Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories

My book, Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories, is out now! You can buy it now from all the usual places, in hardback and for Kindle and other e-readers. ( / / Barnes & Noble / Waterstones) Continue reading

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50 years today – 20th July 1969 – we landed on the Moon. Or, did we?

Popular conspiracy theories propose the moon landing was a hoax and the footage recorded in a Hollywood studio. An explanation for why could be that at the time, the Americans had not yet developed a safe way to get a person on the moon – as promised – so they faked it! On the approach to the 50th anniversary, I have been invited to speak about this conspiracy theory, so I thought I’d pen a short blog post on the topic.


Conspiracy theories are popular, with 12% of British people believing that the moon landing was faked.  But, why do people believe in conspiracy theories?

The moon landing conspiracy theories showcase a tale of mistrust of information; a mistrust towards those with power – whether this is the government or NASA. This mistrust can increase the credibility of conspiracy theory accounts, as these accounts support a persons’ worldview. Indeed, conspiracy theories breed when the conspiracy account fits with the prior held beliefs or the way that a person sees the world (often referred to as motivated reasoning) – simply if a person believes powerful groups act in secret, where they are involved in plots and schemes, this will likely breed conspiratorial thinking to a range of events, including the moon landing.

However, simple exposure can also increase people’s belief in conspiracy theories. Researchers found that after exposure to a video promoting government conspiracy theories about the moon landing (segment taken from Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon), belief in conspiracy theories increased immediately after the exposure and reminded heightened two weeks later (when compared to people who had not watched the video). It is plausible that the influence will be stronger if the conspiracy fits your prior belief; but nonetheless, this research demonstrates the potential impact of simple exposure to conspiracy theories.

People also have a desire to search for knowledge and find the truth – however, research has shown that people who are low in analytical thinking (and instead rely on intuitive thinking) are more likely to subscribe to conspiracy theories. In other words, people may have the desire to be rationale and seek knowledge, however, they may rely more on intuition rather than critical evaluation (see here for a discussion). This process could also be clouded by how they see the world; their motivated reasoning as uncovered earlier.

In insolation, believing that the moon landing conspiracy theory is a hoax may have limited consequences; however, we know that people who believe in one conspiracy are very likely to subscribe to multiple conspiracy theories. The belief in the moon landing conspiracy may go on to promote the belief that other events have been faked – such as the Sandy hook shooting in America as discussed by Peter Knight. This could become worrying because conspiracy theories have been linked to violent tendencies – for example, a link has been demonstrated between people endorsing conspiracy beliefs and accepting violence towards the government.

Did we land on the moon? Our beliefs about the world and ability to think analytically (rather than rely on our intuition) will likely play a role in our response to that question.


You can listen to recent interviews I have given to BBC Radio Sussex and Stoke. Other scholars have written and commented as part of an excellent series on the moon landings in the Conversation.

I’m also part of a panel discussing moon landing conspiracy theorists at the Science Museum at the end of July 2019 (£).

Posted in Social psychology, What's the harm, World events | Leave a comment

Conspiracy theories fuel prejudice towards minority groups

By Daniel Jolley and Karen Douglas

Some 60% of British people believe in at least one conspiracy theory, a recent poll reveals. From the idea that 9/11 was an inside job to the notion that climate change is a hoax, conspiracy theories divert attention away from the facts in favour of plots and schemes involving powerful and secret groups. With the aid of modern technology, conspiracy theories have found a natural home online.

Conspiracy theories often unfairly and erroneously accuse minority groups of doing bad things. For example, one conspiracy theory accuses Jewish people of plotting to run the world, including the outlandish idea that Jewish billionaire George Soros is a mastermind of a vast global conspiracy to “reduce humanity to slavery”. Another conspiracy theory proposes that global warming was created by the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive. Yet another conspiracy theory accuses immigrants of plotting to attack Britain from within.

In our research, we wanted to look at the impact of these types of conspiracy theories. How do they actually make people feel about minority groups? In our new paper, published in the British Journal of Psychology, we try to answer this question based on the results of three experiments.

Read the full piece on The Conversation:

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New research shows a link between belief in conspiracy theories and everyday criminal activity

In a new paper published in the British Journal of Social Psychology, we have found that people who believe in conspiracy theories – such as the theory that Princess Diana was murdered by the British establishment – are more likely to accept or engage in everyday criminal activity.


In our first study, the findings indicated that people who believed in conspiracy theories were more accepting of everyday crime, such as trying to claim for replacement items, refunds or compensation from a shop when they were not entitled to do so.

In a second study, we found that exposure to conspiracy theories made people more likely to intend to engage in everyday crime in the future. We found that this tendency was directly linked to an individual’s feeling of a lack of social cohesion or shared values, known as ‘anomie’.

In summary, our research has shown for the first time the role that conspiracy theories can play in determining an individual’s attitude to everyday crime. Specifically, we found that that belief in conspiracy theories, previously associated with prejudice, political disengagement and environmental inaction, also makes people more inclined to actively engage in antisocial behaviour. It demonstrates that people subscribing to the view that others have conspired might be more inclined toward unethical actions.

