Information and Persuasion: 3 Features of Conspiracy Theories (reloaded)

“Most people reason dramatically, not quantitatively” (O.W. Holmes)

In light of the recent anti-Corona demonstrations (Stichwort #Aluhut), I feel almost compelled to post an older article I wrote about communication and the psychology of conspiracy theories.


In times of crisis and upheaval conspiracy theories abound. When people experience unease and doubt, when old answers no longer seem to function or are challenged by societal change, when suspicions are born and everything seems relative and ambiguous, our brains yearn for unequivocal, clear-cut, black-and-white answers.

It would also appear that the decline of traditional media (Stichwort #gatekeeping), the advent of digital platforms prone to superficial scrolling, unreflected sharing and the viralization (!) of unchecked “facts” and ideologies, plus a generalized distrust of the establishment has given new impetus to conspiracy theorists around the world.

Let’s attempt to deconstruct conspiracy theories and have a look at their typical “ingredients” – of which there are three:

  1. IntentionalityWhat this means is that a small and obscure minority (some “elite”, or representative thereof selected for scapegoating) is credited with intentionally organizing for a heinous purpose (usually, to exert complete control of the others).
  2. Dualism or DichotomyThe world is divided up in “good” (the unknowing majority) and “evil” (the scheming minority), without any consideration of intermediary nuances or disproving arguments.
  3. OccultismThese malignant forces act shrouded in mystery and secrecy.

Aside from these, there is also an emotionalization of the topic, which usually reinforces rejection of any rational argument to the contrary. Emotional contagion is usually below conscious awareness.


Why is it so difficult to dislodge a strong emotional conviction with rational arguments? Well, because emotions are faster than explicit thinking, and because our intuition is often flawed. As we know from neuroscience, the task-positive (rational, analytical) and the default-mode (emotional, social) neural networks in the brain cannot really function simultaneously (they tend to suppress each other). But here are some other potential reasons:

  • For starters, people like to see themselves as acting consistently. Once beliefs become deep-seated (i.e. are perceived by their advocates as part of their identity), a phenomenon called “belief perseverance” occurs. People can conjure up a rationale for almost any belief they hold dear, even if it is false. Commitment to a certain belief is especially stronger after retelling (once we have championed an opinion in public, we can’t be seen to recant, right?)
  • When we use our intuition instead of good old reasoning about a topic, we also tend to get caught in the so-called “availability heuristic”, whereby salient, memorable and easy-to-picture events feel more likely. Illusory correlation is another issue. We imagine a relationship where none exists, or, even worse, confuse correlation and causation! As a result, we tend to find causes where we look for them. The old adage according to which we see only what we want to see has been confirmed by science.
  • Memory is also a very fragmentary thing: it can incorporate misinformation after the fact and play tricks on us. False recollections and false evaluations are often the result.
  • Psychological research  also shows that when people’s minds are made up, not even a very strong argument can change them. This is called the “biased assimilation effect,” whereby we only give credence to evidence that fits with what we already believe. “Confirmation bias” (#informationbubble) is another reason people stick to their guns – we tend seek out information which confirms and reinforces our preconceptions – thereby feeling validated and encouraged to keep going down the same path.
  • Moods also play a role. Unhappy people, brooding, pessimistic or frustrated individuals tend to observe more negative details and dwell on those. People living in constant fear of a conspiracy against them tend to be more closed off to new or different possibilities, since fear is a negative emotional attractor.
  • There is also the touchy issue of overconfidence. As social psychologists put it, “incompetence breeds overconfidence.” Group influence also comes into play. The larger the group, the higher the arousal, the lower the self-awareness.
  • Finally, there is one factor we cannot overlook: individuation and the desire to be different. Wanting to belong to the “initiated few”, to feel special, to rise above the “herd” – as our secularized, over-communicated, stimulus-flooded, bureaucratic and automated world makes it increasingly difficult for true individuality to assert itself. Transcendence and access to ultimate meanings used to be the territory of religion. With that gone, things begin to morph.

tips for communication and dialogue

So, what about a possible solution? What about dialogue? How can someone go about engaging with these worldviews, and what should we consider when communicating with conspiracy theorists (this policeman here was on to something):

  • A recent study (“Political Extremism is Supported by an Illusion of Understanding”) has shown that asking people to provide mechanistic explanations can play a vital role in persuading them they are mistaken. People who are asked only to give “reasons” for their conviction (in other words, to focus on supporting and justifying it) do not change their views at all. The ones asked to explain how a certain policy would have effects, became, on average more moderate! Apparently, asking people to provide causal (mechanistic) explanations of how they think the world works causes many illusions to evaporate, undermining previous certainty. There has been a lot of talk lately of our societies veering towards “fact-free politics”. This might not come as such a surprise for psychologists, since causal reasons have been found to be more persuasive than statistics (see here).
  • Some social psychologists recommend getting people to think about a single reason why their theory might be flawed, while philosophers suggest trying to get them to surrender emotional attachment to the issue, by pointing out that it is not what defines who they are.
  • Scientists have also shown that strong arguments can be persuasive, but only when people are motivated to deliberate on the issue.
  • At any rate, when faced with such situations, avoid any stereotyped views of your “opponents”. Argue for the truth, not for the win – and against the point, not the person. Use tactical empathy, listen to their arguments and try to debunk them within their own inferential framework; analyze carefully – don’t let rage get the better of you! Use respect, logic, and back your argument with facts – and kindly ask the other party to do the same.

Anything more to add? YourTranscreator is happy to hear from you!

#conspiracytheories #aluhut #communication #criticalthinking #argumentation

Sources: Myers D., Twenge G. (2018). Social Psychology. McGraw-Hill. The featured image is from Tom Radetzki. See more research on the psychology of conspiracy theories here.