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

Posted in Suspicious Minds | Tagged , , , | 44 Comments

How to dissuade parents from believing in anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories

by Darel Cookson, Daniel Jolley, Rachel Povey and Robert Dempsey, written for the Conversation.

Older people may be more vulnerable to COVID, but in the UK it’s the young that are now driving the pandemic. Last month, school-age children in Britain were 15 times more likely than people over 80 to have the coronavirus.

Leaving young people unvaccinated partly explains why cases have been so high in this group. This is why many countries are now offering COVID jabs to children. In the UK, all 12 to 15-year-olds are being offered a first vaccine dose. Some countries – such as the US and Israel – are offering COVID vaccines to children aged five and over.

Of course, with younger children, it’s their parents that decide whether they get the jab – and vaccine hesitancy can be a problem. In a recent US poll, three in ten parents said they would definitely not vaccinate their child against COVID. Concerns about side-effects or the perceived lower risk of COVID to kids may explain this. However, anti-vaccine conspiracy theories may also be playing a role.

We know that anti-vaccine conspiracy beliefs can be a barrier to vaccine uptake. A 2014 study showed that British parents exposed to anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, when asked to imagine that they had a fictional eight-month-old, were less likely to get that child vaccinated. Also, a more recent study across 24 countries demonstrated that anti-vaccine attitudes were highest among those who were also high in conspiratorial thinking.

Once COVID vaccines started being developed, it didn’t take long for specific conspiracy theories about them to appear – for instance that they contain microchips or make people infertileResearch has shown that believing in such theories is associated with reduced intentions to receive a COVID vaccine. It’s therefore highly plausible that believing in COVID conspiracies could prevent parents from wanting to vaccinate their children against the coronavirus.

Correcting conspiracies

Our research has looked at how to dissuade parents from believing in conspiracy theories that might prevent them from vaccinating their children – which is particularly relevant now that COVID vaccines are being offered to under-16s in many countries.

Past research has shown that people are influenced by the perceived beliefs and behaviours of other people – what are known as “social norms”. But these perceptions are often inaccurate, which can lead to people shaping their behaviour to fit a misperceived norm.

However, we didn’t know whether this was true specifically when it came to conspiracy theories. So as a first step, we explored whether there’s a link between perceived social norms and conspiracy beliefs among British parents.

Our finding backed up earlier research. Parents in the UK overestimated how much other British parents endorsed anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. And, as before, the more people believed that others believed these conspiracy theories, the more strongly they tended to believe themselves.

Knowing this, we then attempted to lower parents’ belief in anti-vaccine conspiracy theories by correcting their overestimation of what other parents think. We did this using the Social Norms Approach, a simple technique that works by correcting misperceptions – for example, by giving people feedback on how they misjudged the actual beliefs and behaviours of others. The aim of this is to recalibrate people’s perceptions, and so change their behaviour so that it aligns with what others actually think and do.

We tested this approach on a sample of British parents of young children. Parents first completed measures of their personal belief in anti-vaccine conspiracy theories and their intentions to vaccinate a fictional child. Next, they estimated to what extent “other UK parents” endorsed the same conspiracy theories and what their intentions to vaccinate would be.

Parents were then allocated to either receive feedback on their beliefs, which would correct any misperceptions of other parents’ conspiracy beliefs, or no feedback. Immediately afterwards, participants were again asked about their anti-vaccine conspiracy beliefs and intentions.

We found that correcting misconceptions reduced parents’ beliefs in anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. It also increased perceptions that other parents would vaccinate their children, which as a knock-on effect increased parents’ own intentions to have a child vaccinated.

A simple step to improve uptake

Our findings are the first to suggest that correcting inaccurate perceptions of what others think could be used to tackle anti-vaccine conspiracy beliefs and so improve vaccine uptake – both among adults themselves and children that they make decisions for.

When talking with people who might be persuaded by anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, a practical step could be to highlight that conspiracy beliefs are not as commonplace as people might think. Showing that it’s far more usual to vaccinate rather than not vaccinate could also be persuasive.

