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From the moon landing to climate change: Why conspiracy theories may not be so harmless

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Published on 28 December 2018

Conspiracy theories - why do people believe them?
Conspiracy theories - why do people believe them?

Conspiracy theories are everywhere, from claims of brainwashing the public over Brexit, to the UK government poisoning the Skripals to help distract from it.

 But why do people buy into these conspiracies, where do they come from, and when does a theory become a problem?

 Dr Rebecca Owens, a Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Sunderland, takes a look at behavioural patterns which may make a person more susceptible.

 Some of the world’s most well known conspiracy theories have prompted debate and argument over many years, including:


The moon landing:

Common conspiracy theories surrounding the moon landing suggest the Apollo mission was a hoax, staged by NASA, perhaps with the help of other organisations. They suggest the public were deliberately misled about the moon landings, between 1969-72. They claim the landings were manufactured and that vital evidence was destroyed.


Flat Earth societies:

A recent boom in Flat Earth theorists – or those who promote the idea that the Earth is flat rather than round – is mainly down to social media. However, societies date back to the middle of the 20th Century.


Climate change:

Although there are many different theories surrounding climate change, one of the more common involves claims that the science world’s consensus on global warming is based on manipulated data. The Global Warming conspiracy theorists believe the notion has been invented or manipulated for financial or ideological reasons.



‘Anti-vaxxers’ are those who opt not to get vaccinations because they believe they are harmful. Some also suggest that pharmaceutical companies deliberately cover up the side-effects of vaccines. The rise of the anti-vaxxer movement has been blamed for a resurge in some conditions like measles in more recent years.


Replacing celebrities with doppelgangers:

Ranging from the quirky to the bizarre, if you believe some reports, music star Avril Lavigne died and was replaced by a lookalike while Beyonce and Britney Spears have both been cloned.


So why do these theories exist – and why does it seem certain people are so happy to believe them?

 Here Dr Owens suggests some reasons behind peoples’ willingness to ‘believe’ despite evidence to the contrary.


The ‘in-group’

We evolved in very small scale tribes so trusting our in-group and mistrusting others makes sense in terms of promoting safety.

However, society today is very different to the one that we evolved in. We have a tendency to be less trusting of groups we don't know much about, for example, the government. If we don't know their inner workings, their agenda, their motives, how can we truly trust them?

Marginalised individuals seem to be more susceptible to adopting conspiracy theories which is perhaps because humans have an innate desire to belong, to be part of an in-group. 



Being 'in' on a conspiracy theory and having access to secret knowledge, can feed into an individual's sense of self importance.

If an individual feels marginalised, or has low self esteem and is therefore looking to 'belong', they are more susceptible to believing in conspiracy theories. This is because the idea that one is privileged to such unique, secret knowledge when the majority of individuals and experts apparently are not, protects their ego and esteem, making them feel important.

Knowing 'better' than the majority and the authorities promotes a sense of superiority. 



Often people who are anxious are prone to see negatives in neutral stimuli, leading to a greater sense of mistrust and wariness.

This can also lead to some conspiracy theories being endorsed because it gives an individual a sense of control, for example, if a person denies climate change and believes it is a hoax/lies and scientific data is falsified to align with this view, it makes them feel safer to think climate change is not real; it is beyond their control, and therefore the negative consequences of climate change will not happen and is not attributable to them.


False beliefs

Everyone of us susceptible to endorsing some form of false belief. It is a way of understanding the world.

For example, we may believe we have a lucky mascot, or we may endorse superstitious beliefs. It can make us feel better that we understand such events and that we have a degree of control over them.

Sometimes false beliefs can be a case of misunderstanding, but the longer we hold them, the harder they are to change because they have been reinforced at a neural level so many times in our own brain.

Some of us are able to consider the facts critically, however some people, perhaps due to anxiety or self-esteem, may not be able to adopt an unbiased opinion. 


Five enduring conspiracy theories

 JFK assassination:

President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, struck by two bullets — one in the head, one in the neck — while riding in an open-topped limo through Dealey Plaza in Dallas. Lee Harvey Oswald was charged with killing him.

But the murder has been the subject of mass conspiracy theories ever since, with a 2003 ABC News poll finding that 70% of Americans believe the death was the result of a broader plot.


9/11 cover-up:

A huge amount of video and photographic evidence of the two planes striking the World Trade Centre towers in 2001 has only gone on to provide fodder for an array of conspiracy theories. Many centred around the belief the terror attacks were a government cover-up for a secret plan to destroy the buildings


Area 51 and aliens:

Conspiracy theorists believe that the remains of crashed UFO spacecrafts are stored at Area 51, an Air Force base about 150 miles from Las Vegas, where government scientists reverse-engineer the aliens' highly advanced technology. Speculation over this has come from a variety of supposed UFO sightings in the area.


Diana murder conspiracy: 

21 years after her death in a car crash in Paris, conspiracy theories about the Princess continue.

While the majority accept she was killed in a speeding car driven by a drunk driver,  others still believe that something more secretive and intentional happened that night.

The conspiracy theories take a number of other forms, but all claim to point to the same fundamental belief: that someone wanted to kill Diana, and they helped orchestrate that night’s fatal crash.


Secret societies:

According to some, the world is ruled by a powerful, secretive few. The Illuminati is a sect said to have originated in 18th century Germany and which is allegedly responsible for the pyramid-and-eye symbol adorning the $1 bill in America.

Apparently, they intend to bring about world wars to strengthen the argument for the creation of a worldwide government