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Conspiracy Theories: tasty burgers for the mind

With every major event over the past 2,000 years, there has been conspiracy theories - moon landings, presidential and royal assassinations, Bigfoot... and now COVID-19.

But what’s the allure of these theories? Why are we so susceptible to them, and how can we resist falling for them? Dr Joe Stubbersfield, Assistant Professor in Psychology at Heriot-Watt University, is addressing these topics in his research, and in a new online show this summer.

Why are conspiracy theories a problem?: Conspiracy theories are accusations of conspiracy, which persist in society despite having been disproved or having failed to find compelling evidence. The conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19 provide troubling examples of the negative impact they can have on society. We’ve seen COVID-19 conspiracy theories inspire racist attacks on East Asian people, vandalism of 5G transmitter towers, and contribute to negative attitudes towards a potential COVID-19 vaccine. These kinds of stories are popular and persist because mentally, we are all natural conspiracy theorists.

Why are we all conspiracy theorists?: Conspiracy theories survive because of how our brains work. Like other aspects of our biology, the human brain has some evolved predispositions – tendencies to think or behave in a certain way. Just as we have a predisposition to enjoy the taste of salt, fat, and sugar, which leaves us susceptible to eating too many burgers, predispositions in our mind makes us susceptible to conspiracy theories. These predispositions of the mind are called ‘cognitive biases’ and conspiracy theories tick off a number of them. Firstly, they exploit our bias for believing there are intentional actions behind events where there is none. They also appeal to our bias for social information about the activities of others. Importantly, they appeal to our bias for focusing on the negative or threatening aspects of our environment, and for thinking more negatively about people outside of our culturally-defined ‘in-group’. All of these aspects make them a very tasty burger for the mind, and difficult to resist.

What can we do about them?: Unfortunately, conspiracy theories are difficult to combat, because they are so appealing to human minds. The most successful proposed interventions are based on ‘pre-emptive exposure’, essentially ‘inoculating’ people against them. These include educating people about the techniques used in the spread of theories and the nature of online misinformation. Understanding the appeal of conspiracy theories and being vigilant of our own biases is a great form of prevention and can help us fight our natural predisposition to be conspiracy theorists.

Dr Joe Stubbersfield
Dr Joe Stubbersfield

Interested in the psychology of conspiracy theories? Catch Joe performing in the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas this summer. Hosted by comedian JoJo Sutherland, CODI is a blend of controversial academic research, audience interaction, and a dash of comedy. All shows this summer are available via the Stand Comedy OnDemand - the virtual venue of the world-famous Stand Comedy Club. Visit for more info.


The Local Lab column is contributed by Heriot-Watt University to engage the public in a range of their research projects


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