With vaccination levels in children still being quite low in the UK while COVID cases remain high, this simple psychological technique could be an important tool for addressing vaccine hesitancy, and one that many people could easily have a go at trying.

Read the full piece on The Conversation

Posted in Social psychology, What's the harm | 2 Comments

Introducing the Adolescent Conspiracy Beliefs Questionnaire (ACBQ)

Conspiracy theories can affect people’s beliefs and behaviours in significant ways. For example, they can influence decisions on important issues such as climate change and vaccination. Despite their importance, however, all of the existing research on conspiracy theories has been conducted with adults, and questionnaires to measure conspiracy beliefs have been designed only with adults in mind. Therefore, we do not currently know when and why conspiracy beliefs develop in young people, and how they change over time. This timely project – funded by the British Academy – has developed and validated a conspiracy beliefs questionnaire suitable for young people, called the Adolescent Conspiracy Beliefs Questionnaire (ACBQ).

We tested the ACBQ on a range of young people in the UK, allowing us to finalise 9 questions that measure young people’s belief in conspiracy theories. The ACBQ includes  questions such as “secret societies influence many political decisions” and “governments have deliberately spread diseases in certain groups of people”. Participants completing the scale are asked to respond to each statement on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). A higher mean score indicates a higher belief in conspiracy theories.

14 could be a peak age for believing in conspiracy theories

It was during the process of testing the ACBQ that we found that conspiracy theories flourished in teenage years. More specifically, we found that 14 is the age adolescents are most likely to start believing in conspiracy theories. We uncovered this by examining whether age group differences existed in conspiracy beliefs. In the second stage of testing the ACBQ – where we questioned 178 adolescents – we found as teenagers join Year 10 at age 14 (i.e. Key Stage 4 in the UK national curriculum), their conspiracy beliefs are higher than their younger counterparts. Learn more on this finding here.

Read the paper published in British Journal of Developmental Psychology (open-access)

Read the press release, or a longer piece in The i Paper

Download the 9-item ACBQ

Posted in Social psychology | 6 Comments

5G COVID-19 conspiracy beliefs and support for violence

Telecommunications companies, police officials, and media outlets worldwide have suggested that 5G coronavirus conspiracies have sparked a flurry of attacks on telecoms workers and infrastructure since the start of the pandemic.

Arson attacks and cases of criminal damage to masts, cabling and other telecoms equipment have been reported in over a dozen countries across the globe, from various places in Europe, to Canada, America, and New Zealand. In April, the BBC’s Newsbeat reported on accounts of harassment and violence, even murder threats, towards telecoms engineers in the UK, due to false theories suggesting that the emergence of the virus is connected to 5G.

Previous research has shown that conspiracy theories may be linked with violent intentions. To date, however, there have been no studies about why and when conspiracy beliefs may justify – and ignite – violence. Now, our research has addressed these gaps. The paper has been published in the British Journal of Social Psychology online today by myself and Dr Jenny Paterson.

5G conspiracies - shutterstock original

Investigating the psychological links

In our research, we explored the association between beliefs in 5G COVID-19 conspiracy theories and the justification and willingness to use violence in response to the alleged link between 5G and COVID-19.

Specifically, we assessed 601 UK participants’ levels of 5G COVID-19 conspiracy beliefs, ‘state anger’ – which is temporary, short-lasting outbursts of anger, and levels of paranoia. Here, paranoia refers to participants’ belief that there is hostile intent towards them personally – as opposed to the conspiratorial belief that powerful organisations are harming society at large.

Additionally, participants were asked questions about whether they thought violence was a justified response to the alleged link between 5G mobile technology and COVID-19. Participants similarly stated how likely they would be to engage in such behaviours.

The findings revealed that belief in 5G COVID-19 conspiracy theories was positively correlated with state anger. In turn, this state anger was associated with a greater justification of violence in response to a supposed connection between 5G mobile technology and COVID-19.

