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Do only people who are slightly crazy fall for conspiracy theories, or are we all vulnerable?

The moon landing was faked. Doctors only peddle vaccines as safe because they are in the pockets of Big Pharma. Barack Obama is a Muslim and a foreigner. George W Bush was responsible for 9/11, or otherwise Zionists did it. Princess Diana was assassinated. HIV doesn't really exist. A cure for cancer was discovered ages back, but pharmaceutical companies are keeping that to themselves so they can make money off chemotherapy. Oh, and scientists go to great lengths to cover up the truth that the Earth really is flat, too.

We could continue. And continue. You almost certainly know someone who believes in one or more of these conspiracy theories, or some others, and may even have fallen for some yourself — about a third of Americans believe the "birther" theory about Obama, after all, and about the same amount sees 9/11 as some kind of "inside job". 

What makes people believe in conspiracy theories? Do you have to be at least a little bit crazy to fall for one?

What Are Conspiracy Theories?

First things first — what makes something a conspiracy theory? According to political scientists Joseph E Uscinski and Joseph M Parent, who together wrote the book American Conspiracy Theories, conspiracy theories have four defining factors. You're talking about:

  1. A group
  2. Acting covertly
  3. To gain power, hide the truth, influence institutions or otherwise further its own interest
  4. Acting contrary to public interest

We should add that conspiracy theories are unproved, or indeed debunked, by nature — were a conspiracy theory to be proven true, it would no longer by a conspiracy theory but a conspiracy fact. It was John Heller, the author of Catch-22, who coined the now famous phrase "just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you". Though no mental illness is required to believe in a conspiracy theory, something similar holds true here as well: conspiracy theories aren't false by definition; some that might have seemed rather "out there" are now widely known to be true, and you only have to look towards Watergate to understand that.

Who Is Most Likely To Believe Conspiracy Theories?

Contrary to popular belief, as the aforementioned Uscinski and Parent discovered through surveys, believers in conspiracy theories "cut across gender, age, race, income, political affiliation, educational level, and occupational status". However, the kind of conspiracy theory you end up falling for does depend on who you are. If you're an Obama supporter, you are clearly less likely to believe that he falsified his birth certificate in order to illegally become president of the US, while if you're a doctor you're pretty unlikely to believe that HIV isn't real.

Your likelihood to believe in certain conspiracy theories depends on your political stance, then, as well as on the knowledge you possess. 

Some of this can be explained by the phenomenon of "groupthink"; when a group you are part of counts many members who believe something that is counter-intuitive and unproven, you'll more easily start believing that same thing too than if you aren't exposed to large numbers of people who hold a certain view. 

What's more, people who are under a lot of stress and living in situations where they aren't able to control their own outcomes are more prone to believing in conspiracy theories. Believing in conspiracy theories may, indeed, be a way to create the illusion of some control, a twisted way comfort your mind. 

Education also has a role to play — but not as big a role as you may think. While 42 percent of people without high school diplomas believe in some kind of conspiracy theory, the same holds true for only 23 percent of those with postgraduate degrees. That is, however, still an awful lot of people. 

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