Current Directions in Psychological
2017, Vol. 26(6) 538 –542
© The Author(s) 2017
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Over a third of Americans believe that global warming is
a hoax (Swift, 2013), and over half believe that Lee Har-
vey Oswald did not act alone in the assassination of John
F. Kennedy (Jensen, 2013). These are examples of con-
spiracy theories—explanations for important events that
involve secret plots by powerful and malevolent groups
(e.g., Goertzel, 1994). In recent years, there has been
growing interest in the psychological factors that drive
the popularity of conspiracy theories, and in this article,
we draw together and organize findings from this bur-
geoning research. This research suggests that people may
be drawn to conspiracy theories when—compared with
nonconspiracy explanations—they promise to satisfy
important social psychological motives that can be char-
acterized as epistemic (e.g., the desire for understanding,
accuracy, and subjective certainty), existential (e.g., the
desire for control and security), and social (e.g., the
desire to maintain a positive image of the self or group).
This taxonomy, derived from system-justification theory
(Jost, Ledgerwood, & Hardin, 2008), serves as a useful
heuristic to classify the motives associated with conspir-
acy belief. However, the comparatively scarce research
examining the consequences of conspiracy theories does
not indicate that they ultimately help people fulfill these
Finding causal explanations for events is a core part of
building up a stable, accurate, and internally consistent
understanding of the world (Heider, 1958). Specific epis-
temic motives that causal explanations may serve include
slaking curiosity when information is unavailable, reduc-
ing uncertainty and bewilderment when available infor-
mation is conflicting, finding meaning when events seem
random, and defending beliefs from disconfirmation.
Relevant to these motives, conspiracy theories have attri-
butes that set them apart from other types of causal
explanation. Albeit to varying degrees, they are specula-
tive in that they posit actions that are hidden from public
scrutiny, complex in that they postulate the coordination
of multiple actors, and resistant to falsification in that
they postulate that conspirators use stealth and disinfor-
mation to cover up their actions—implying that people
who try to debunk conspiracy theories may, themselves,
be part of the conspiracy (Lewandowsky etal., 2015).
718261CDPXXX10.1177/0963721417718261Douglas et al.The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories
Karen M. Douglas, School of Psychology, University of Kent,
Canterbury, CT2 7NP, United Kingdom
The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories
Karen M. Douglas, Robbie M. Sutton, and
School of Psychology, University of Kent
What psychological factors drive the popularity of conspiracy theories, which explain important events as secret plots
by powerful and malevolent groups? What are the psychological consequences of adopting these theories? We review
the current research and find that it answers the first of these questions more thoroughly than the second. Belief in
conspiracy theories appears to be driven by motives that can be characterized as epistemic (understanding one’s
environment), existential (being safe and in control of one’s environment), and social (maintaining a positive image
of the self and the social group). However, little research has investigated the consequences of conspiracy belief, and
to date, this research does not indicate that conspiracy belief fulfills people’s motivations. Instead, for many people,
conspiracy belief may be more appealing than satisfying. Further research is needed to determine for whom, and
under what conditions, conspiracy theories may satisfy key psychological motives.
conspiracy theories, conspiracy belief, motives, needs
The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories 539
A related property of conspiracy theories is that they can
protect cherished beliefs (e.g., vaccination is harmful;
climate change is not a serious concern) by casting over-
whelmingly disconfirmatory evidence (e.g., scientific
findings) as the product of a conspiracy (Lewandowsky,
Oberauer, & Gignac, 2013).
In general, empirically warranted (vs. speculative),
parsimonious (vs. complex), and falsifiable explanations
are stronger according to normative standards of causal
explanation (e.g., in science; see Grimes, 2016). However,
conspiracy theories appear to provide broad, internally
consistent explanations that allow people to preserve
beliefs in the face of uncertainty and contradiction. In
keeping with this analysis, research suggests that belief
in conspiracy theories is stronger when the motivation
to find patterns in the environment is experimentally
heightened (Whitson & Galinsky, 2008). It is also stronger
among people who habitually seek meaning and patterns
in the environment, including believers in paranormal
phenomena (e.g., Bruder, Haffke, Neave, Nouripanah, &
Imhoff, 2013; but see Dieguez, Wagner-Egger, & Gauvrit,
2015). It also appears to be stronger when events are
especially large in scale or significant and leave people
dissatisfied with mundane, small-scale explanations
(Leman & Cinnirella, 2013). Furthermore, the need for
cognitive closure is associated with beliefs in salient con-
spiracy theories for events that lack clear official explana-
tions (Marchlewska, Cichocka, & Kossowska, 2017). Also,
research suggests that conspiracy belief is stronger when
people experience distress as a result of feeling uncertain
(van Prooijen & Jostmann, 2013).