Alongside this, the results highlighted a greater intent to engage in similar behaviours in the future in those who subscribed to conspiratorial beliefs. The associations between anger and violence were strongest for those who reported higher levels of paranoia.

Our research also indicates that these patterns are not specific to 5G conspiratorial beliefs: general conspiracy theorising was linked to justification and willingness to engage in violent behaviour more generally because such theorising was associated with increased state anger. Furthermore, the link between this conspiratorial induced anger was most strongly associated with the justification of violence for participants who were most paranoid.

In sum, our novel findings extend our understanding and provide the first empirical link between 5G COVID-19 conspiracy beliefs and violent reactions, alongside uncovering why (anger) and when (paranoia) conspiracy beliefs may justify the use of violence.

You can read our paper here (freely accessible) and read more about the research here.


Posted in Social psychology, What's the harm | 2 Comments

Coronavirus is a breeding ground for conspiracy theories – here’s why that’s a serious problem

by Daniel Jolley and Pia Lamberty, written for the Conversation.

The novel coronavirus continues to spread around the world, with new cases being reported all the time. Spreading just as fast, it seems, are conspiracy theories that claim powerful actors are plotting something sinister to do with the virus. Our research into medical conspiracy theories shows that this has the potential to be just as dangerous for societies as the outbreak itself.

One conspiracy theory proposes that the coronavirus is actually a bio-weapon engineered by the CIA as a way to wage war on China. Others are convinced that the UK and US governments introduced the coronavirus as a way to make money from a potential vaccine. Some people even suggest that Bill Gates is sponsoring the coronavirus.

Although many of these conspiracy theories seem far-fetched, the belief that evil powers are pursuing a secret plan is widespread in every society. Often these relate to health. A large 2019 YouGov poll found 16% of respondents in Spain believe that HIV was created and spread around the world on purpose by a secret group or organisation. And 27% of French and 12% of British respondents were convinced that “the truth about the harmful effects of vaccines is being deliberately hidden from the public”.

The spread of fake news and conspiracy theories around the coronavirus is such a significant problem that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has created a “myth busters” webpage to try and tackle them.

Read the full piece on The Conversation:  

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

If others are conspiring, then why should I be well-behaved?

by Daniel Jolley, Karen Douglas, Ana Leite, and Tanya Schrader


We live in a complex world. To navigate this complexity, we often look to other people to decide what we should believe and how we should behave. But what happens if those “others” are perceived to be involved in shady plots and schemes? That is, what if we think they are engaged in conspiracies? Will we still rely on them to infer what sort of beliefs and behaviours are acceptable?

This question is important because conspiracy theories are popular. For example, around 60% of British people believe in at least one conspiracy theory. Well-known conspiracy theories blame governments, scientists, and many others for problems as diverse as terrorists acts, deaths of important people, plane crashes, and New Coke (which is not so new anymore). If we believe that other people do these sorts of things, this might alter our perceptions of social norms—what is expected from us—and signal that unethical behaviours are acceptable, particularly if those “others” are powerful groups with influence.

In our research, we set out to test this idea. Our first study showed that people who were more likely to believe in conspiracy theories were also more likely to report that they had engaged in everyday crimes such as trying to collect refunds or compensation from a store when they were not entitled to do so. Beliefs in conspiracy theories predicted everyday criminal behaviour, even when other predictors of criminal behaviour, such as personality traits reflecting people’s moral conscience, were taken into account.

In a second study, we tested whether reading about conspiracy theories increases the degree to which people accept everyday crime. Participants read an article about alleged government involvement in conspiracies, including the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Exposure to conspiracy theories increased people’s intentions to engage in everyday crime in the future.  If the government is corrupt, why shouldn’t I be?

You can read the full post at Character and Context.

Posted in What's the harm | 4 Comments

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 | 5 Comments

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:

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

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:

Posted in Social psychology, What's the harm | 4 Comments

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 | 4 Comments

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 , , , , | 18 Comments