You can find out more about the psychology of conspiracy theories on YouTube:

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Cartoon on the psychology of conspiracy theories

In June 2018, I was voted one of the winners of ‘I’m a Scientist’ – which is an online platform to engage school children in science where across a two-week period, I spoke to children of all ages about why people believe in conspiracy theories.  On being voted a winner, I was awarded funding for public engagement activities.

I am passionate about science communication where I regularly give public talks.  To try something different, I sought out artists from More than Minutes and gave them the task to draw what we know so far about the psychology of conspiracy theories.  The artists listened to me give a lecture where I discussed what is a conspiracy theory, why do people believe in conspiracy theories and what is the potential harm; before they spent the afternoon drawing the research.

Psych of Conspiracy Image High

I have turned the drawing into a video, where I provide a narration to bring to life the piece.  You can find this on YouTube.

With thanks to More than Minutes for drawing the research, alongside the support from I’m a Scientist and the British Psychological Society.

You can download the drawing here.

Posted in Round-Ups, Social psychology

Internet prophecy cults 101: QAnon and his predecessors

<this post is a 100%, definitely real email I recently sent that I thought I’d share>



SUBJECT: Re: advice pls

Hi George,

Thanks for your email. Flattered that you thought of me – of course I can give you a hand with this. I can see why you want to understand the appeal of QAnon. First, a brief history!

“QAnon”, also known as just plain Q, first appeared in October 2017. At first he was just another “insider” posting cryptic hints about the future of U.S. politics on anonymous messageboards, but he quickly gained a following for his claims that Donald Trump is both a secret genius and the present target of a doomed conspiracy to destroy Western civilization. These days, a flock of conspiracy-minded Trump supporters are following his “drops” – cryptic messages revealing different aspects of the conspiracy.

A standard Q post.

Despite being an anonymous shitposter, Q’s got a lot of people convinced that he’s got insider info on the deep state conspiracy against Trump. But you need to understand that this is a much older scam than Q himself. People have been pulling the same thing for decades.

The thing is, Q isn’t just a conspiracy theory. It’s a kind of internet prophecy cult. Never mind that its prophecies are almost entirely wrong when they’re not too vague to make a judgement one way or another.

Continue reading

Posted in Biases & heuristics, Confirmation bias, Events, World events | Tagged , , , , | 14 Comments

Every mass shooting produces the same conspiracy theories (more or less)

The same conspiracy theories pop up every single time there’s a mass shooting in the United States, with minimal variation. There are a couple of ways to look at this. On the one hand, maybe the conspiracy theories are right, and the Powers That Be, the ones who are really behind the mass shootings, like to use the same playbook over and over again. On the other hand, maybe it’s a combination of factors: common behaviours in unusual situations, fishing for connections, and recycled logic from previous incidents. At any rate, let’s run through the commonalities, and you can see for yourself what I mean.

  1. Multiple shooters

Ever since the Columbine shootings, where there were reports of more than two shooters, nearly every mass shooting has given rise to rumours that there were more shooters than officially acknowledged. I can’t actually find a single shooting that this hadn’t been true of, from the Virginia Tech massacre to the Aurora Batman incident to the Sandy Hook tragedy. Some theories of this type are more popular than others, but the multiple shooter motif is pretty consistent.

Continue reading

Posted in Social psychology, World events | Tagged , , | 42 Comments

Adam Ruins Everything: Episode on conspiracy theories

This week, US TV Show Adams Ruins Everything has an episode on conspiracy theories.  If you are in the US, you can tune in on 10th October 10/9c on Tru TV.  If you are not based in the US, you should be able to catch the episode online after it has aired.

In the show, Adam adds humour backed with scientific evidence to discuss important topics.  This week’s episode will showcase some of the research into the psychology of conspiracy theories that we discuss on this blog, such as to do with cognitive biases (see clips below). 

I was involved in advising the writers on the script to ensure it was accurate and – to my surprise – was invited to join the cast on set.  During the series, Adam brings on experts in the topic area to join the characters in a scripted segment; I involved in such a segment and was invited to discuss some of my work examining the consequences of conspiracy theories. 

It was a fantastic experience to join the cast and crew on set and whilst at the time of writing this post I have not seen the full episode, it is great to bring our research to a wide-reaching audience. 

Here are some teaser clips:


Posted in Social psychology | 6 Comments

Prevention is better than cure: Addressing anti-vaccine conspiracy theories

In a new paper that we have recently published, we found that people can be inoculated against the potentially harmful effects of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, but that once they are established, the conspiracy theories may be difficult to correct.

The paper with the tag-line “prevention is better than cure” has been published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology by myself and Karen Douglas.  The paper includes two experimental studies where participants were exposed to anti-vaccination conspiracy theories and factual information on vaccinations in alternate order. The participants then had to decide if they would vaccinate a child.

