Why Conspiracies Theories—From Kate Middleton to the Moon Landings—Are So Seductive

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If you’re like millions of people worldwide, Kate Middleton, the Princess of Wales, is very much on your mind this week. That’s because of a royal kerfuffle that erupted recently, when Middleton—who had not been seen in public since January when she underwent abdominal surgery—released a cheery Mother’s Day photo of herself and her children. The next day, the Associated Press pulled down the photo because it turned out to have been digitally altered. Other news agencies followed suit, and Kensington Palace issued an apology signed by Kate.

Predictably, this was catnip to conspiracy theorists, who speculated endlessly online about her health, mental and physical well-being, and whereabouts. “None of it makes sense. Where is Catherine? Why is the palace being so secretive about the royals’ health? What are they covering up?!” wrote Margaret Hartmann of New York magazine, in a piece titled “Kate Middleton Photo Editing Made Me a Conspiracy Theorist.”

And so the Middleton saga joined other conspiracy theories involving Barack Obama (born in Kenya!), the 2020 presidential election (stolen!), the moon landings (faked!), and vaccines (deadly!). Why are conspiracy theories so seductive? And what can sensible people do to combat them?

One of the greatest drivers of conspiracy theories, experts say, is power—or, more specifically, the lack of it. Move through a world in which you have authority and some agency, and you’re likely to feel a comforting sense of control. But when outside circumstances and anonymous people seem to have too much sway over your welfare, you’re more inclined to go looking for hidden patterns and purposes.

“If you have people who have been marginalized in society, then they’re at the bottom end of a power asymmetry,” says Joseph Uscinski, associate professor of political science at the University of Miami and co-author of the 2014 book American Conspiracy Theories. “Same thing with young people, who aren’t fully integrated into society and are trying to climb their way up. They tend to believe more conspiracy theories than older people who are comfortable in the system because they’ve succeeded.”

Clinging to conspiracy theories can make people feel better about themselves. One paper published in the European Journal of Social Psychology found that when people feel like they are in possession of privileged knowledge, that’s enough to provide something of an ego boost. “A small part in motivating the endorsement of…irrational beliefs,” the researchers wrote, “is the desire to stick out from the crowd.”

Power imbalances make politics an especially toxic spot for conspiracy theories. Somebody will win every election and somebody will lose, and the backers of the people who are denied high office are sometimes inclined to reject the legitimacy of those who achieve it. According to a January poll conducted by the Washington Post and the University of Maryland, and reported by The Hill, only 31% of Republican adults believe that President Joe Biden was legitimately elected four years ago. A Gallup poll taken in 2001 found that after the disputed 2000 vote, more than a third of Democrats insisted that then-President George W. Bush had stolen the election. “Being out of power tends to add fuel to the fire,” wrote Joseph Parent, a professor of political science at Notre Dame University and Uscinski’s co-author, in an email to TIME.

However, in politics and elsewhere, not all conspiracy theories are unwarranted. “Like germs, they’re always with us and not always unhealthy,” wrote Parent. “You do tend to see surges when there are [real] conspiracies (Watergate) and coverups (Warren Report).” The COVID-19 pandemic fueled no shortage of conspiracies regarding the origins of the virus, and no one yet knows with certainty what its source was.

Content retrieved from: https://time.com/6948427/why-we-fall-for-conspiracy-theories/.

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