What makes rational people believe irrational things?

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Conspiracy theories describe what adherents believe to be secret plots by powerful and malevolent groups to control, impoverish or harm hard-working people. Many conspiracy theorists share the conviction that information is being concealed from them by “elites” or “the deep state.”

Belief in conspiracy theories is widespread and harmful. They can significantly affect people’s lives and are largely driven by negative emotions. In the following column, I shall examine some of the social and psychological factors that promote the belief in conspiracy claims.

One of the best known recent conspiracy claims that resulted in real-life consequences was the 2016 Pizzagate theory that claimed there was a pedophilia ring linked to members of the Democratic Party. Proponents of the theory in late October of that year claimed that Comet Ping Pong, a pizzeria in Washington, was a meeting ground for satanic ritual abuse.

Then in early December, a 28-year-old man from North Carolina went to Comet Ping Pong and fired three shots from a rifle inside the restaurant. The man later told police he had read a fake news story online that claimed children were being sexually abused in the basement of the Comet restaurant and he wanted to free them.

The profusion of sophisticated fake news websites and the sheer number of credulous user posts dealing with a particular conspiracy topic reinforces the impression that a credible claim is being made. As Robert Caldini wrote in his excellent book Influence: Science and Practice, “we determine what is correct by finding out what other people think is correct.”

Conspiracy claims such as Pizzagate, find a receptive audience with people who subscribe – often unconsciously – to nativism, racism and xenophobia. Many of these conspiracies believe that governments, large corporations, media and political elites represent excessive authority and threaten democratic values.

Karen Douglas, professor of social psychology at the University of Kent in England, has written that the reason many people, including QAnon supporters, turned to extreme explanations for the COVID-19 pandemic is because important psychological needs for social belonging, certainty and security are not being met.

Survey data collected at the University of Pennsylvania suggest that nearly a third of U.S. adults think the coronavirus is a bioweapon created by the Chinese government. “Conspiracy theories make people feel as though they have some sort of control over the world,” according to lead investigator David Romer. “They can be psychologically reassuring, especially in uncertain times.”

Joshua Hart and Molly Graether, two psychologists from Union College, Schenectady, N.Y., have tied schizotypy, a personality trait defined by eccentricity and suspiciousness of others, to belief in conspiracy theories. They write that people who see the world as a dangerous place and those prone to think meaningless information is profound are also more likely to embrace such narratives.

Content retrieved from: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/health-and-fitness/article-what-makes-rational-people-believe-irrational-things/.

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