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Why do People Believe in Conspiracy Theories?

In my research method courses, I often discuss with students the importance of being a good consumer of research and information. This really comes in handy during the this global pandemic (or conspiracy theorists would call the “plandemic”) as misinformation is everywhere! So, why do people believe in conspiracy theories? And how do we distinguish whether something is a conspiracy theory or not? John Oliver explained this beautifully (see YouTube video above), and I would like to summarize his points with my personal take on this.

People believe in conspiracy theories because:

  1. They help explain big events in a chaotic world that could just be accidental. This can also be called a proportionality bias—a belief that big events come from big causes. For instance, when Germany beat Brazil 7–1 in the 2014 FIFA World Cup Semifinals, many theories were brought up about this being a fixed match.
  2. In the digital era, it is relatively easy for people to make up materials (e.g., videos, audios) and spread fake news or information through social media that do not have the ability to monitor the accuracy of all information.
  3. Public figures whom people trust or admire believe and also spread the conspiracy theories. For instance, there are celebrities who support the anti-vaccine movement.

Here are some questions we can ask in order to debunk conspiracy theories:

  1. Is there a rational, non-conspiracy explanation? Keep in mind that correlation does not mean causation.
  2. Has the theory been held up to scrutiny by experts, more than just one or two, in the field?
  3. How plausible is this conspiracy, as a practical matter? It would require many people to cover up the truth if the conspiracy were indeed true.

I hope everyone will think a little more critically and be aware of their own reactions when hearing something that may sound like a conspiracy. If you are interested in more information about misinformation, one of my undergraduate research assistant Rosalyn Stoa did the UWGB PSI Talk below (similar to a TED Talk format) on this topic.

Dr. Alan Chu

Dr. Tsz Lun (Alan) Chu is an Assistant Professor and the Chair of the M.S. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology (SEPP) Program at the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay. His primary areas of expertise are psychosocial aspects of sport and coaching. Recognized as a Self-Determination Theory International Scholar, Dr. Chu conducts both quantitative and qualitative research focused on the roles of social agents (e.g., coaches, peers, and parents) and basic psychological needs (i.e., autonomy, competence, and relatedness) in motivational processes. Dr. Chu is also a sport psychology consultant who works with athletes and coaches, from high school to professional levels across sports, on mental skills training including goal setting and visualization. To practice what he preaches, Dr. Chu is physically active and highly involved in sports, specializing in table tennis (not the basement “ping pong”!) as a competitive player and an internationally certified coach. He currently serves on the Coaching Committee of the National Collegiate Table Tennis Association and teaches the coaching certification course.

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