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Monday, October 17, 2022

The Psychological Origins of Conspiracy Theory Beliefs: Big Events with Small Causes Amplify Conspiratorial Thinking

Vonasch, A., Dore, N., & Felicite, J.
(2022, January 20). 


Three studies supported a new model of conspiracy theory belief: People are most likely to believe conspiracy theories that explain big, socially important events with smaller, intuitively unappealing official explanations. Two experiments (N = 577) used vignettes about fictional conspiracy theories and measured online participants’ beliefs in the official causes of the events and the corresponding conspiracy theories. We experimentally manipulated the size of the event and its official cause. Larger events and small official causes decreased belief in the official cause and this mediated increased belief in the conspiracy theory, even after controlling for individual differences in paranoia and distrust. Study 3 established external validity and generalizability by coding the 78 most popular conspiracy theories on Reddit. Nearly all (96.7%) popular conspiracy theories explain big, socially important events with smaller, intuitively unappealing official explanations. By contrast, events not producing conspiracy theories often have bigger explanations.

General Discussion

Three studies supported the HOSE (heuristic of sufficient explanation) of conspiracy theory belief. Nearly all popular conspiracy theories sampled were about major events with small official causes deemed too small to sufficiently explain the event. Two experiments involving invented conspiracy theories supported the proposed causal mechanism. People were less likely to believe the official explanation was true because it was relatively small and the event was relatively big. People’s beliefs in the conspiracy theory were mediated by their disbelief in the official explanation. Thus, one reason people believe conspiracy theories is because they offer a bigger explanation for a seemingly implausibly large effect of a small cause.

HOSE helps explain why certain conspiracy theories become popular but others do not. Like evolutionarily fit genes are especially likely to spread to subsequent generations, ideas (memes) with certain qualities are most likely to spread and thus become popular (Dawkins, 1976). HOSE explains that conspiracy theories spread widely because people are strongly motivated to learn an explanation for important events (Douglas, et al., 2017; 2019), and are usually unsatisfied with counterintuitively small explanations that seem insufficient to explain things. Conspiracy theories are typically inspired by events that people perceive to be larger than their causes could plausibly produce. Some conspiracy theories may be inevitable because small causes do sometimes counterintuitively cause big events: via the exponential spread of a microscopic virus or the interconnected, chaotic nature of events like the flap of a butterfly’s wings changing weather across the world (Gleick, 2008). Therefore, itmay be impossible to prevent all conspiracy theories from developing.