Understanding conspiracies: Why people fall for them — and how to resist

Person holding COVID vaccine
A prominent conspiracy theory during the pandemic claimed that COVID-19 vaccines contained microchips. (Mufid Majnun/Unsplash)

By Daphne Yao
Medill Reports

The Jan. 6 Capitol rioters included QAnon members, who believe a cabal of Satan-worshipping cannibals operating a child sex-trafficking ring conspired against President Donald Trump. In 2016, 4Chan website users started a conspiracy theory, dubbed Pizzagate, claiming that a Washington, D.C., pizzeria served as headquarters for a child sex-trafficking ring led by presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and prominent members of the Democratic Party.

Why are people so attracted to the idea of these secret plots? How have conspiracy theories affected Americans before and during the pandemic?

Fascinated by how people think and behave, Cynthia Shih-Chia Wang, a professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, conducts research on cultural differences, behavior in organizations and, more recently, conspiracy theories. She explains the mechanisms behind our beliefs and shares a simple way to stem the attraction.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


How did the pandemic change conspiracy theories?

I think conspiracies are always tied to the social events that are occurring. Theories about the moon landing were happening when the Cold War was going on, and there were many issues between the U.S. and the USSR. Now there are a lot of theories surrounding COVID, and one of them is that the pandemic was planted as a biological weapon by China. And the U.S. wasn’t having good relations with China. Even though the topics are different, they all perpetuate this in-group, out-group dynamic. During Ebola, there were theories that pharmaceutical companies released Ebola into the environment to profit. There’s the same theory with COVID-19.

What do you think is the most interesting conspiracy theory out there?

Recently I found the magnet one interesting. It says once you get the vaccine you become magnetized, and you can stick magnets to yourself. And the vaccine microchip one. (This theory says the vaccines contain microchip tracking devices.) They seem hard for me to imagine. I think the most interesting ones are the ones that are the least plausible since they’re hard to disprove as well.

What led you to major in psychology?

I’ve always been fascinated with the human mind and understanding why people think the way they do. My interest was piqued when I took a social psychology class and saw how the situation and the context people are in influence their behavior, attitudes, perceptions and emotions.

What made you decide to go into academia?

After my undergrad, I realized I wanted real-world experience. I worked for a couple years in marketing. It was super interesting, but I realized my real passion is research and teaching. At graduate school, I focused on organizational behavior and management, which pulls from a lot of different psychological theories. In my research, I started focusing a lot on cultural diversity: how what country people live in affects what they think and how they behave.

What are the main cultures you’re researching?

I’ve mainly focused on Western cultures. In certain cultures, like East Asian ones, relationships are more stable and have led to more interdependency during COVID.

How did you come to be interested in conspiracy theories?

A big part of my interest is intergroup dynamics. We stereotype other groups and are prejudiced against certain groups.

Conspiracy theories are often group driven. We have conspiracies about other ethnic or social groups that can be incredibly harmful. I got into conspiracy theories because I think they prevent groups from coming together. Why do people believe in them? Why do people use this method to attack others?

I started working with my good friend Jennifer Whitson, who studies pattern perception. It turns out when you lack control — for example, when you’re locked inside your house — you tend to try to achieve control again. One way to do so is seeing patterns in random things that might not be connected. This attracts us to conspiracy theories — these secret hidden connections.

What are some everyday ways we can increase control in our lives?

You can even just think about a time you’ve had control in the past. That shifts conspiratorial perceptions, making people less likely to agree with conspiracy theories. Even just this minor shift in mindset can have huge effects.

The lack of control is because people have no social connections. They’re isolated at home on the internet, where they can find information about anything, including these conspiratorial theories. So, another part of the control is having these social connections and feeling connected with people.

What are you interested in exploring in the future?

How does the lack of control affect people in different cultures? I have some very initial evidence that for East Asians, a lack of individual control doesn’t affect them in the same way. They don’t necessarily believe in more conspiracies because they have a more interdependent network and can rely more on others for their feelings of control. Then you start taking away their family control. That’s when they start seeing more conspiracies because their network is disrupted. That’s something I’m starting to look at, and it ties together my cultural research and my conspiracy research.

Daphne Yao is a health, science and environment reporter at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @daphnecyao.