Conspiracy Theories: Evolved Functions and Psychological Mechanisms

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Belief in conspiracy theories-such as that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were an inside job or that the pharmaceutical industry deliberately spreads diseases-is a widespread and culturally universal phenomenon. Why do so many people around the globe believe conspiracy theories, and why are they so influential? Previous research focused on the proximate mechanisms underlying conspiracy beliefs but ignored the distal, evolutionary origins and functions. We review evidence pertaining to two competing evolutionary hypotheses: (a) conspiracy beliefs are a by-product of a suite of psychological mechanisms (e.g., pattern recognition, agency detection, threat management, alliance detection) that evolved for different reasons, or (b) conspiracy beliefs are part of an evolved psychological mechanism specifically aimed at detecting dangerous coalitions. This latter perspective assumes that conspiracy theories are activated after specific coalition cues, which produce functional counterstrategies to cope with suspected conspiracies. Insights from social, cultural and evolutionary psychology provide tentative support for six propositions that follow from the adaptation hypothesis. We propose that people possess a functionally integrated mental system to detect conspiracies that in all likelihood has been shaped in an ancestral human environment in which hostile coalitions-that is, conspiracies that truly existed-were a frequent cause of misery, death, and reproductive loss.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)770-788
Number of pages19
JournalPerspectives on psychological science : a journal of the Association for Psychological Science
Issue number6
Early online date19 Sept 2018
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2018


  • adaptation
  • by-product
  • coalitions
  • conspiracy theories
  • evolutionary psychology


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