How do conspiracy theories arise?

This article is part of Conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories don’t arise in a vacuum. There is always a certain context that gives conspiracy theorists an extra push. What sort of context is that? And what goes on in the minds of conspiracy theorists?

Major events

“What stands out is that more conspiracy theories arise when significant change is occurring in the world. People want to understand what is happening.”
Piaa Varis
Prof. dr. Piia Varis
Tilburg University

When something shocking happens in the world, like the disaster with flight MH17 or a pandemic like the coronavirus, we want to find a logical explanation. If the government or science fail to give them a convincing answer, conspiracy theorists look for an explanation elsewhere. From a sense of dissatisfaction or worry, they try to look for connections that make sense to them.

Their first reflex is to look at who would benefit from what is happening in the world. That way, conspiracy theorists hope to find the cause. That’s why most conspiracy theories have roughly the same structure.

How does this benefit conspiracy theorists?

Conspiracy theories come with 3 ‘advantages’ for their believers:

Conspiracy theorists like to think that there’s a reason why things go wrong in society. Thanks to their conspiracy theory, they can blame all the bad things on an enemy. That has a soothing effect.

Often, the reality behind a shocking event is not black and white. Conspiracy theories are: they divide the world into good and bad. Conspiracy theorists don’t have to deal with the grey in between and can place themselves firmly on the side of the good.

It feels good to have access to special knowledge that allows you to see the world as you think it really is. That’s how conspiracy theorists distinguish themselves from supposedly naive people who, in their eyes, simply accept everything the government or science tells them.

How do conspiracy theories spread?

Conspiracy theories can spread like wildfire, largely thanks to the internet. How does that work? 


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Published on 18 October 2023