3 Reasons Why We Fall for Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracies give simple and straightforward explanations for complex and dynamic events or situations, but they also foster distrust and impede problem-solving. Here's how to combat them.

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By Joel B. Carnevale

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Whether in response to a radical organizational change or a global crisis, conspiracy theories flourish during moments of uncertainty — e.g., current COVID-19 conspiracies. Conspiracies give simple and straightforward explanations for complex and dynamic events or situations, typically attributing an event's origins to some small, covert group of powerful individuals with sinister motives.

Though seemingly benign, even amusing, conspiracy theories create dysfunction within organizations and for society at large. For society, conspiracism corrodes trust, reduces civic engagement and impedes sincere efforts to understand and resolve crises. For organizations, conspiracism fosters employee resistance, a primary factor contributing to the failure of organizational change efforts.

To combat such toxic thinking, we must first understand why we fall prey to the allure of conspiracy theories in the first place, especially during moments of crisis. Here are three reasons why conspiracy theories take hold and how to combat them.

1. Conspiracies provide a sense of control over the uncontrollable.

"We will prefer even a conspiracy theory or junk theory to no theory at all." — Christopher Hitchens

We humans have developed a natural aversion to uncertainty, preferring instead to impose structure and order on the world around us. During early human development, any crisis or rapid change to the environment jeopardized our survival. To cope with and adapt to such dynamic changes, we developed various skills and strategies — such as the ability to quickly find and identify patterns to solve complex and novel problems. This simplification likely aided our ancestors' survival even if their ultimate conclusion was divorced from reality: It is better to mistakenly attribute the rustling of leaves outside of the cave to an angry spirit and stay inside than to dismiss what was a vicious predator lurking in the bushes.

Related: Twitter Moves to Curb COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories With Warnings, Labels

Fast-forward to today. We still need structure and order, but now we combine our proficiency at pattern recognition with an overabundance of information. We reach for simple theories claimed with absolute certainty, especially if the alternative is no theory at all.

How to combat: Embrace uncertainty and patience. Look for the additional information and evidence needed to arrive at a more measured and data-driven conclusion. As Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes said, "It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts."

2. Conspiracies confirm our biases.

"Increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that's out there." — Barack Obama

Conspiracies not only impose a false structure on our environment, but they also exploit our cognitive biases. Conspiracy theories tap into our susceptibility to confirmation bias, or the tendency to prefer and assign greater weight to information that confirms our preexisting views. When hearing of a change initiative, for example, cynical employees who are distrustful of their company are more likely to be convinced that management is using the initiative to exploit or control the workforce. Likewise, conspiracies that cast political or business rivals as wholly evil affirm our sense of moral superiority and lend further credence to the virtue of our cause or faction. But it's those beliefs that are comforting or aligned with our existing viewpoints are the very beliefs we should be most suspicious of, no matter how appealing the theory.

How to combat: To counter biases and the conspiracism they attract, practice introspection and openness to opposing viewpoints. Remember to remain mindful of how incoming information makes you feel in the moment and continuously reevaluate your current beliefs in relation to opposing perspectives.

3. Conspiracies are an expression of narcissism.

"It is not love that should be depicted as blind, but self-love." — Voltaire

With a wealth of information instantly accessible from anywhere, it is easy for anyone to fall victim to a convincing conspiracy, especially during moments of uncertainty. And some individuals may be more susceptible to such beliefs than others. Individuals with high levels of narcissism may be especially likely to believe in conspiracy theories. Narcissists have an inflated sense of self-importance, and their illusory feelings of being the center of attention make them susceptible to the idea that there is some covert plot against them or their group. Conspiracies also affirm narcissists' grandiosity by giving them a sense that they have exclusive knowledge that few others are privy to.

How to combat: Changing one's personality for the better is possible, even for narcissists. Practicing humility —such as the willingness to accept your fallibility and to view yourself accurately — may help prevent those with more narcissistic tendencies from falling victim to a convincing conspiracy.

Conspiracies thrive during moments of uncertainty. Applying these suggestions can help you avoid such destructive thinking.

Joel B. Carnevale

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor

Assistant Professor of Management at Syracuse University

Joel Carnevale is an assistant professor of management at Syracuse University’s Martin J. Whitman School of Management. His research focuses on employee ethicality, prosocial behavior and the dark-side of leader personality.

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