Our analysis suggests that conspiracy theories may
satisfy some epistemic motives at the expense of oth-
ers—for example, by shielding beliefs from uncertainty
while being less likely to be accurate. The epistemic
drawbacks of conspiracy theories do not seem to be
readily apparent to people who lack the ability or moti-
vation to think critically and rationally. Conspiracy
belief is correlated with lower levels of analytic thinking
(Swami, Voracek, Stieger, Tran, & Furnham, 2014) and
lower levels of education (Douglas, Sutton, Callan,
Dawtry, & Harvey, 2016). It is also associated with the
tendency to overestimate the likelihood of co-occurring
events (Brotherton & French, 2014) and the tendency
to perceive agency and intentionality where it does not
exist (Douglas etal., 2016).
In light of their objective or normative limitations,
how well do conspiracy theories satisfy the epistemic
motives that draw people to them? Relatively little
research has addressed this question, and it suggests that
they may be more appealing than satisfying. On one
hand, extreme and entrenched attitude positions are
associated with conspiracy beliefs, suggesting that they
may help people defend beliefs from disconfirmation
(Uscinski, Klofstad, & Atkinson, 2016). In contrast, recent
experiments indicate that presenting people with per-
suasive cases for conspiracy theories about vaccination
(Jolley & Douglas, 2014a) and climate change (Jolley &
Douglas, 2014b) increases their levels of uncertainty.
As well as their purely epistemic purposes, causal
explanations serve the need for people to feel safe and
secure in their environment and to exert control over
the environment as autonomous individuals and as
members of collectives (Tetlock, 2002). Several early
theories of conspiracy belief suggested that people turn
to conspiracy theories for compensatory satisfaction
when these needs are threatened. For example, people
who lack instrumental control may be afforded some
compensatory sense of control by conspiracy theories,
because they offer them the opportunity to reject offi-
cial narratives and feel that they possess an alternative
account (Goertzel, 1994). Conspiracy theories may
promise to make people feel safer as a form of cheater
detection, in which dangerous and untrustworthy indi-
viduals are recognized and the threat they posed is
reduced or neutralized (Bost & Prunier, 2013).
Research supports this account of the motivation
behind conspiracy belief. Studies have shown that peo-
ple are likely to turn to conspiracy theories when they
are anxious (Grzesiak-Feldman, 2013) and feel power-
less (Abalakina-Paap, Stephan, Craig, & Gregory, 1999).
Other research indicates that conspiracy belief is strongly
related to lack of sociopolitical control or lack of psy-
chological empowerment (Bruder etal., 2013). Experi-
ments have shown that compared with baseline conditions,
conspiracy belief is heightened when people feel unable
to control outcomes and is reduced when their sense of
control is affirmed (van Prooijen & Acker, 2015).
Unfortunately, research conducted thus far does not
indicate that conspiracy belief effectively satisfies this
motivation. On the contrary, experimental exposure to
conspiracy theories appears to immediately suppress
people’s sense of autonomy and control (Douglas &
Leite, 2017; Jolley & Douglas, 2014a, 2014b). These
same studies have also shown that it makes people less
inclined to take actions that, in the long run, might
boost their autonomy and control. Specifically, they are
less inclined to commit to their organizations and to
engage in mainstream political processes such as voting
and party politics. Furthermore, exposure to conspiracy
theories may subtly undermine people’s autonomy in
another way. Douglas and Sutton (2008) showed that
people were effectively persuaded by proconspiracy
material but were not aware that they had been per-
suaded and falsely recalled that their preexposure
beliefs were identical to their new beliefs. Since con-
spiracy theories suggest that important outcomes are
540 Douglas et al.
in the hands of malevolent forces who possess and
exercise powers beyond legitimate limits, it would not
be surprising if further research suggests that their
effect is often disempowering.
Causal explanations, conspiracy explanations included,
are also informed by various social motivations, includ-
ing the desire to belong and to maintain a positive
image of the self and the in-group. Scholars have sug-
gested that conspiracy theories valorize the self and the
in-group by allowing blame for negative outcomes to be
attributed to others. Thus, they may help to uphold the
image of the self and the in-group as competent and
moral but as sabotaged by powerful and unscrupulous
others. If this is the case, we can expect conspiracy theo-
ries to be particularly appealing to people who find the
positive image of their self or in-group to be threatened
(Cichocka, Marchlewska, & Golec de Zavala, 2016).
Research generally supports this expectation. Experi-
mental results suggest that experiences of ostracism
cause people to believe in superstitions and conspiracy
theories, apparently as part of an effort to make sense
of their experience (Graeupner & Coman, 2017). Mem-
bers of groups who have objectively low (vs. high)
status because of their ethnicity (Crocker, Luhtanen,
Broadnax, & Blaine, 1999) or income (Uscinski & Parent,
2014) are more likely to endorse conspiracy theories.
People on the losing (vs. winning) side of political pro-
cesses also appear more likely to believe conspiracy
theories (Uscinski & Parent, 2014). Conspiracy belief has
also been linked to prejudice against powerful groups
(Imhoff & Bruder, 2014) and those perceived as enemies
(Kofta & Sedek, 2005).
