© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Wash U professor answers 10 questions about the psychology behind conspiracy theories

Alan Lambert directs Washington University’s Attitude and Social Cognition Laboratory.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

Conspiracy theories are nothing new – but they are in the news a lot these days, and they seem to particularly plague the digital age.

“I don’t think they’re more common, but they spread much more quickly now because of the internet,” Alan Lambert said on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air. “We hear about them faster.”

Lambert, who is an associate professor of psychology at Washington University, joined host Don Marsh for a close look at why conspiracy theories persist.

The conversation touched on a variety of theories old and new – from the idea that the 1969 moon landing was faked to the notion that the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School was a hoax – and Lambert took questions from both Marsh and listeners. Here are 10 of them.

What’s a simple definition of a conspiracy theory?

“There’s less agreement [about a definition] than you might think. Usually conspiracy theories have to do with assumptions about a vast, powerful entity – usually secret – that’s covering up, obviously, the truth in many cases. And they’re notable in that they seem to be pushing back against the conventional wisdom in the media and whatnot.”

Are certain people more susceptible to endorsing conspiracy theories than others?

“It has nothing to do with intelligence – there’s no specific link to whether people are high or low intelligence. It’s actually not a product of being on the political right or left. What research does suggest is that people at the political extremes are more likely to hold to conspiracy theories. … The best predictor of conspiracy theories is whether they believe in other conspiracy theories.”

Are all conspiracy theories completely false?

“One conspiracy theory is that the moon landing was faked, and if that’s true, then that requires the assumption that thousands of employees at NASA have been bribed to keep quiet. … I think you can think of conspiracy theories on a continuum of theories that are just certainly false – for example, the world actually is round, it’s not flat, [whereas] the JFK [assassination] conspiracy theories, it took many years for people to sort of arrive at a conclusion. And there’s some grain of truth to some of those conspiracy theories. But that’s a good example where that’s not as extreme, for example, as the Sandy Hook conspiracy theory, which is clearly false.”

What’s the motive behind spreading or clinging to such theories?

“The way I like to think of it is [as] part of a larger dynamic of in-group and out-groups. People have a need to see their own in-group as validated, as correct, and a need to see the other group as having a bogus view of reality. … It’s not necessarily the content of the conspiracy theory – the underlying motive would be for people to see themselves as part of the privileged few who have a view of the world as it really is, which instantly of course creates two groups: believers and nonbelievers.”

Are they ever true?

“Almost all conspiracy theories are false. [But] there are some disturbing historical examples of conspiracy theories that turned out to be true – for example, the so-called MKUltra conspiracy theory, the belief that the government was administering LSD and other drugs to college students and servicemen. This is all out in the open – the CIA admits this.”

What do you make of Alex Jones and his pushing of things like the QAnon and Sandy Hook conspiracy theories after seeing some of what is on Jones’ website?

“Part of me [thought] he was actually believing the Sandy Hook conspiracy theory … another part of me thinks he’s doing it as a publicity stunt. But he seems to enjoy spreading these theories, that’s for sure.”

Just today there’s a new one suggesting that the real Donald Trump isn’t the Trump we see day to day – that he’s actually very measured and thoughtful in his dealings outside of the spotlight.

“That’s sort of turning everything on its head, so that a lot of people are getting mad at Donald Trump, but then this theory is saying, ‘Well he’s really not like that at all,’ which feeds into this uncertainty of what is truth and what is not truth.”

How can we go about sorting out all of these conspiracy theories and cope with their persistence?

“One way of coping with this is first to recognize that not all the beliefs that we hold are perfectly validated or grounded in fact. One thing that I do, actually, is that I’m politically liberal, but I find it useful to look at other, more right-leaning news sources to see what they’re saying about various issues. But as far as a hardcore conspiracy theorist, to try to convince him or her that their theories are false, I don’t know. That’s a hard sell because it’s what psychologists call a closed system – that the more information that you give them suggesting that their theories are suspect, the more this can feed into their belief that in fact their conspiracy theories are true.”

Is there a geographic variance in where these theories originate or perpetuate – large cities versus rural areas?

“Our lab has been collecting written protocols – people describing the 9/11 attacks and the apprehension of Osama bin Laden. And these protocols of course are completely anonymous, but we have a ton of demographic data on these individuals … and that’s one of the hypotheses we’re going to be testing. I myself would be surprised if there’s any relationship between conspiracy theories and location. The theories may be different, but in terms of the statistical likelihood based on geography, I doubt it, but we’ll look at the data.”

Is there any real evidence that the Sept. 11 attacks resulted from something beyond the planes hitting the towers?

“I think the data are pretty conclusive on that – one of the wilder conspiracy theories is that the planes were actually a hologram. If you don’t believe me that that theory exists, just go on YouTube and you can see people who are convinced that the planes were actually an illusion, that the buildings were actually detonated. People have been looking into that, some very smart people have looked at this, and it’s a tragedy of immense proportions, but … it was at some level fairly simple. The planes flew into the building and the planes exploded and the buildings fell.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Caitlin Lally give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

Stay Connected
Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.