Intention Seekers: The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories About MS804


I wrote a post over at Psychology Today on the psychology behind conspiracy theories about airline disasters like the disappearance of MH370, and more recently, MS804. Part of the appeal, according to a handful of recent studies, may be how conspiracy theories resonate with our brain’s intentionality bias.

When ambiguous events happen, we automatically assume that they were intended, rather than accidental. The bias is easy to spot in kids. When young children see somebody sneeze of fall over, they think that the person must have meant to sneeze or fall over. As we grow older, of course, we realize that people don’t always intend to do everything they do, and we can override our automatic judgment of intent. But the bias stays with us. One study found that having people drink a few shots of alcohol made them more likely to interpret ambiguous events as intentional—which might explain why so many fights start in bars when somebody interprets an innocent comment as an aggressive affront.

To read more about how this helps us understand conspiracy theories, click over to Psychology Today.

Posted in Biases & heuristics, Intentionality bias, World events | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Stress and belief in conspiracy theories

A recent a piece of research published by Viren Swami and colleagues has uncovered a link between feeling stressed and belief in conspiracy theories.


Swami and colleagues gathered responses from over 400 people, where the responders completed various measures, such as indicating their perceived stress (over the last month), stressful life events (over last 6 months) and belief in conspiracy theories.  They found that more stressful life events and greater perceived stress predicted belief in conspiracy theories.

There are a couple of reasons proposed why this may be the case.  For example, when people experience stress (say a stressful life event), they may start thinking in a particular way such as seeing patterns when they do not exist, which may lead on to prompting a conspiratorial mind set.  Once this worldview has begun to develop therefore, belief in conspiracy theories are more easily reinforced.

Alternatively, the researchers suggest stress may not be the central driving force, but rather, the findings may be caused by a threat to a sense of control.  When an event happens; the death of JFK as an example, this causes people to feel a sense powerlessness, thus people may seek out conspiracy theories as a way to reinstall a sense of control.  The next step in the research is to examine the complex relationships between stress, control and belief in conspiracy theories in order to tease apart the mechanisms.


Investigating the associations between beliefs in conspiracy theories and factors such as stress is an important avenue of research. From my own work, we have highlighted the potential negative consequences of belief in, and exposure to, conspiracy theories.  It is therefore paramount that we strive to learn more about the psychology of conspiracy theories.

Of course conspiracy theories may offer several benefits.  They can be a way to gain a sense of control as suggested and can be said to promote transparency within authorities.  Conspiracy theories can also reduce the likelihood of people voting, taking action against climate change, and having a fictional child vaccinated.  In some of my most recent work, conspiracy theories can be used as a way to express negativity, alongside changing how we perceive other social groups.

As highlighted by Swami and colleagues therefore, examining belief in conspiracy theories remains an urgent issue for researchers and policy-makers.


Posted in Personality, Social psychology, What's the harm, World events | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

On “crazy” conspiracy theories


I wrote an op ed, published today on, on the topic of dismissing conspiracy theories (and theorists) as “crazy.” Pithy insults like crazy, delusional, irrational, wacky have become a common refrain, at least among click-baiting headline-writers and over-zealous pundits. But, as I explain in my article, these pseudo-psychological labels are misguided.

Here’s an excerpt:

Some pundits took the start of the new year as an excuse to aggregate, and denigrate, recent conspiracy theories. Alternet published “The 5 Craziest Right-Wing Conspiracy Theories of 2015” (subtitle: “The indefatigable right-wing loony factory pumped out some doozies this year.”). Bustle collected “The Most Bizarre Conspiracy Theories of 2015” and National Memo offered “This Year in Crazy: 2015 Belonged to the Wingnuts.” The Guardian’s film critic, Peter Bradshaw, wished for fewer “smug” conspiracy theories in 2016. “Nowadays,” he lamented, “there is always a malign pseudo-sophisticate dunce who can be relied upon to appear out of the online thicket, darkly insisting on a ‘provocateur’ conspiracy behind everything.”

When major news breaks, it doesn’t take long for people to come up with conspiracy theories, and it doesn’t take much longer for other people to call the conspiracy theorists wacky, delusional and other unkind adjectives. Confirmation bias kicks in; both sides double down on the inflammatory rhetoric.

