Why Do People Believe in Conspiracy Theories?

I’ve never been a huge fan of conspiracy theories. If a conspiracy theory was actually true, I could never understand how such a significant event could be kept a secret without the public hearing about it, while there are mountains of evidence showing that the conspiracy theory can’t possibly have occurred in the first place. On the other hand, I love discussing conspiracy theories and whether they are plausible or not. I may not believe in conspiracy theories, but I wonder why people are so attracted to them. According to a Fairleigh Dickinson University poll, 63% of registered American voters think at least one political conspiracy is real. Could it be the appeal to mystery, inclination to doubt powerful people and groups, desire to feel in control of a turbulent situation, or just an honest belief that there is enough evidence to believe in certain conspiracy theories?


There are many different reasons that people believe in conspiracy theories. According to political scientists Joseph Parent and Joseph Uscinski, education could play a large role in whether someone believes in conspiracy theories or not. In one study, they discovered that only 23% of people with postgraduate degrees, compared to a shocking 42% of people who haven’t graduated from high school, are likely to believe in conspiracy theories. This may seem like Parent and Uscinski are claiming that those who believe in conspiracy theories are stupid, but that is not the case. This study is only indicating that people with more practice in searching for actual evidence rather than being persuaded by emotion and instinct can notice more easily when a conspiracy theory has no credence to it.

Another reason certain people tend to believe in conspiracies is to feel in control. Jan-Willem van Prooijen performed multiple studies to demonstrate this assertion. In one study, Prooijen gathered 119 people, telling half of them to write down instances when they felt in control, and the other half to write down times when they did not feel in control. After researchers went on to ask each individual about a certain conspiracy, the results were clear; the people who wrote down times when they did not feel in control were much more likely to believe in the conspiracy theory.

Besides feeling out of control, cynicism, narcissism and low self-esteem are other attributes of people who generally believe in conspiracy theories. According to Viren Swami, a psychology professor, believers in conspiracies are more likely to think poorly of themselves and to be distrusting of others. In similar studies, researchers at the University of Kent conducted multiple studies of over 200 people where they would ask each person if they agreed with certain conspiracy theories or not. The researches would also ask them to assess themselves on their egotism and their self-esteem. The results revealed that, in general, those who believed in conspiracies more often were also more likely to have low self-esteem and be narcissistic.

Considering all of these studies regarding why certain people believe in conspiracy theories, could they actually be right? In some cases, yes. One of the most famous instances occurred in 1953 to 1964 in a project known as MKUltra. The CIA worked with 80 institutions like prisons, hospitals, and universities to perform immoral experiments on people without their permission. The goal was to gain knowledge on biological and chemical materials in order to create better weapons in preparation for the Cold War. Many of these “patients” were tortured in odd and various manners during the program’s existence. Another conspiracy theory that turned out to be true occurred in 1964, when North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked a US battleship, the USS Maddox. After the USS Maddox had “successfully” defended itself and fired back, President Lyndon Johnson announced that two of the enemy boats had been destroyed, maybe more. Some people created a conspiracy theory that the US battleship had pretended they were being attacked when no one was even there in order to intensify the conflict in Vietnam. It turned out that these people were correct.


Despite these rare cases where believers in conspiracies were actually correct, there are numerous other instances where there is plenty of evidence to disprove conspiracy theories. One of the more ridiculous conspiracy theories is that the 1969 moon landing never happened. Not only would hundreds of people in NASA have had to keep that a secret for over 40 years, but there is also evidence of the moon landing. The Apollo 11 astronauts brought back lunar rocks, which were then studied by scientists, who would have noticed if the rocks were simply from Earth. Also, China’s lunar probe, India’s lunar probe, and other space agencies’ probes have visual evidence of Americans walking on the moon. Additionally, the men took picture evidence themselves. Surprisingly, according to a 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll, 14% of Americans still believe the first moon landing was fake.


In fact, according to Oxford University’s Dr. David Robert Grimes, conspiracies should take no longer than four years to be revealed to the public. Dr. Grimes made an equation to determine the probability of a conspiracy being accidentally, or purposefully, revealed to the public by someone inside of the operation. Consequently, conspiracies regarding the moon landings, 9/11, Paul McCartney, Elvis Presley, global warming, the flying saucer in Roswell, Princess Diana, and JFK should all be debunked based on Dr. Grimes’s equation. However, it is good to question commonly held beliefs and these conspiracies can be factual in rare circumstances. Yet, if there is solid evidence to support that an event has taken place, one should not continue to doubt it based on blind faith. This is similar to the prayer experiment we discussed in class, where no matter what the results showed, they are rendered useless if certain people can’t be influenced due to their blind faith for a certain belief. In my opinion, based on the studies mentioned earlier, most of these believers are likely to be narcissistic, cynical, have low self-esteem, feel like they are not in control, or are possibly less educated. Once again, I am not saying people who believe conspiracies are bad or stupid people, but based on the science, they are likely to have these certain attributes.

5 thoughts on “Why Do People Believe in Conspiracy Theories?

  1. Sean Kyle Reilly

    Hey Anthony!

    As I was reading your post, I slowly started to remove my tin foil hat, but then quickly re-adjusted it and realized that your post was also well written propaganda to try and calm my nerves!

    While I completely agree that some conspiracy theories are just plain silly, like how an alien race of reptiles planted humans here just to take advantage of them, there are some that are plausible, which leads to a highly interesting and yet sometimes scary series of thoughts which can only be disputed by evidence coupled with personal opinion. For some, conspiracies are a chance to escape the realities of the world today (hunger, drought, war, etc.), while others seek out conspiracies and trying to prove them in the name of justice and truth.

