What happens when people see patterns and “clues” in random real-life events and start creating associations where none exist? A conspiracy theory is born.

From “Scooby-Doo” to “Stranger Things” to any Alfred Hitchcock movie, we all love picking up clues, recognizing patterns, and figuring out things for ourselves.

You might think you’re not a believer, but a 2019 poll from Insider found that nearly 80% of people in the United States follow at least one unproven theory, conspiracy or not.

You might enjoy the thrill that conspiracy theories offer. But is there more to it?

Let’s dig into the psychology behind conspiracy theories.

A conspiracy theory is an idea that a group of people is working together in secret to accomplish evil goals.

Now, sometimes in the real world, people indeed do wicked things. We just have to look at criminal networks like the mafia, terrorist groups, and sex trafficking rings, for example. Even high-level political figures and celebrities get involved from time to time.

In other words, real conspiracies do exist.

So, how do you tell the difference between real plots and conspiracy theories? Well, sometimes you don’t know right away, but there are ways to find out.

Criminal cases are built on solid and provable evidence — not hunches, coincidences, or fabricated information like memes or social media posts.

On the other hand, when you closely examine the facts, conspiracy theories don’t hold up.

What makes conspiracy theories more deceptive is that they are woven into real-life events — all strung together in a fictional way. So, in some instances, they might make sense. But when you dig deeper, you start noticing the lack of consistency and fact-based proof.

And no, lack of proof shouldn’t be taken as evidence for the conspiracy. That’s the whole point.

Conspiracy theories often take flight during unsettling times.

For example, in a pandemic, during a close election in a politically divided country, or after a terrorist attack.

Why is that?

Painful and uncertain times might lead many people to find alternative ways to make sense of such a shocking or painful situation.

Following a conspiracy theory might help you feel you understand the events, and, in turn, this could alleviate some uncertainty and anxiety.

There’s more to conspiracy theories than the need to make sense of shocking events, though.

Personality traits of conspiracy theorists

Is everyone vulnerable to conspiratorial thinking? Not necessarily.

Conspiracy theory experts have found that certain cognitive styles and personality traits might be common among people who believe in them.

According to a 2018 study, people who believe in conspiracy theories tend to show personality traits and characteristics such as:

  • paranoid or suspicious thinking
  • eccentricity
  • low trust in others
  • stronger need to feel special
  • belief in the world as a dangerous place
  • seeing meaningful patterns where none exist

The strongest predictor of belief in conspiracy theories, according to the study, is having a personality that falls into the spectrum of schizotypy.

Schizotypy is a set of personality traits that can range from magical thinking and dissociative states to disorganized thinking patterns and psychosis.

Examples of mental health conditions in the schizotypy spectrum include schizotypal and schizoid personality disorders and schizophrenia.

Not all schizotypy personality traits translate into a personality or psychiatric disorder, though.

Many people have one or two symptoms of schizotypy but don’t qualify for a full diagnosis.

Preliminary research also suggests that belief in conspiracy theories is linked to people’s need for uniqueness. The higher the need to feel special and unique, the more likely a person is to believe a conspiracy theory.

Other personality traits commonly linked to the tendency to believe or follow conspiracy theories include:

The link between personality traits and personal beliefs is a complex one that cannot be explained by isolating social and cultural factors, though. Research on the topic is still limited.

Suspicion: An evolutionary advantage?

Humans seem to be prone to suspicious thoughts and paranoia.

In fact, some experts have studied paranoia and suspicious thoughts as an important evolutionary advantage.

One of them is professor of clinical psychiatry Richard A. Friedman, MD, who writes in his viewpoint paper, “Why Humans Are Vulnerable to Conspiracy Theories”:

“Having the capacity to imagine and anticipate that other people might form coalitions and conspire to harm one’s clan would confer a clear adaptive advantage: a suspicious stance toward others, even if mistaken, would be a safer strategy than carefree trust.”

In other words, from an evolutionary perspective, a conspiracy theory might help you stay safer if your rival attacks, as you have already anticipated their moves.

“The paranoia that drives individuals to constantly scan the world for danger and suspect the worst of others probably once provided a similar survival edge,” Friedman adds.

