Conspiracy and Cover-Up Theories

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Conspiracy and Cover-Up Theories

If a man says (for instance) that men have a conspiracy against him, you cannot dispute it except by saying that all the men deny that they are conspirators; which is exactly what conspirators would do. His explanation covers the facts as much as yours. (G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 1908)

The world is governed by very different personages from what is imagined by those who are not behind the scenes. (Benjamin Disraeli, Coningsby, or the New Generation, 1844)

What secrets are the government keeping from us? What backroom deals go on between large corporations that we never hear about?

A relatively new area of research for psychology is conspiracy theories, defined as ’a false belief that major events are caused by multiple actors working together in secret as part of a possibly evil, cruel, omnipresent group’.

Big events, it seems must have big causes, and there are many who challenge the official story. Conspiracy theorists, on the other hand, from many backgrounds argue that:

• It is naive to believe the official version of events.

• Governments are Machiavellian manipulators of the media.

• The government narrative aims to keep people ignorant and in fear.

• Those who are anti-conspiracy theory demonize them and won’t take the time to look at the evidence (close-mindedness).

• The conspiracy theory popularizers aim to hold those in power to account and reclaim history.

• It is the mockers and scoffers who are the stupid ones.

Conspiracy theorists argue that there are many groups who, in effect, censor the information that we receive; the government (the FBI, CIA, etc.), the military (Nato, etc.) and corporations (banks, oil companies, big pharma).

Rather than being the product of irrationality or mental illness, it could be argued conspiracy theories are a rational and logical manner of responding to public information. When there seems little reliable information about an event or when details are ambiguous, conspiracy theories may gain acceptance precisely because they offer a coherent and comprehensive worldview.

Conspiracy theories are beliefs that attribute the ultimate cause of an event, or the concealment of an event from public knowledge, usually to a secret, unlawful and malevolent plot by multiple actors working together. There are lots of potential ’bad guys’, home grown and foreign: governments; banks; the security services; the military.

In addition, it has been suggested that there are four key characteristics that distinguish conspiracy theorists from real conspiratorial politics. These are that:

1 Conspiracy theorists ’consider the alleged conspirators to be Evil Incarnate’.

2 Conspiracy theorists ’perceive the conspiratorial group as both monolithic and unerring in the pursuit of its goals’.

3 Conspiracy theorists ’believe that the conspiratorial group is omnipresent’.

4 Conspiracy theorists believe that the conspiratorial group is ’virtually omnipotent’.

Conspiracy theories form part of a ’monological belief system’. That is, once an individual has adopted any one (major) conspiracist worldview, new conspiracy theories are assimilated more easily because they support that particular worldview.

Beliefs in conspiracy theories are widespread across the globe, although they appear to be particularly prominent in the West. In America, opinion polls regularly show that up to 90 per cent of Americans believe Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone in killing John F. Kennedy.

The question psychologists are interested in is who, when and why people believe in conspiracy theories, both well-known and obscure.

Psychological researchers have posed the question: ’Are people who believe in conspiracy theories irrational, naive, insane, paranoid, or wise sceptics?’ Most are sceptical about conspiracy theories, though they do recognize that there are sometimes real cover-ups by governments and other bodies.

Conspiracy theories can be psychologically functional: for many they make sense of a confusing and uncertain world. They make clear who the ’Forces of Darkness’ are and also the ’Forces of Light’. They can provide people with the feeling that they are privy to secret knowledge.

Psychological studies have reported associations between stronger conspiracist ideation and higher anomie, distrust in authority, political cynicism and powerlessness, as well as lower self-esteem. These findings are consistent with the proposal that conspiracist ideation is more common among disenfranchised, disadvantaged or powerless groups and that conspiracy theories play a role in self-esteem maintenance.

Some have suggested fighting conspiracy theorists by:

1 Banning conspiracy theories outright.

2 Imposing a tax (financial or otherwise) on those who disseminate conspiracy theories.

3 Engaging in ’counter-speech’, where justified and sound arguments are used to discredit conspiracy theories.

4 Formally hiring private parties to engage in counter-speech.

5 Engaging in informal communication with conspiracy theorists, encouraging them to get help.

But are we in danger of pathologizing those who believe in cover-ups? Are some conspiracy theorists better informed and wiser than those who swallow the ’government/corporation’ line? How do you tell the difference?


Bale, J. M. (2007). Political paranoia vs. political realism: On distinguishing between bogus conspiracy theories and genuine conspiratorial politics. Patterns of Prejudice, 41, 45—60.

Sunstein, S. R., & Vermeule, A. (2009). Conspiracy theories: causes and cures. The Journal of Political Philosophy, 17, 202—27.

Swami, V., Chamorro-Premuzic, T., & Furnham, A. (2010). Unanswered questions: A preliminary investigation of personality and individual difference predictors of 9/11 conspiracist beliefs. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 24, 749—61.