authoritarian disposition. Individuals who wholly embrace the social values of the dominant cultural perspective regard it as an expression of the most righteous way of living. As such, they accept the hierarchical ordering of groups that are woven into the social structure. Viewing the existing social order as a just one, they accept the subordination of marginalized or minority groups as morally acceptable. The social system is viewed as a reflection of transcendent values, established via the wisdom of long-held traditions. Such a rigid acceptance of the existing order of group stratification lends itself to a deep suspiciousness of social change. An embrace of conspiratorial theories can function as an affirmation of the established worldview.

A narrow definition of masculinity. A "machismo" emphasis on competition over cooperation triggers aggressiveness and intergroup conflict. The “others” are perceived as members of a different “team” and as threats to self-esteem. It’s a zero-sum game: Either you win or you’re a loser. Members of the "other” group are easily devalued and disdained. Accepting outrageous beliefs about them is digested without reflection.

Low level of epistemic rationality. Conspiracy believers do not place a premium on critical thinking to make sense of the world around them. Instead, their emphasis is on avoiding ambiguity as a defense against the anxiety that comes with uncertainty. They are less concerned with their conclusions being the result of rational, deductive reasoning than with maintaining a sense of certitude and security.

Insecure attachment. Individuals with insecure/anxious attachment styles are vulnerable to conspiratorial thinking, even ones that contradict each other. Researchers have identified a number of psychological needs that are satisfied by the embrace of conspiratorial theories, including the satisfaction that they understand the world’s complex machinations. This leads to an increased sense of efficacy and self-control, which in turn enhances self-esteem.

The seduction of conspiratorial beliefs

Rapid cultural change is frequently the mobilizing context that causes the most vulnerable among us to fall prey to conspiratorial thinking. Unexpected and undesirable shifts in the cultural milieu create a sense of diminished social status and stability. Such environmental conditions create anxiety and ambiguity about one’s social status and economic position that needs to be assuaged. This is especially true for individuals and groups who face the dread of diminishing social/economic status, along with a transformation in the dominant cultural mores that had been taken for granted as universal and timeless.

A set of beliefs that pushes back on such existential threats—no matter how outrageous—becomes seductive.


van Prooijen, J. W., & Douglas, K. M. (2018). Belief in conspiracy theories: Basic principles of an emerging research domain. European journal of social psychology, 48(7), 897-908.

Hlay, J. K., Johnson, B. N., & Levy, K. N. (2022). Attachment security predicts tend-and-befriend behaviors: A replication. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences.

Imhoff, R., Lamberty, P., & Klein, O. (2018). Using power as a negative cue: How conspiracy mentality affects epistemic trust in sourcAdam‐Troian, J., Wagner‐Egger, P., Motyl, M., Arciszewski, T., Imhoff, R., Zimmer, F., ... & van Prooijen, J. W. (2021). Investigating the links between cultural values and belief in conspiracy theories: The key roles of collectivism and masculinity. Political Psychology, 42(4), of historical knowledge. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 44(9), 1364-1379.

Adam‐Troian, J., Wagner‐Egger, P., Motyl, M., Arciszewski, T., Imhoff, R., Zimmer, F., ... & van Prooijen, J. W. (2021). Investigating the links between cultural values and belief in conspiracy theories: The key roles of collectivism and masculinity. Political Psychology, 42(4), 597-618.

Narvaez D. (2021). Conspiracy Thinking: Understanding Attachment And Its Consequences .

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