Illusory patterns

Believing in conspiracy theories can also be linked to distortions in cognitive processes.

Illusory pattern perception refers to perceiving meaningful or coherent connections between nonrelated events.

In other words, a distortion in how you think might make you prone to seeing patterns between events where there are none.

A 2018 study tested this theory and found that distortions of normal cognitive processes were repeatedly associated with conspiracy and irrational beliefs.

In the study, under controlled circumstances, participants detected patterns in randomly generated stimuli. This helped them make sense of their environment and respond well to each situation, even when the connections didn’t really exist.

A 2008 study found that lacking control in a situation increased a person’s likelihood to perceive nonexistent patterns, including developing superstitions and believing in conspiracies.

Participants who felt they lacked control connected unrelated events more often than participants who felt they understood and had some degree of control in a situation.

Apophenia: The tendency to connect the dots

The human tendency to seek and find patterns everywhere is indeed something that has often been linked to believing in conspiracy theories.

The human brain has evolved into seeing patterns in just about everything. It’s an evolutionary advantage but also a natural tendency.

We recognize animal figures in the clouds or uncover creepy faces in the bathroom wallpaper at night. If we meet three new friends — all named Bill — we tend to notice.

It doesn’t mean that every time we connect the dots we are right, though.

In fact, Friedman explains that humans detect patterns in randomness in an effort to make sense of the world quickly. This process, though, makes us prone to cognitive errors, such as “seeing connections between events when none exist.”

“For a species so intent on connecting the dots and making sense of the world, this information-rich environment is fertile ground for confusion and conspiracy theories,” Friedman explains.

There’s actually a name for this phenomenon: apophenia. This is the tendency to perceive a meaningful connection within random situations.

In other words, you take elements that are near each other by chance, and you see a meaningful and purposeful connection between them.

Experienced game designer Reed Berkowitz says that apophenia is common in the gaming world.

Take one of his games, for example. The goal is to find a clue in a basement to move to the following phase of the game.

The real clue placed by gamers was obvious. However, many of the players overlooked it and instead noticed a few loose floorboards. Then, they concluded their shape was an arrow pointing toward a wall. Consequently, they started tearing down the wall.

“These were normal people, and their assumptions were normal and logical and completely wrong,” Berkowitz wrote in a 2020 column.

There are different types of apophenia. These include:

Pareidolia, or connecting different visual elements and stimuli to form a nonexistent pattern. For example, seeing a face on the bark of a tree, or a specific sign in a light projected on the White House.

Clustering, or the tendency to find a pattern in a random sequence of data. For example, finding logic in a randomly generated sequence such as xvvxvvxxxvx, or seeing a trend in stock market fluctuations.

Gambler’s fallacy, or the inaccurate belief that if an event repeatedly happens during a certain time period, it will then occur less often in the future (or vice versa.) For example, if you toss a coin and get heads four times in a row, you’ll likely bet it’ll be tails next time.

Confirmation bias, or the “my way bias,” refers to the process of disregarding information that might disprove a belief while seeking information that supports it. For example, believing someone often sends secret messages in their speech will make you more likely to find secret messages in such speeches, even when that’s not the case.

A mathematical explanation

Following apophenia, there’s the Ramsey theory. This theory states that any large structure will implicitly contain patterns if you really pay attention.

That way, even in mathematics and geometry, patterns can be found whenever there are enough elements to connect.

So, according to the Ramsey theory, if you were to line up the text of just about any book, you’d find “hidden” words and sometimes several “meaningful” ones in a row.

In other words, if you’re looking for clues somewhere, you’re bound to find some!

QAnon: The excitement of living in ‘fiction’

QAnon, an internet conspiracy theory, has recently captured a large segment of the public’s attention.

It might be a strong indicator of another possible reason underneath some people’s tendency to follow conspiracy theories: the thrill of being the one who knows the secret.

QAnon has become so mainstream you may know at least one believer.

Followers of this conspiracy theory believe that an anonymous government insider, known as “Q,” often drops mysterious clues and riddles to expose the “deep state” apparatus.