Who’s “smugger,” really — to borrow Bradshaw’s word — the theorists or the anti-theorists? The antis should not be so quick to assert their superiority.

Click here to read the article on

Posted in Biases & heuristics, Pop culture, Proportionality bias, Suspicious Minds | Tagged , , , | 10 Comments

How the Illuminati conquered hip hop (allegedly)


I wrote an article for The Daily Beast exploring the origins of the rumors that Jay Z, Kanye West, and many of their colleagues are pawns of the Illuminati. Here’s an excerpt…

“Illuminati want my mind, soul, and my body / Secret society trying to keep they eye on me,” rapped Mobb Deep’s Prodigy, in a 1995 remix of LL Cool J’s “I Shot Ya.” The same year, “Cell Therapy” by Goodie Mob painted a bleak picture of what society will look like under the coming New World Order, invoking conspiracy tropes like martial law, concentration camps, and black helicopters: “Time is getting shorter / If we don’t get prepared, people, it’s gonna be a slaughter.” Also released in 1995, “We Can’t Win” by AZ begins with a monologue explaining how society is really structured: “This world is ruled and controlled by societies that exist within societies, that exist within societies, you understand? These secret societies is maneuvering within society to control society. That’s why society is outta control. Thirty-third and one third, I heard, the Illuminated ones.”

Over the next year or so, Ras Kass, the Wu-Tang Clan, and Dr. Dre all mentioned the Illuminati or the New World Order. Canibus went even further down the rabbit hole with his 1998 single “Channel Zero,” which begins by claiming the government is covering up visits by super-intelligent aliens, and explains that Roswell, cattle mutilations, and even astronomer Carl Sagan were part of the plot.

Click here to read the whole article on The Daily Beast.

Posted in Pop culture | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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 , , , | 42 Comments

Vice Motherboard article on conspiracy psychology

A recent article by journalist Molly Osberg gives an excellent overview of the psychology of conspiracy theories, including a few quotes from me, among other researchers.

“There’s not that much of a difference, really, between conspiracy theorists and the rest of us,” says Rob Brotherton, whose exhaustive book on the subject of conspiracy theory psychology, Suspicious Minds, is out next month.

According to the author, who holds a PhD from the University of London and currently teaches at Barnard, the qualities that make people believe the truth is out there “are things we all suffer from … They’re biases that are built into our brains,” whether they affect how we remember meeting our partners or whether we think Osama bin Laden is really dead.

Click here to read the full article on Vice Motherboard.

Posted in Biases & heuristics, Suspicious Minds | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

How to stop Donald Trump peddling vaccine conspiracy theories

To nobody’s surprise, Donald Trump, the billionaire front-runner for the US Republican party’s nomination for presidential candidate, has continued to spread his views on the dangers of vaccination. Trump is no stranger to controversy, least of all when it comes to airing his much-debunked ideas that vaccines cause autism. He has long insisted that his anecdotal evidence proves that autism is rife and is being directly caused by vaccinations, specifically but not exclusively by the MMR vaccine.

Trump again decided to express his opinion last night on CNN’s televised debate, which went largely unchallenged by one of his other nominee contenders, Dr. Ben Carson. They both seemed unaware that rather than there being an autism epidemic, there is a growing risk instead of a measles epidemic.

A popular theme emerges when we examine this type of conspiracy theory – that of conflated political concern. We take a genuine and understandable worry about the size of government and its potential role and interference into citizens’ lives, but then we inflate this into something that becomes inaccurate in the face of science. Vaccinations are an incredibly important part of a child’s development, but does or should a parent’s right to choose what is best for their child override that? Unfortunately the nuances of that genuine debate are overshadowed by bad science and the idea that the government or ‘Big Pharma’ are somehow poisoning children for their own selfish ends.

The majority of Americans believe vaccines to be safe, regardless of political belief, but the opinion is clearly split between those who feel vaccines should be mandatory and those that feel there should be some form of parental choice.

Dan Jolley and Karen Douglas demonstrated in an excellent study in 2014 that exposing people to anti-vaccine conspiracy theories made them less likely to vaccinate compared to controls. Their findings helped demonstrate how conspiracy beliefs can have serious real-world consequences, and can have a role in shaping health-related behaviours. Interestingly, the effect of the conspiracy theory could be explained in part by participants’ existing perception of the dangers of vaccines, alongside their feelings of powerlessness, disillusionment and mistrust in authorities.

