David Hundsness, who holds a BA in Psychology from the University of California, recently explained the whys and hows of conspiracy theories in a three-part TikTok series.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on December 2, 2021. It has since been updated.
Our relationship with conspiracy theories is as old and complicated as time. However, it seems like lately, an increasing number of people believe in theories that go against rational thoughts, scientific facts and recorded truth. Many of us have wondered why or how anyone would fall for what is more likely clearly a lie and may even have attempted to convince conspiracy theorists around us to embrace reality. David Hundsness, who holds a BA in Psychology from the University of California, ventured to explain the whys and hows of conspiracy theories in a three-part TikTok series.
Conspiracy theories are everywhere and people don't understand how harmful they are.— Abbie Richards (@abbieasr) November 23, 2021
I made the original Conspiracy Chart over a year ago. An update was long overdue. This is the 2021 version. pic.twitter.com/c8STog1JUW
"Have you ever wondered why so many people fall for conspiracy theories?" Hundsness asks in the first video from the series. "In spite of all the evidence available, it's just weird that so many people choose to go with 'alternative' facts about COVID, vaccines, the 2020 election, the moon landing, and so on. And when you think about it, it's even weirder that they make this choice knowing that others are going to mock them and argue with them and call them stupid. So, why would anyone make that choice when it's so much easier to go along with the majority? They must be getting something out of that decision, so what is it?"
Hundsness then went on to explain that there are four reasons why people believe conspiracies: Lack of information, anxiety, following an in-group and ego. He clarified that each of these reasons is based on Karen Douglas’ (et al.) Psychology of Conspiracy Theories (which covers three of them) and Roland Imhoff's (et al.) research article (which covers the last one) and are applicable in different scenarios. Hundsness also focused on ego the most as he believes it's the biggest factor at play when it comes to conspiracy theorists.
In part 2 of the series, Hundsness elaborated on the role of an individual's ego in their decision to believe conspiracy theories. "What does ego have to do with conspiracy theories? Actually, it's what fuels every conspiracy theory," he says in the video. "I'll explain. In my last video, I talked about three reasons why people believe conspiracy theories. One, is when there's a lack of information, a conspiracy theory fills in that missing gap of knowledge. Two, is when something causes anxiety, a conspiracy theory helps you predict where that threat is coming from, so it doesn't feel so random."
Conspiracy theories, explained https://t.co/j3PwlS8m9Z— Marc-André Argentino (@_MAArgentino) November 19, 2020
"Three, is wanting to follow your in-group. So if your political party or whatever believes a conspiracy, then you are more likely to believe it. And the fourth reason is ego," Hundsness explains. "People who believe conspiracy theories believe they are in a special group of independent thinkers who know the truth. They think they have a superior knowledge while the majority of people are just sheep who are foolishly gullible and easily manipulated, and who wouldn't want to feel special. Let's start with an easy example. Imagine someone who wasn't particularly successful in school or their career. So deep down, their ego feels inferior. But if they believe the conspiracy theories, well, now they feel like they're smarter than most others, and a small group of people tell them so."
Heather Simpson built up an online following due to her anti-vaccine beliefs. Now, she worries the misinformation she promoted may have hurt other children.— New Day (@NewDay) March 26, 2021
CNN's @donie reports. https://t.co/chbY0rQzeC pic.twitter.com/GTJTRcMkCf
"Well, let's imagine someone who is well educated and has a professional career like a doctor. We've seen a few doctors take fringe positions against vaccines and masks. So why would they do that? Same reason. Ego," he states in the video. "Maybe, before they felt like they weren't achieving the career success and recognition that they felt they deserved. But by supporting a firing conspiracy theory, suddenly they're invited to give their expert testimony. And their face is on national cable and a group of people are praising them as brilliant heroes. It is tempting, and for many people that praise and special feeling is worth the trade-off of other people ridiculing and insulting them. In fact, this ego boost is so important, it's the only common root of all conspiracy theories."
In part 3, Hundsness broke down how each of these four reasons also makes it difficult to convince someone that their belief in a conspiracy theory is wrong. "If they are to change, it has to be done in a way where they can save face," he says. "They have to be persuaded by someone from their in-group or at least someone neutral who isn't attacking or mocking them. And they don't want to hear 'I told you so.' They'd rather no one remembered that they ever believed such silly thoughts or even noticed that they changed their mind. It takes time and a lot of gentle repetition to counterbalance the sheer volume of misinformation they've consumed."