Reasons Why People Hold Conspiracy Beliefs

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Aims

This report aims to answer the question of why people hold conspiracy beliefs, and in particular the conspiracy theory ‘climate change denial’. It will attempt to address these beliefs in order to help begin to change attitudes of the parents and pupils who hold them, in order to allow the School to continue its efforts in tackling this subject with its students.

Introduction

This report was commissioned by the School to look at the reasons behind people’s belief in conspiracy theories, specifically regarding climate change and how it may be possible to alter these beliefs, ultimately allowing the School to actively engage their students in helping to counteract climate change without the opposition that currently exists from some students and their parents.

What are Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy beliefs are often linked to a phenomenon known as conspiracy theories, this is the belief that an event (often a major or dramatic event), did not occur in the way that it has been reported. This means that people have their own ideas about what may have caused the event or even doubt the fact that the event itself actually happened at all. An example of this is the 9/11 terror attacks on New York City, a widely believed conspiracy theory for this event says that the US Government were behind the attack or that they at least were complicit and allowed the attacks to take place. The most accepted reason for these beliefs is so that the US Government would then have the required justification to go to war in the areas of the world that were accepted as the source of the attacks as described by Turner (2018).

What is Climate Change Denial?

One of the world’s biggest conspiracy beliefs is climate change denial; this involves the belief that climate change or global warming is not real and has been fabricated by scientists for financial gain. Another theory surrounding climate change denial says that although the global warming effect is real, it is not caused directly by humans and is not created by the burning of fossil fuels as has been widely reported by scientists for many years. Climate change denial stems from the broader ‘social organisation of denial’ theory by (Norgaard, 2006, 2011) ‘organised ways of living in society and culture that deflect individuals and communities from acting on the implications of knowledge about social and environmental (or other disturbing) problems’ as quoted by Adams (2015).

Other Conspiracy Theories

The Moon Landings Hoax – The theory that these were faked by the US Government for political and financial gain.

The Death of Princess Diana – The theory that Diana was assassinated by members of the Royal Family as she had fallen out of favour causing embarrassment.

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The Presence of Aliens (Roswell) – The theory that aliens have been visiting the planet for years and evidence of which has been gathered by the US Government and covered up so that the public are unaware.

These theories are a few of the most famous that have captured the public’s imagination and despite the lack of evidence to support them, many people still believe them to be true. This is an indicator that having evidence to support these beliefs is not always required by conspiracists and therefore can lead to the evaluation that most conspiracy theories are propelled by rumour rather than fact.

Why do People hold Conspiracy Beliefs

The defence mechanism theory as explained by Bishop (2015) is often seen as a possible reason for conspiracy beliefs, which is the way in which the mind protects itself by ignoring instances of distressing and emotional experiences by, for example, suppressing the linked memories and choosing to believe something less painful. This can be applied to conspiracy beliefs as it is possible that some people prefer to believe in a less traumatic cause of an event in order to protect themselves from the pain of the truth. Another process that might help explain these beliefs is motivated reasoning, as described by Turner (2018), which highlights the way in which an individual has already decided on an outcome and uses this to create their case to back it up, this is also connected to biased assimilation which is the way in which people tend to believe evidence which supports the outcome or view that they already have, disregarding any conflicting information which may disprove this view (Byford 2015).

Another possible reason for conspiracy beliefs could stem from previous uncovered events such as the ‘Tuskegee syphilis experiment’ (Waxman 2017), in which doctors decided not to treat African American male participants with syphilis so they could monitor the outcome, this unethical and immoral study was uncovered 40 years after the programme began and resulted in many deaths and long-term health implications for those involved, instances like this could account for the lack of trust in our world leaders.

What Research has been Carried Out

The biggest research project undertaken to date regarding conspiracy beliefs took 6 years and 9 countries and was carried out by researchers at the University of Cambridge. As reported by Addley (2018) 11,500 participants took part in the study, with 2,171 within Great Britain, where participants were also asked to indicate how they voted in the Brexit referendum. We will focus on the results of the British study, in the table below it shows the different types of conspiracy theories assessed within the study and the percentages that hold these beliefs:

  • Brexit Remainers Brexit Leavers
  • Immigration 14% 47%
  • Global Warming Hoax 2% 12%
  • International Plots 11% 15%
  • Domestic Plots 4% 10%
  • Conspiracy Scepticism 51% 29%

According to these results 2% of remainers and 12% of leavers believe that global warming is a hoax and was made up to deceive people, in comparison 51% of remainers and 29% of leavers that believe that none of the conspiracies listed are true. Another finding from this study showed that 87% of remainers and 89% of leavers trusted their family and friends which tied in with the theory that news sources shared by contacts on social media would be more likely to be believed than if they were shared via strangers.

Conclusion

This report has focused on the reasons why people hold conspiracy beliefs and in particular those surrounding climate change and global warming. It has also looked at the examples of different conspiracy theories, evaluating these, determining their sources and trying to understand the support they receive. In doing this it seems clear that there are more reasons than we can discuss here that lead people to believe in conspiracy theories and a lot of these tend to stem from the distrust people have in our world leaders due to previously uncovered unethical events and the misinformation that is provided via platforms such as social media or rumour.

Recommendations

The findings of this report show that a lack of information can lead people to their own conclusions about topics that they actually know very little about. This is the case for those with conspiracy beliefs regarding climate change and the only cure for this is to provide the right information and educate people on the topic so that they can have a full understanding of the beliefs they hold. Based on this my recommendation to the School would be to offer the parents and pupils the opportunity to learn more about climate change and global warming, perhaps through some information sessions or activity evenings with demonstrations from scientists and experts, showing how climate change occurs and the consequences of this for our planet, being careful to be inclusive and understanding of all current beliefs. It was also be beneficial to acknowledge that some theories may have merit based on an individual’s experience, meaning that the School must be careful to tackle the beliefs stemming from these experiences by providing tools for discussion that may help to alleviate concerns.

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