These findings suggest that conspiracy theories may
be recruited defensively, to relieve the self or in-group
from a sense of culpability for their disadvantaged posi-
tion. In keeping with this defensive motivation, con-
spiracy belief is associated with narcissism—an inflated
view of oneself that requires external validation and is
linked to paranoid ideation (Cichocka, Marchlewska, &
Golec de Zavala, 2016). Conspiracy belief is also pre-
dicted by collective narcissism—a belief in the in-group’s
greatness paired with a belief that other people do not
appreciate it enough (Cichocka, Marchlewska, Golec de
Zavala, & Olechowski, 2016). Groups who feel that they
have been victimized are more likely to endorse con-
spiracy theories about powerful out-groups (Bilewicz,
Winiewski, Kofta, & Wójcik, 2013).
Although people are clearly attracted to conspiracy
theories when their social motivations are frustrated, it
is not at all clear that adopting these theories is a fruitful
way to fulfill these motivations. A feature of conspiracy
theories is their negative, distrustful representation of
other people and groups. Thus, it is plausible that they
are not only a symptom but also a cause of the feelings
of alienation and anomie—a feeling of personal unrest
and lack of understanding of the social world—with
which they are correlated (e.g., Abalakina-Paap etal.,
1999). Experiments show that exposure to conspiracy
theories decreases trust in governmental institutions,
even if the conspiracy theories are unrelated to those
institutions (Einstein & Glick, 2015). It also causes dis-
enchantment with politicians and scientists (Jolley &
Douglas, 2014a). So far, therefore, empirical research
suggests that conspiracy theories serve to erode social
capital and may, if anything, frustrate people’s need to
see themselves as valuable members of morally decent
Summary, Caveats, and Future
Research thus far has successfully articulated some of
the motivations that, together with deficiencies in avail-
able information, cognitive ability, and motivation to
think critically, may contribute to conspiracy belief.
Although scholars have theorized about the conse-
quences of conspiracy beliefs for their adherents and the
community, relatively little empirical research has been
done to explore them. Nevertheless, preliminary work
suggests that despite the allure of conspiracy beliefs for
people who have heightened epistemic, existential, and
social motives, they may ultimately thwart those motives
further. In this sense, conspiracy theories might be seen
as an ironic or self-defeating manifestation of motivated
social cognition. There are grounds to expect further
research to corroborate this preliminary picture since, as
we have seen, conspiracy theories have some attributes
that do not lend themselves to the fulfillment of these
motives—for example, they are generally speculative and
contrarian, represent the public as ignorant and at the
mercy of unaccountable powers, and impute highly anti-
social and cynical motives to other individuals.
Nonetheless, there are also grounds to expect future
research to show that conspiracy theories fulfill the
needs of some people. The experimental research con-
ducted thus far has sampled from populations (under-
graduate students and survey panelists) that are not
particularly disadvantaged or threatened and that gen-
erally do not endorse conspiracy theories. For these
people, conspiracy theories are likely to be experienced
as unsettling, destabilizing, and potentially alienating.
However, these people are not whom scholars have
had in mind when they have argued that conspiracy
theories may sometimes be adaptive. They include
groups and individuals who are already alienated from
society and for whom conspiracy theories may offer
some compensation. These include disempowered
The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories 541
groups who may use conspiracy theories to subvert
dominance hierarchies by formulating their own under-
standing of realities (Sapountzis & Condor, 2013) and
by fostering solidarity and collective action (Adams,
O’Brien, & Nelson, 2006). In these communities, and
indeed in online communities in which conspiracy
theories represent normative or even official positions
(e.g., the 9/11 Truth movement), conspiracy belief may
offer an important source of belonging and shared real-
ity. Furthermore, history has repeatedly shown that
corporate and political elites do conspire against public
interests. Conspiracy theories play an important role in
bringing their misdeeds into the light.
To conduct fair tests of the utility of conspiracy belief,
controlled longitudinal and experimental investigations
of disadvantaged and threatened populations are
needed. In particular, future research needs to examine
individuals whose psychological needs are chronically
or experimentally threatened and determine whether
conspiracy belief moves them closer to or further away
from the fulfillment of these needs. In one such design,
Jolley, Douglas, and Sutton (2017) exposed people to
threats to the legitimacy of their social system. They
found that the deleterious effects of these threats on
satisfaction with the status quo were eliminated when
participants were also exposed to conspiracy theories.
Conspiracy theories therefore appeared to buffer people
from the effects of threats to the status quo.
We have reviewed the current literature on the psycho-
logical factors that appear to drive conspiracy belief.
We conclude that conspiracy belief appears to stem to
a large extent from epistemic, existential, and social
motives. Research has yet to demonstrate that it effec-
tively serves those motivations, and early indications
are that it may often thwart them. It is possible, there-
fore, that conspiracy belief is a self-defeating form of
motivated social cognition. However, important ques-
tions remain open, and more controlled research on
the consequences of conspiracy beliefs is needed, par-
ticularly on the vulnerable and disadvantaged popula-
tions that have been identified as most likely to benefit
from them. We hope that this review will serve as an
organizing schema for future research on the psychol-
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Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared that there were no conflicts of interest
with respect to the authorship or the publication of this
This work was funded by the Centre for Research and Evi-
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