A conspiracy theory is a belief that an event or situation is the result of a secret plan made by powerful people. Don’t most of us subscribe to a conspiracy theory from time to time? We’re just sure that the US government is hiding evidence of extraterrestrial life on earth. Or, we’re confident that multiple gunmen shot John F Kennedy. And some of us believe that the Illuminati is secretly promoting a New World Order. According to anthropologists Todd Sanders and Harry G. West, evidence suggests that a broad cross-section of Americans today give credence to at least some conspiracy theories. A person who believes in one conspiracy theory tends to believe in others, even when one theory contradicts the other. Once we form a belief, the tendency to look for information that confirms our beliefs and disregard information that challenges them (confirmation bias), can cement them.
Is there a connection between conspiracy theories and mental illness? We have a non pathological need to search for meaning. In fact, one study by scientists discovered a link between conspiracy belief and the tendency of the mind to see order where none exists, called “illusory pattern perception.” But gone too far, conspiracy theories could be the product of a thought disorder, such as paranoid ideation. Human behavior is placed on a spectrum from psychologically healthy to a diagnosable mental illness. The strongest correlation between a diagnosable mental illness and conspiracy theorists, is found in DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual), Schizotypal Personality Disorder. This set of traits includes a tendency to mistrust others, eccentricity, odd or deviant ideas, a need for uniqueness, and strange ways of viewing things.
Some people, in some circumstances are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. If people have little or no control over their current situation, they are more likely to see patterns in random images and believe in the supernatural. We are subconsciously reaching for a method of ordering this chaos, even if the connections are totally random. Humans have a tendency to give importance to negative emotions, thoughts and situations because it increases survival. Horrible things aren’t always conspiracies. They can be real. You may draw attention to an important concern that if not checked, could become a danger.
What’s the harm? One’s personal beliefs are not always benign. Consider witch hunts which were based on the belief that young women gathered in the woods to conspire with the devil. Personal beliefs that become collective action, can cause irreversible harm.
If you want to judge whether you have a tendency toward conspiracy theorizing, ask yourself the following questions:
How dangerous do I think the world is?
Am I comfortable with ambiguity or do I need certainty?
Do I feel powerless and insecure?
Do I have a need for uniqueness?
What sources do I reference for information and do they have a bias?
Do I have enough social support to feel valuable and maintain positive self regard?
Once you have reflected on these questions, I urge you to fact check your theories and look for alternative explanations. If nothing else, you’ll have a stronger position for debate.