More than the truth based on proper investigation and analysis, conspiracy theories about the cause of an unpleasant or ugly event get popular attention. This is so the world over, research reveals.

Conspiracy theories excite the public imagination because they are as striking, sinister and dark as the event itself. Their simplicity makes them more acceptable and absorbable than the truth that might well be vague, unfamiliar and taxing on the mind.

Conspiracy theories, each more bizarre than the other, appear the moment a major disturbing event occurs. Increasingly, people don’t wait for a proper investigation to take place before attributing the event to a cause.

Research by Christina Georgacopoulos of Louisiana State University found that 50% of Americans believed in conspiracy theories. American psychologist, Joseph Uscins wrote in 2022, that 73% of Americans believed that conspiracy theories were “out of control” and 59% agreed that people were more likely to believe conspiracy theories “compared to 25 years ago” and 77% attributed the increase to the advent of the social media and the Internet.

“With scholars, media personnel and politicians being swayed by conspiracy theories, there is cause for alarm,” Georgacopoulos points out.

According to a study conducted by the University of Chicago, 19% of Americans believe that the US government was behind the 9/11 attack in New York City. It is said that the attack was staged to help unleash the US Global War on Terror aimed at the Islamic countries.

When Indian leader Rajiv Gandhi was killed by a suicide bomber in May 1991, few attributed it to the LTTE, a pioneer in suicide bombing. In many minds, the needle of suspicion pointed to politicians “who stood to gain” by Rajiv’s death. This, despite the head of the Special Investigation Team D.R.Karthikeyan saying repeatedly, that he was “going from the crime to the criminal and not identifying someone first and then linking the crime to him or her.”

There was much speculation as to who killed President Premadasa in May 1993. The obvious hand of the LTTE was disregarded by many and fingers were pointed at other forces that were at odds with him at the national and international levels.

Most recently, a variety of forces, national and international, were blamed for the August 2019 Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka. Among the conspiracy theories, the most popular is that Zaharan Hashim and his suicide squad were handled by Sri Lanka’s military intelligence doing the bidding of former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa who was allegedly planning to come to power on an Islamophobic wave unleashed by such bombings. The fact that ISIS had publicly claimed responsibility for the carnage was not given credence.

Conspiracy theories have some common characteristics: (1) They attribute the incident to unseen, calculating and malevolent forces. (2) They interpret political events in terms of the struggle between good and evil. (3) They suggest that the government’s contentions are only a ruse to distract the public from the true perpetrator.

Conspiratorial Mind

However, worldwide research done by Shauna M. Bowes, Thomas H. Costello, and Arber Tasimi, of the Department of Psychology, Emory University; Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Department of Psychology, University of Regina suggests that there is an identifiable “conspiratorial mind”.

In their paper entitled “Conspiratorial Mind: A Meta-Analytic Review of Motivational and Personological Correlates” Bowes and her colleagues, define conspiracy theory as follows: “It is one that has a causal explanation of an event that ascribes blame to a group of powerful individuals (the conspirators) who operate in secret to form hidden plans that benefit themselves and harm the common good.”

Importantly, this definitional recipe holds whether conspiracy theories turn out to be true or not, Bowes adds.

People with certain kinds of motivations opt for conspiracy theories: These motivations could be classified as epistemic, existential, and social. All three motivations stem from a common root, a feeling of deprivation.

Epistemic Motives

People going for conspiracy theories seek a reliable, certain, and stable view of the world, which Bowes and her colleagues term “epistemic motives”.

Those who have “epistemic motives” rely on intuition because it is through intuition, that they can readily access explanations for an uncertain situation and, in turn, generate a quick understanding of the particular event.

To hold on to this intuitive and meaning-laden understanding of the event, people may strive to uphold their beliefs rather than face uncertainty, Bowes says. Thus, conspiracy theories are used to confirm existing and entrenched notions about men and matters.

However, an overreliance on intuition can contribute to identifying patterns and agencies that don’t exist. Therefore, conspiracy theories can be misleading, and if the State acts on their basis, the real perpetrators of a crime may escape.

Those given to conspiracy theories are also likely to be dogmatic in their views, as both conspiratorial theories and dogma are rooted in imagined certainties. Intolerance of uncertainties is a shared characteristic. Conspiratorial ideation is related to reduced analytical thinking.

Individuals prone to conspiratorial ideation may also lack the cognitive ability to evaluate information accurately and critically.   There is a consistent negative relation between conspiratorial ideation and cognitive ability.

Existential Motives

Another reason why people may be drawn to conspiracy theories is the desire to feel safe and in control in the face of existential threats.

Existential threats appear to be unmanageable in the absence of certainty about the cause of the threats. An intuitive understanding of the cause helps make sense of the threat. Persons having an intuitive understanding of the cause feel secure, while others may get confused.

Once the source of the threat is identified, albeit intuitively, action could be initiated against it. This sequence of an intuitive understanding being followed up by action, contributes to a feeling of security.

However, intuition could be misleading. In India and Pakistan, accusing fingers are pointed at each other whenever there is a terrorist attack. That the threat could be from a domestic source is not given a thought, even with the passage of time. Therefore the reason source of trouble remains unaddressed.

A perception of an existential threat could be based on an entrenched belief justified or not. In Nazi Germany, the existential threat was presumed to be from the Jews and targeted. In Senator McCarthy’s US, the communists were deemed an existential threat and hounded.

Social Motives

A third reason why people are drawn to conspiracy theories is that they give opportunities to project a positive image of themselves and their group based on a feeling of relative inferiority over another group.

By endorsing a conspiracy theory that places the blame on members of another group, a group can retain its sense of superiority. When an unpleasant or disturbing incident or event occurs, a group that wants to be seen as superior tends to blame a group estimated to be “inferior”.

For example, in Assam in Eastern India, the State Chief Minister Hemanta Biswa Sarma blamed traders belonging to the Muslim Mia community for the rise in prices and threatened to oust them from the marketplace. The Mias have been the whipping boys in Assam’s communal politics for decades.

Conspiratorial ideation is related to narcissism, Bowes and her colleagues say. Narcissism is a complex blend of overconfidence and vulnerability. Narcissistic individuals tend to boast while also needing validation from others.

Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental health condition in which people have an unreasonably high sense of their own importance, and, at the same time, need and seek attention and want people to admire them.

“People who endorse conspiracy theories are motivated to stand out among their peers and feel entitled to special recognition. That is, those who endorse conspiracy theories may feel they possess secret knowledge about the truth that others fail to see or are not knowledgeable,” Bowes and her colleagues say.