According to QAnon believers, these clues range from the color of the lights the White House uses on a specific date to coded messages posted in internet forums.

For QAnon followers, former President Donald Trump is a secret agent fighting to save the world.

Who is he fighting against? A satanic cult of cannibals, pedophiles, and sex traffickers, led by Democratic politicians, such as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Why is QAnon so popular?

For some people, learning more about QAnon might just be a matter of curiosity.

For followers, QAnon might be convincing because its theories often play on:

  • people’s fears
  • the need to feel one is an empathetic person (e.g., saving the children)
  • a natural thrill to solve mysteries
  • a desire to be part of a like-minded group
  • an explanation and a possible hopeful future for things not going “your way” right now

Also, QAnon might offer the thrill of a game.

Yes. The constant search for secret clues in mysterious places might give you the dopamine rush of “unlocking levels” in a video game.

In fact, when Berkowitz saw what QAnon was all about, he immediately recognized Q’s tactics.

Berkowitz has vast experience creating stories and games that begin on a computer and move to the real world. To him, QAnon has a very “game-like feel.”

“When I saw QAnon, I knew exactly what it was and what it was doing. I had seen it before. I had almost built it before,” he said in his column. “It was gaming’s evil twin. A game that plays people.”

When asked by Psych Central why he thought QAnon was so alluring, Berkowitz summed it up:

“QAnon explains the world in terms of vibrant fictions and gives its members ‘permission’ to believe in these fictions as facts.”

It’s like living in a movie or a game.

“It offers an accepting community of like-minded people and a worldview that puts members in the center of an exciting ‘reality’ that they have an active role in affecting,” Berkowitz tells Psych Central. “QAnon is alluring because it gives life the intensity and emotional vibrancy of living in a fiction.”

He adds: “It’s about being in a community of people all working together to help save the world and solve a mystery that is always just about to be revealed.”

Are conspiracy theories dangerous? Are they harmful to the mental health of those who follow them?

It depends.

Believing in conspiracy theories can make a person who is already untrusting and suspicious even more so. But that’s not always the case.

It might be that for some people, firmly believing in one conspiracy theory might make them prone to believing in another one after that, and so on. It might also lead them to disregard real evidence to find one where none exists.

Some unproven theories can appear relatively harmless and even fun. But conspiracy theories, like QAnon, can lead people to actions that may harm themselves and others.

Some of these elaborate conspiracy theories could also promote distrust in institutions like the government or events like climate change, although other factors could also lead to this.

While not everyone is prone to believing conspiracy theories, many people are or can become prone to believing them.

We’ve discussed some possible reasons why people believe conspiracy theories.

So, what do you do if you tend to believe them?

  • Fact check. Who is posting this information? Is the source a reputable one? Do all reputable sources show the same data and draw the same conclusions? Is there video evidence?
  • Practice healthy skepticism. Taking everything with a grain of salt can actually help you process information differently.
  • Critical thinking. Develop your critical thinking skills by questioning all the information you get and its sources. Draw your own conclusions.
  • Diversify your network. Hang out with people of all beliefs, religions, races, and political parties. We can all learn something from each other.
  • Open your mind. Be open to other points of view and consider alternative explanations for events. Being exposed to other people’s experiences can provide you with information you haven’t had the chance to access yourself.

There are many popular conspiracy theories. Some have been going around for years, and others have just recently surfaced.

One of the big ones of 2020 — and there were quite a few — is the idea that COVID-19 was a hoax.

People who believe in the COVID-19 hoax theory are convinced the coronavirus never existed, and that the illusion of a pandemic was created to damage former President Trump politically.

Despite having a new president in the White House and the more than 586,000 deaths to date in the United States alone, some people are still firm believers in this conspiracy theory.

This isn’t the only COVID-19-related conspiracy theory.

Others include:

All false claims.

Other popular conspiracy theories include:

Why do people believe in conspiracy theories? There might actually be a few psychological reasons that go from a need to control events that cause anxiety to having schizotypy tendencies.

Even if some theories seem rather harmless, others can affect the way people function in the world and respond to other people and events.

This is why it’s important to always double-check your sources and practice critical thinking.