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Conspiracy theories: what’s the appeal?

There are a few theories (heh) about the allure of conspiracy theories, but we can sum it up in 3 main points about how we perceive information and knowledge:

  • Information is power
  • Information is belonging
  • Information is satisfying

We instinctively grasp that knowledge is power—and more so when it’s secret knowledge. 

The problem is, knowledge isn’t really power—only potentially. Until we act on it, and then that potential be unleashed in reality. But while all knowledge is in some way actionable, not everyone is in a position to act on it or to get to someone who can, and of those who are, many simply will be disinclined to.

There are a number of hurdles between the possession of information and the acting on it, basically. Whether it’s the belief that Tupac Shakur remains alive somewhere out there or the conviction that Covid-19 vaccines are intended as a means of population control, the point is that even if those ideas were true, most proponents of these theories couldn’t possibly do anything with that information.

Conspiracy theories appeal to our belief in the power of knowledge, to our need to be in the know. In that way, they’re like most news. And like news, most of it is useless: you can’t act on it in any meaningful way.  To quote Peter Thiel:

The best entrepreneurs know…every great business is built around a secret that’s hidden from the outside. A great company is a conspiracy to change the world; when you share your secret, the recipient becomes a fellow conspirator.”

Peter Thiel, Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future

Thiel is right to call these conspiracies, because unlike with conspiracy theories, the entrepreneurs act: their startup is them staking their lives on the theory.

Second, information is satisfying. We are story-driven beings, driven by our nature to interpret the information our senses bring our way, and to seek meaning in reality. By nature, we so abhor information vacuums that we will often take a confident lie over the pain of uncertainty in issues we care about. We believe what we find believable. It’s this characteristic that conmen and snake oil sellers play on. 

In my two decades of training in and practising medicine, I’ve found that one of the hardest things for people to hear is, “We don’t know what’s causing this.” And of course the global uncertainty around COVID-19 for the first half of 2020 (how it came about, how it spread, how to prevent and treat it, whether masks helped) was fertile ground for all kinds of conspiracy theories.

Finally, information is also belonging. We’ve all being in the unenviable position of feeling like everyone has some knowledge and you’re the only one not in on it. Even worse when it’s a group you consider yourself part of—to suddenly find out you’re not in on the info can signal that you’re not really included. And since shared knowledge and beliefs are part of the fabric that holds any group together, conspiracy theories can quickly become part of a group’s belief system. And a large part of why people hold on so tightly conspiracy theories, more than even their own personal belief in them, is this need to belong.

But since belonging in any group implies the existence of outsiders, so information can be a way to signal our uniqueness (and our group’s) to others. Even within our own groups, we establish our position in the pecking order by being first (or as close to it as we can manage) to share the hot new info.

“Adherence to conspiracy theory might not always be the result of some perceived lack of control, but rather a deep-seated need for uniqueness.”

Imhoff, quoted by Seth Godin in This is Marketing

Conspiracy theories & virality

The three broad reasons we’re prone to buy into conspiracy theories also play into why we share them, and indeed, why we share any information at all: to signal our belonging and our power (or access to it) and because we find satisfaction in sharing info we hope others will find as satisfying as we have.

Conspiracy theories aren’t the only things that go viral, however, so it’s worth considering how these three things also shape our drive to share what does go viral. I think nformation gets those three things right:

  • They acquire believability by appeal to specific authorities and truthiness: they’re for someone not everyone. It’s common to target information at people because it’s true, but this often only makes it fail to connect with most people.
  • They appeal to our need for belonging because they’re often not just about us: they appeal to our sense of affection for loved ones who might be in danger for lack of knowledge.
  • Viral ideas also appeal to our desire for power because they’re, well, conspiratorial: they’re often not stuff everyone knows. They spread precisely because we want to show off our knowledge of this interesting new idea to our circles if not the larger world. 

There’s one more thing, though: viral ideas are low or no friction: they are actionable, and typically in simple ways—share this info and you’re a good, or smart, or in-the-know person.

Ask questions, pack Razors

In the end, engaging conspiracy theories comes down to how we engage with information. How do we determine what info’s worth our attention, worth sharing with those we care about? The first step is recognising that no one has all the answers. But that’s why it’s more important and, in this age of information abundance more than ever, to ask the right questions. Questions like:

  • Is this information potentially important to my life? Or am I just being curious? (Nothing wrong with being curious, but we might as well be honest with ourselves about it.)
  • Is it actionable? Or am I just using this to stall? (Relaying the information to someone who can actually do something about it counts as action. Simply relaying it does not. Again nothing wrong with non-actionable info, but again it’s worth being honest about it.)
  • Have I accounted for my biases? There’s no such thing as an unbiased person—but there are lots of people who are unaware of their biases. (One way to become more aware is to pay attention to what catches you by surprise—especially if no one else seems to be.) The more we’re aware of our biases, the more deliberate we can be in exposing ourselves to information that can challenge it.

And finally, don’t forget to pack your Razors. Occam’s Razor encourages us when considering problems to be biased toward—or at begin consideration with—the simplest solution. (One way this was instilled in us as medical students in Nigeria was, “Common things occur commonly.”) Hanlon’s Razor goes on to suggest thoughtlessness is a far commoner explanation than malice. 

Together the two Razors frame my biggest problem with most conspiracy theories: they tend to assume or require far greater capabilities of human planning and forethought than history would suggest we can reasonably attribute to ourselves.


My thanks to Nibras and Orion for looking through early drafts and to Markus Winkler (via Unsplash) for the photo.


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One response to “Conspiracy theories: what’s the appeal?”

  1. […] when there’s an information vacuum about an important area, it’s just begging to be filled with conspiracy theories. And as we saw with COVID once conspiracy theories take hold, it’s hard for the truth to find a […]

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