We found that participants who were given anti-vaccination conspiracy theories, before reading factual information about vaccines, were less likely to decide to vaccinate a child. Those who had the factual information first were resistant to conspiracy theories and were more likely to vaccinate.

In our previous research, we have demonstrated that conspiracy theories can potentially stop people from engaging in society in a positive way (see various posts on this blog such as here).  This current research highlights that once a conspiracy account has been established, it may be resistant to correction.  It is, therefore, important that other tools are developed that may help combat the negative impact of conspiracy theories.


You can access a full copy of the paper here.

Posted in Social psychology, What's the harm | 3 Comments

Fake news, conspiracy theories and the UK general election

Popular conspiracy theories propose that members of UK government murdered Diana, Princess of Wales; climate change is a hoax orchestrated by the world’s scientists to secure research funding and pharmaceutical companies and governments cover up evidence of harmful side effects of vaccines for financial gain.  Conspiracy theories like these accompany almost every significant social and political event and can typically be defined as attempts to explain the ultimate causes of events as the secret actions of malevolent powerful groups, who cover up information to suit their own interests.

Fake news, which involves the publication of fictitious information on social media, appear to be a fertile ground for conspiracy theories to flourish.  Indeed, millions of people subscribe to conspiracy theories.  Conspiracy theories are, therefore not reserved for only people who are paranoid, but rather, they are a normal everyday process that we are all susceptible to.   With the popularity of social media, conspiracy theories are at our fingertips more than ever before.

What’s the harm with conspiracy theories, anyway? In research conducted with my co-author, Prof Karen Douglas at the University of Kent, we have shown that being exposed to the idea that governments are involved in plots and schemes reduces people’s likelihood of wanting to engage in the political system.  People were less likely to want to vote.

We found that being exposed to conspiracy theories can make people feel politically powerless and feel that their vote will not count; if the government is conspiring against us, how can I make a difference?

In our most recent research, we have also uncovered that conspiracy theories are potentially resistant to correction.  Once a person subscribes to a conspiracy theory, they can be increasingly difficult to debunk.

It is, therefore, important that at the point of exposure to information, people are thinking critically.  If the headline sounds too good to be true, it very well may be!  Here are some practical suggestions to help with this:

  • Think about the source; who has written the article?
  • Evaluate the evidence contained within the article; is the piece based on fact?
  • Read multiple articles from a variety of outlets on the same topic. Do not just trust one article; try and get a full picture of the story that takes into account all sides of the argument.

We know that conspiracy theories can be potentially damaging and difficult to debunk.  So, think critically before clicking “share” on Facebook or “retweeting” on Twitter.  Be sure you feel confident that the piece is accurate before sharing!

Reposted from Staffordshire University’s Election Experts.

Posted in Social psychology, What's the harm | 5 Comments

Conspiracy theories can sometimes bolster rather than undermine support for the status quo

In a recent paper published in Political Psychology by myself from Staffordshire University and Karen Douglas and Robbie Sutton from the University of Kent, we found that conspiracy theories might be a way that people can maintain favourable attitudes towards society when the social system may be under threat. In other words, conspiracy theories may sometimes bolster rather than undermine support for the social status quo when its legitimacy is threatened.

Conspiracy theories are associated with almost every significant social and political event, such as the suggested theory that the U.S. government orchestrated the 9/11 attacks. A similar thread throughout conspiracy narratives is that they point accusing fingers at authority (such as the government). Conspiracy theories single out a small group of perceived wrongdoers who are not representative of society more generally but instead are working against us. Believing in conspiracy theories may, therefore, give people the opportunity to blame the negative actions on these wrongdoers, thus then bolstering support for the social system in general; blaming a few bad apples to save a threatened barrel.


This argument is in line with System Justification Theory which proposes that we all have a motivation to hold positive views about the society that we live in. When our society is threatened, however, we seek to defend or bolster the status quo; for example, people may use stereotypes – which are mental shortcuts about different groups of people – to justify differences between people to maintain the status quo that we are used to. In our new paper, we argue that belief in conspiracy theories may join the ranks of these system-justification processes.

We tested the system-justifying idea across several research studies, using both undergraduate students and members of the general public. We found that conspiracy theories increased when the legitimacy of society was threatened, and that also being exposed to conspiracy theories increased satisfaction with the status quo when under threat. We found that conspiracy theories were able to increase satisfaction with society in general because people blamed society’s problems on a small group of wrongdoers, rather than society in general.

This research provides a new understanding of the role that conspiracy theories may play in our society. To directly quote the end of the paper: “The present results suggest that by pointing fingers at individuals – even groups of individuals charged with operating the system – conspiracy theories may exonerate the system, just as blaming a driver for a car crash shifts blame from the car.”

Reference: Jolley, D., Douglas, K.M, & Sutton R. (in press). Blaming a few bad apples to save a threatened barrel: The system-justifying function of conspiracy theories. Political Psychology.

A open-access copy of the paper can be downloaded via Research Gate.

This post has been re-published from InPsych @ Staffordshire University.

Posted in Round-Ups, Social psychology | 9 Comments