What is going on in the head of a conspiracy theorist?

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In the KIJK Conspiracy special you’ll find the 55 biggest conspiracy theories in the world. But it’s a good idea to ask some important questions first. Like: How can someone believe in such stories? And since there are so many conspiracy theorists out there, are they a danger to society?

The world is run by a secret society of vicious reptilian aliens from another dimension. This, in a nutshell, is the conspiracy theory put forward by Briton David Ike. He was once a sports journalist and politician, but now he works full time with his outlandish view of the world. Icke is the kind of person you immediately associate with the word “conspiracy theory.” Perhaps the kind that psychologists envisioned in the 1970s when they dismissed conspiracy theorists as mentally ill and with paranoid delusions.

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But surveys now show that these people are no exception. For example, studies conducted in the United States indicate that about half of the population believes in one or more conspiracy theories. Common ideas are that bankers deliberately caused the 2008 financial crisis, that Barack Obama was not born in the United States (and therefore should never have become president of the United States), and that the attacks of September 11, 2001 were planned by the Bush administration.

Conspiracy thinking is common among well-functioning people.

Social psychologist Jan Willem van Bruggen

What about here in the Netherlands? A sample from the research agency Kieskompas from 2018 showed that about 10 percent of Dutch people believe in one or more conspiracy theories. But there are also higher estimates. Hearing such figures, can not confirm that conspiracy thinking is a mental aberration. In fact, it happens a lot among people who do well, says social psychologist Jan Willem van Bruggen of VU Amsterdam. “In addition, scholars have recognized that belief in conspiracy theories affects things like election results.”

Just look at the United States, where Donald Trump was inaugurated in 2016 after a campaign that was filled with wild stories. Trump’s election victory and his presidency have led to renewed academic interest in the subject. The question is no longer what is wrong with conspiracy theories, but what drives them. What makes one vulnerable to conspiracy theories? And should we worry about that?

This is the beginning of the “Nothing As It Seems” article which can be found on the KIJK Conspiracy Special. This special edition is now available in the store, but can also be ordered here. Subscribers received a discount code.

Photo: Viviane Moos/Corbis via Getty Images

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