    A great example, like you mentioned above, is the JFK assassination theory. “With a very few exceptions, virtually all of the records identified as belonging to the Kennedy Collection have been opened in part or in full,” according to the official National Archives of the US Government (https://www.archives.gov/research/jfk/faqs.html#sealed), meaning that a few files are still sealed up… 53 years after the fact. Suspicious? Maybe not… But what could possibly be so damning about the United States during the 1960s that we, as the general public in 2016, would not be able to read about 53 years later? That, coupled with the fact that there are only TWO exceptions for most classified files to remain classified after a 50 year marker, and how most classified information is released effortlessly after a roughly 30 year period, the chance of there being something wrong about the current info surrounding the JFK Assassination seems to be increasing (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Declassification#United_States for more info on the process).

    Either way, conspiracies tend to bring out the more creative side of humanity, and have lasted for thousands of years. In the chance, key word being chance which is something to never rule out, that they do stick, the information gathered about said event could potentially change a population, or even humanity’s way of thinking as a whole, which is what ultimately makes conspiracies so alluring to ponder over.

    Great work on your post though, but perhaps next time try to use more scientific articles as opposed to just news sources. Best of luck with the rest of the year!

    1. Anthony Michael Calligaro Post author

      Hi Sean! Thank you for spending the time to read over my blog and give such a lengthy and passionate response. However, I would like to respond as you seem to have disagreed with some of the information I have presented. FIrst of all, you implied that I said conspiracies are silly, which I never wrote in my blog. I even gave examples of certain conspiracies that came true, which wouldn’t make any sense if I thought conspiracies were “silly.” Additionally, I never said that the conspiracy regarding JFK’s assassination was not true, I merely asserted that based on Dr. Grimes’s equation, it is very unlikely that the truth hasn’t been leaked, purposely or accidentally, to the public by now if it truly was a conspiracy.

      Moreover, I stated right from the start that I love discussing conspiracies and whether they are plausible or not, which you seemed to question in your second to last paragraph of your comment. Lastly, I did use a few scientific articles in my blog. Yes, I used news articles as well, but that does not make the scientific information within them untrustworthy. The studies I cited in these news articles are from reliable sources and still report data that helped to explain why certain people believe in conspiracy theories.

      Thank you once again for commenting! Although it seems that we may have different opinions on conspiracy theories, I enjoyed your comment and seeing another point of view.

      1. Sean Kyle Reilly

        Hey Anthony!

        I just wished to respond to your response in order to clear some things up. In regards to the ‘silly’ comment, I was using the word in response to the disproved theory of the moon landing, and others like it, and how we view those beliefs and those obviously disproved theories to be silly – and just that. Sorry for the confusion on that matter and I did not mean to imply that you held the same belief.

        Also, I never questioned your love for discussing conspiracy theories in my last paragraph, rather I was using the paragraph to justify the importance behind conspiracy theories and why they should matter to not only the cynics, narcissists, and possibly less educated of our society (as mentioned in the last paragraph of the post) but to even the well-educated, honest, and hard working members of society as a whole, who could be deeply affected as a result of the findings from these conspiracy theories becoming true. Like you mentioned with the MKUltra program, it was a troubling find which proved to be correct, so troubling in fact that “President Ford issued an executive order barring the CIA from engaging in drug testing,” in 1975, nearly two decades after its beginning ((http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/radiation/dir/mstreet/commeet/meet4/trnsct04.txt), and the Executive Order itself can be found here, (http://fas.org/irp/offdocs/eo11905.htm#SEC.%206.)). Had the issue not been brought to light, perhaps the CIA would have continued to conduct dangerous, illegal, and unethical testing of torture and substances in the following decades, causing even more damage to innocent lives.

        All I wished to highlight from my comment earlier was the importance conspiracies play within a society, and while certainly a number of conspiracies remain just a conspiracy and even die out over time, there are others that are worth pursuing in the name of truth, justice, and closure for those affected by the incidents. Most conspiracy theories proven true take longer than four years to come to light, in opposition to what Dr. Grimes said, which is where the example of the hot-topic of JFK’s Assassination, and the MKUltra example, partially came to be mentioned in these comments. There is no saying that the other conspiracy theories mentioned in that last paragraph could possibly be proven true over time through the revealing of evidence or new information being released, which most of currently have some form of evidence behind and are not blind faith as mentioned.

        Hopefully this comment cleared some things up as well, and I do apologize for any misunderstandings there may have been. Thanks for replying to the comment though, and just like you I also like to welcome the plausibility of conspiracy theories as well! Best of luck!

  2. Michael Gerard Shevlin

    While I don’t believe nearly all conspiracies, I love thinking about the endless possibilities behind them. A lot of the reason people believe in conspiracies is because it’s simply fun to do so. In researching some significant conspiracies, I learned that one of the greatest conspiracies of all time has finally been debunked. This article http://thewireless.co.nz/articles/the-mother-of-all-conspiracies-has-been-debunked
    gives a natural explanation for chemtrails (chemicals released by planes in the sky) which many people assumed to be issued by the government to control the population. I had never heard of this conspiracy until I read the article, and I doubt I would have believe it even if I hadn’t read the debunking article. However, many people, even many scientists, believed this may have been true!

  3. Corbin Kennedy Miller

    I think the main reason that people believe in conspiracy theories is because, with the age of social media and the internet, we have started to grow up in a new age focused around scrutiny and doubt. If you have ever looked at the comment section of YouTube videos , you can tell that people like to disagree with each other and the social norm. This is why conspiracy theories are such a popular trend, because it allows people to go against the social norm and is fairly entertaining and interesting to talk about. Here is a link of the most interesting conspiracy theories. http://oddorwhat.com/conspiracy-theories/10-bizarre-conspiracy-theories-that-challenge-the-imagination/

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