How To Identify And Avoid Harmful Conspiracy Theories

Trust issues don't just happen in intimate relationships; they can seep into societies and large communities too. And when suspicion is high and security is low, conspiracy theories often multiply. Social psychologist at the University of Kent Karen Douglas explained to The Washington Post, "Conspiracy theories tend to flourish in times of crisis." Understandably, this is when people need comfort the most. "When [our] needs are frustrated, conspiracy theories might seem to offer some kind of relief," she added.

The COVID-19 pandemic is one recent example. As people around the world were forced to face new uncertainties, some found solace in misinformation and dangerous rumors, according to a 2021 research article published in the journal Group Processes & Intergroup Relations. However, conspiracy theories have existed since long before the pandemic. Some are even relatively harmless — ever heard the myth that singer Avril Lavigne died and was replaced with a clone (via The Guardian)? Or that Princess Diana's death was orchestrated? These theories, even if untrue, likely won't influence your daily life much.

On the other hand, other conspiracy theories can have a major impact on what people believe and how they behave. Here are the telltale signs of a harmful conspiracy theory and how to not get sucked into the madness.

Common characteristics of conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories go beyond making curious hypotheses about the world. As Karen Douglas told the "Speaking of Psychology" podcast, a conspiracy theory is a belief in a secret plot motivated by a malicious and self-serving goal. The theories tend to focus on the government, wealthy celebrities, and other groups of people in power. For example, some theorists claimed that the 9/11 attacks were actually carried out by the U.S. government, per the Council on Foreign Relations. Conspiracy theories may also pit groups against each other, with theorists forming one cohesive group to compete against perceived rivals, according to PsychCentral. This can be seen in the white supremacist "great replacement" theory (via Southern Poverty Law Center).

The "Conspiracy Theory Handbook," written by Stephan Lewandowsky of the University of Bristol, and John Cook of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, explains the common characteristics of conspiracy theories. These include contradictory ideas (believing a theory even if it contradicts other known information), suspicion toward official sources of information, a belief that there are problems in the world that non-believers can't recognize, and a view of oneself as a victim of the conspiracy.

Protect yourself from conspiracy theories

These days, it can be hard to tell real news from fake news, especially as unchecked information spreads on social media and biased websites. However, the Anti-Defamation League has a few tips for identifying conspiracy theories. First, analyze your source. Is it an established outlet or organization? Are they educated on the topic? Are they unbiased, or are they heavily tied to specific political views? If the information is written online, does it contain a lot of spelling and grammatical errors? If there are photos, are the images outdated or edited? Perform a reverse image search on Google to find out.

Another way to avoid falling for a conspiracy theory is to practice self-care, according to The Washington Post. This is especially important when you're feeling anxious and searching for comforting answers. Rather than turning to rumors or biased media, disconnect from the news and social media and find a sense of control in healthy activities like exercising or tidying your home. Though this may only be a temporary fix, it can stop you from falling into a misinformation rabbit hole.

If you're worried about the rise of conspiracy theories, there's also a bit of good news: A 2022 study published in Plos One found that belief in conspiracy theories has decreased over time. Theories might arise during troubled times, but they're rarely here to stay.