Conspiracy theories are dangerous even if very few people believe them

There is an open question among pundits and researchers: Do more Americans believe in conspiracy theories now than ever before?

But as a scholar of conspiracy theories and their believers, I am concerned that focusing on how many Americans believe conspiracy theories can distract from their dangers.

Even if most people dismiss conspiracy theories or accept them only in some limited sense, leaving very small numbers of true believers, the high visibility of these false ideas can still make them dangerous.

Association without belief

Philosophers often suppose people can explain their actions in terms of what they want to do or get, and what they believe. However, many of people’s actions are guided not by explicit beliefs but rather by gut feelings. These feelings aren’t set in stone. They can be influenced by experience.

This principle is taken to heart by advertisers who aim to influence behavior, not by changing how people think but how they feel. Manipulating feelings in this way can be accomplished by subtly associating a product with desirable outcomes like status and sex.

This can also take a negative form, as in political attack ads that aim to associate an opponent with threatening imagery and descriptions. Forging similar mental associations is one way in which conspiracy theories, like other misinformation, might have consequences even without being believed.