What makes conspiracy theorists stick to their guns despite fact-based evidence?

BERKELEY, Calif. — Many people who like to base their beliefs and political leanings on fact are often bewildered when they find people who still believe that the Holocaust was a hoax, the Earth is flat, climate change isn’t real, or vaccines cause autism. But a new study suggests the true reason why these false beliefs and other conspiracy theories like them persist in some corners of our society may simply be even the slightest bit of positive reinforcement from within their respective echo chambers.

Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley found that people are more likely to believe something based on the positive or negative feedback they receive in response to opinions, tasks, or interactions rather than logic or objective fact.

“If you think you know a lot about something, even though you don’t, you’re less likely to be curious enough to explore the topic further, and will fail to learn how little you know,” said UC Berkeley Ph.D. psychology student and lead author Louis Marti.

The theory lends itself to more than just conspiracy theories. Other beliefs such as old wives’ tales as health remedies or superstitious mantras and rituals may sway individuals after being seemingly effective every now and again.

“If you use a crazy theory to make a correct prediction a couple of times, you can get stuck in that belief and may not be as interested in gathering more information,” says senior author Celeste Kidd, an assistant professor of psychology at the university.

When it comes to the most unlikely of beliefs, researchers say social media and partisan cable news programs can lead to this cognitive dynamic.

For their study, researchers tested 500 adults with an online that asked them to identify different combinations of colors and shapes, looking for a specific, contrived shape called a “daxxy.” The study participants, of course not having any idea what a daxxy actually was, had to blindly guess while they looked at 24 different colored shapes on their computer screens. They received feedback on whether they guessed right or wrong. The participants were asked to rate the certainty of their guesses.

“What we found interesting is that they could get the first 19 guesses in a row wrong, but if they got the last five right, they felt very confident. It’s not that they weren’t paying attention, they were learning what a daxxy was, but they weren’t using most of what they learned to inform their certainty,” says Marti. “If your goal is to arrive at the truth, the strategy of using your most recent feedback, rather than all of the data you’ve accumulated, is not a great tactic.”

The study is published in the journal Open Mind.

Follow on Google News

About the Author

Ben Renner

Writer, editor, curator, and social media manager based in Denver, Colorado. View my writing at http://rennerb1.wixsite.com/benrenner.

The contents of this website do not constitute advice and are provided for informational purposes only. See our full disclaimer


  1. Except that Climate Change (CC) is total BS, a myth to inflict multi-national, cross-border control on the Western world. Not a single CC prediction has come true, not one. (but the CC members and the politicians made a ton of money)
    The proof that Autism is a response to the ingredients of Vaccinations is irrefutable, unless you are the group that makes or inflicts Vaccinations and profit from them. (but the CC members and the politicians made a ton of money)

    In short, the new study by Wood and Douglas suggests that the negative stereotype of the conspiracy theorist – a hostile fanatic wedded to the truth of his own fringe theory – accurately describes the people who defend the official account of 9/11, not those who dispute it.
    Recent studies by psychologists and social scientists in the US and UK suggest that contrary to mainstream media stereotypes, those labeled “conspiracy theorists” appear to be saner than those who accept the official versions of contested events.

    “The CIA’s campaign to popularize the term ‘conspiracy theory’ and make conspiracy belief a target of ridicule and hostility must be credited, unfortunately, with being one of the most successful propaganda initiatives of all time.”
    In other words, people who use the terms “conspiracy theory” and “conspiracy theorist” as an insult are doing so as the result of a well-documented, undisputed, historically-real conspiracy by the CIA to cover up the JFK assassination. That campaign, by the way, was completely illegal, and the CIA officers involved were criminals
    No wonder the anti-conspiracy people are sounding more and more like a bunch of hostile, paranoid cranks.
    By Dr. Kevin Barrett

    “The most dangerous man, to any government, is the man who is able to think things out for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos.” — H. L. Mencken, 1919

    Truth and Facts do not need censorship and laws to defend them, only lies and falsehoods may not be questioned and require punishment for thinking.

  2. Stringing climate change with Holocaust denial & flat-earthers is a great technique for deflating points of you without examining them. Check out the Inconvenient Facts to get 60 pieces of scientific data that refute the climate changers position right off the bat. I LOVE conspiracies! I think they are fun. I may or may not buy into them, but I DO want to hear all sides. I want to spread it across the table & examine various points of view & the evidence they present. The powers-that-be, however, wish to SQUELCH dissent from their worldview & that makes me EXTREMELY suspicious. “Partisan cable shows,” I had to look that up, is another term used to undermine credible of voices not owned by the big 6 companies (Comcast, News-Corp, Disney, Time-Warner, Viacom, CBS) that own all media in the West, as if these big 6 are NOT partisan.

  3. The thesis of this research reminds me of BF Skinner’s 1948 paper on superstition using pigeons as his test subjects (“‘SUPERSTITION’ IN THE PIGEON”), available here: https://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Skinner/Pigeon/ . Skinner fed undernourished pigeons with short access to food at random intervals — but the pigeons interpreted whatever they were doing immediately prior to being fed as causative, reinforcing that behavior. Skinner analogized this process he posited resulted in “superstition” in humans, i.e. belief in causation where it doesn’t exist. One might further analogize it to all sorts of conspiracy theories that at a remove from personal experience still depend on reinforcement.

  4. P J London is 100% correct. And our government was involved with planning 9/11. Paul Joseph Watson’s book “Order Out of Chaos” said that the government had previously been alerted that there were going to be attacks on American soil and airplanes were going to be used as the weapons.
    In a section called “Warnings on the Eve of the Attack,” Watson writes: “Newsweek twice reported that top Pentagonofficials had got a warning of the impending attack on September 10th and cancelled their flights for the next day. This confirms that
    these officials knew both the locations of the imminent attack and
    the method of using jetliners as bombs.”

Comments are closed.