So what can we do about it? 

A very recent study published earlier this year may give us some answers. Zachary Horne and colleagues from the psychology departments at the University of Illinois and University of California found that the best way to positively impact people’s attitudes to vaccination was not to try and counter existing anti-vaccination theories.

Instead, they found that by highlighting factual information about the dangers of communicable diseases, such as measles, had a significant effect on attitudes surrounding vaccination. Participants were shown short passages written by a mother whose child had contract measles, alongside pictures of children with measles, mumps and rubella, stressing the importance of vaccinations. By making people understand the consequences of failing to vaccinate they found the change in attitudes to be far greater than any form of correction of the bad science about the dangers of vaccinations.

Could showing images of ill children counteract anti-vaccination belief?

Worldwide, there are 400 deaths a day from measles, but because the successful vaccination programmes of first world countries have more or less eradicated this terrible disease, we are in danger of forgetting just how serious it is. So, perhaps an admirable Twitter campaign could instead remind Trump and others of the dangers of not vaccinating children, rather than the debunked science behind their theory? This research opens up a promising new avenue for delivering parents accurate information but also reinforcing the importance of vaccination.

Posted in Social psychology, What's the harm | Tagged , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Buffering conspiracy theories with feelings of control

The psychology of conspiracy theories is an ever-growing field. I have Google Scholar Alerts set up to let me know of new research and the alerts have been particularly active recently.

It is great to see the field flourishing with activity. We are learning more about who endorses conspiracy theories, and why, whilst also examining their societal consequences. Some of the recent research has been published by colleagues of this blog – such as Rob’s paper on people who are prone to boredom being more likely to believe in conspiracy theories and Mike’s paper showing that labelling an idea a “conspiracy theory” does not make people less likely to believe it.

Another paper recently has also sparked my attention. The paper has been published by van Prooijen and Acker in Applied Cognitive Psychology that further examined the question of why people endorse conspiracy theories. Simply across two studies, they found that if people feel they do not have control over a situation (both in an experimental and a real-life control scenario), they indicated belief in conspiracy theories to a greater extent.

control paper

My own line of research is investigating the social psychological consequences of conspiracy theories (example post here) and how we can address these consequences. I therefore found their research particularly relevant. Specifically in Study 1, participants were exposed to three conditions: primed with either high or low control, or a baseline condition that was unrelated to control. The prime involved the participants writing down times when they felt in control (high) vs. times when they did not feel in control (low).   In the baseline, participant recalled what they had for dinner last night.

As already mentioned, they found that low control is associated with higher belief in conspiracy theories. They also found however, that those in the high control condition reported reduced belief in conspiracy theories when compared to those in the baseline condition. Affirming a sense of control can buffer people against conspiracy theories.

Their study therefore offers a potential avenue to intervention. The implication of the research, as highlighted in the paper, is clear: When society is facing a control threat, it is important for political leaders to instil a sense of trust. van Prooijen and Acker suggest one way to do this is for leaders to be transparent about motivations for important decisions, as this has been associated with feelings of control.

Research examining tools to address the potential consequences of conspiracy theories is important. Exploring these tools is only in its infancy however, but the findings from this paper are promising. Watch this space.

Posted in Reviews, What's the harm | Tagged , | 6 Comments

The conspiracy theory label: Not as powerful as you might think

Calling something a conspiracy theory is basically an intellectual scarlet letter. It’s a way of dismissing something you don’t like, of placing something outside the bounds of reasonable discourse. “That’s just a conspiracy theory” is a depressingly effective way of getting someone to plug their ears and turn their brains off. Right?

Wrong, apparently!

A series of experiments I did last year came up with an interesting little finding – labeling something a conspiracy theory doesn’t make someone believe it any less than if you call it something more neutral. This goes against conventional wisdom that I’ve heard repeated quite a few times online and among people who study conspiracy theories. The journal Political Psychology has just published a paper describing these studies – you can read the whole thing free here (the article is open-access thanks to a generous payment by the University of Winchester).

It’s not like I was sitting and sneering at the idea that the conspiracy theory label was powerful before running this study – I really thought this was going to go the other way. I realized sometime last year that for some reason nobody had demonstrated that the conspiracy theory label affects how seriously people take something. I thought it would be an easy slam dunk. I modified Rob’s Generic Conspiracist Beliefs scale so that one version asked how likely a variety of conspiracy theories were, and the other version asked how likely a variety of ideas were. To this I added a few additional questions that were similar in structure to the GCB items but were about confirmed historical conspiracies – things like MKULTRA, Nixon using the IRS to go after his enemies, and so on. I showed the whole mess to 150 MTurk workers, sat back, and waited for the expected results to roll in. To my great surprise, people who were asked about “conspiracy theories” judged them to be no less likely than people who were asked about “ideas.” (At the suggestion of a reviewer, I also checked out the correlation between the historical items and the GCB items – turns out that people who believe in fewer conspiracy theories are also less likely to agree that MKULTRA, COINTELPRO, etc. were real. Pretty interesting, and I’m sure that everyone will have a strong opinion on why this is. I see three options: 1. People who are more conspiratorially minded are more likely to know about these historical conspiracies because they’re often referred to in conspiracy culture; 2. People who find out about historical conspiracies become disillusioned and from there begin to find it more likely that more speculative conspiracy theories are true; and/or 3. People who agree with one thing will agree with another thing that sounds like it, regardless of knowledge, so even a conspiracy-minded person who had never heard of COINTELPRO would think it’s just the sort of thing the government would do. I think it’s almost certainly a combination of all three, and also that this parenthetical is probably way too long.)

One of the images from Experiment 2.

One of the images from Experiment 2. One weird trick for doing psychology experiments!

So, fine. Null result. Well, it was only 150 people. I decided to run down the effect by running a second study. This time I used a statistical power analysis to figure out that I should run 802 people to have a high chance of detecting a relatively small difference between groups. I also wanted to move away from conspiracies that people might have heard of and invent something entirely new. Instead of historical conspiracies or general thoughts about conspiracies, I showed my participants a fake news article about a fake political scandal in Canada (something about tax dollars being illegally funnelled into a re-election campaign). Half of the participants saw the headline “Corruption allegations emerge in wake of Canadian election,” while the other half saw “Conspiracy theories emerge in wake of Canadian election.” They then rated their thoughts on the allegations. The result? Same as before: no difference. The “conspiracy theories” people didn’t take the allegations any less seriously than the “corruption allegations” people did.

So this was pretty interesting. Not the result I’d expected, but that’s science for you. The question now is why there’s no effect when it seems like just about everyone assumed there would be. It’s possible that the label only works under some specific circumstances that these experiments didn’t cover, but even then it seems the label’s hardly as powerful as it’s been given credit for. On the other hand, maybe people in general just don’t have a negative view of conspiracy theories – maybe the intellectual stigma around the term simply doesn’t exist outside of academia (this is what Lee Basham, a philosopher from Wabash College, thinks). I’m not so sure. I think people are probably ambivalent about conspiracy theories. They’re the target of a lot of mockery and derision, and not all of it comes from elites or people who benefit from the system as it is. The paranoid conspiracy theorist is a staple stereotype in fiction. At the same time, though, conspiracy theories are fun and interesting. They’re usually stimulating to think about even if you don’t agree with them. I think this might cancel out some of the negative associations of the term, but I think we have a ways to go before we have a definite answer.

Posted in Social psychology | Tagged , , | 18 Comments

Bored to Fears

Do you get bored easily? Does time fly by for you, or does it always seem to drag? Is it easy for you to concentrate on activities, or do you often find your mind wandering? Is looking at a friend’s holiday photos your idea of a good time, or the tenth circle of Hell? According to a new study, which I conducted with Silan Eser, your answers to these kinds of questions can predict how strongly you believe conspiracy theories.

We surveyed a hundred and fifty people, and we found that the more prone to boredom someone was, the more they tended to believe conspiracy theories. Why might this be the case? It’s not immediately obvious why being a little bored would have anything to do with believing theories about secret plots and sinister cabals. Continue reading

Posted in Personality | Tagged , , , , , , | 13 Comments