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I want to believe: the psychology of climate change conspiracy theories

Pinocchio puppet in red outfit with long nose and small green plant growing out of it

By Dr Aarron Atkinson-Toal, January 2024

Dr Aarron Atkinson-Toal, Assistant Professor in Marketing and International Business, on how shareable content leads to the real threat of fake news. 

Climate change is a hoax. Global warming is fake news. The Earth is flat. Area 51 experiments on extra-terrestrials. The Illuminati seeks to establish a New World Order. The US election was stolen. The coronavirus vaccine contains a tracking microchip. 

There’s something fantastically titillating about a conspiracy theory. Their magnetic pull from the mundane and ordinary to an alternate world of shadowy organisations, secretive governmental agendas and mysterious officials attempting to hide, conceal or manipulate information can be almost too difficult to resist, even by the most rational and level-headed among us. Perhaps even your mind has convinced you that your phone is listening to you right now, or that stories of a warming earth are overexaggerated and fake news, dreamt up by greedy corporations and governments to increase profits and control the population. 

You don’t need to truly believe these stories. You just need to hear them, consume them, crave more of them and most importantly, share and tell others about them. The more scandalous, salacious, unbelievable or incomprehensible the better. We long for escapism and to be heard in a noisy, overcrowded metaverse, where we battle the competition to ensure our beliefs thrive and survive, whilst convincing others to do the same. We neverendingly consume, create and share stories, ideas and opinions in the hope they are listened to, retold, reshared and retweeted. The unbelievable fact is, more unbelievable than Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster, we’re more likely to trust influencers than politicians or information on social media than information from news outlets, and that has consequences on the perpetuation of misinformation throughout a society as belief becomes prioritised over fact. 

So where does this craving for the sensational come from, and why do we believe it? Well, there’s a reason why we endlessly scroll through random videos on TikTok until the early hours, become mesmerised by ten-second Instagram stories or repost captivating or controversial content on X. These stories, or memes, behave in the same replicating way in a quest for survival as our own human genes, so we’re instinctively programmed to believe and share. Confused? Well in the words of ‘Mother’: “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.” 

Biological roots of the psychological and the fantastical 

Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection gave way to the gene-centred view of evolution, hypothesising how fitter genetic replicators survive during competition, resulting in evolved physiological features and psychological traits perfectly suited to navigating our once hostile environment. Gregor Mendel demonstrated how such winning genetic traits can also be passed from one generation to the next via inheritance. Richard Dawkins further hypothesised that while genes use hosts like me and you to replicate themselves, we’re just the temporary puppets, throwaway survival machines, and it’s our genes that’ll continue to replicate and transmit themselves for generations. Dawkins argues that these mechanics of Darwinism are just too considerable to only explain biological evolution,  and that there must be other replicators on Earth, just like genes, that transmit information in the same way. And there is: ideas. 

Genes and memes 

Just as we are the hosts for genes, we are also the hosts for stories, ideas and beliefs. Just as genes replicate themselves to survive and spread and transmit themselves to the next generation, stories survive as we act to replicate and transmit ideas onto others. In the same way that biology transmits information via genes from one organism to another, culture allows for the transmission of stories, ideas and memes, from one organism to another. Survival of the fittest story is achieved when it’s absorbed, replicated and transferred to the next person through cultural evolution. They don’t need to be true; gossip, rumours and conspiracies transmit well too. They survive because they deliver messages that people want to hear. They’re psychologically appealing in their incredulousness, which makes them more infectious and more likely to transmit, not only from person to person, but from culture to culture and generation to generation. 

Technology usage within current society presents the perfect Petri dish for meme transmission: social connectivity. Accelerated use of social media creates the conditions for memes to spread. And remember, the fact that a meme can either be fact or fiction is irrelevant. It just must be shared to survive and evolve, and we’re instinctively programmed to do so. Peddling such misinformation through imitation has been shown to cause societal harm, evidenced recently by anti-vaxxers spreading scientifically false information that threatened to disrupt the Covid-19 immunisation programme. Sharing memes containing misinformation about the state of the climate or the factors causing global warming threatens to disrupt efforts to fix it, as a herd immunity is created that automatically assigns climate warnings as fake news. 

The difficulty lies in persuading a population to change its belief when the source of the persuasion itself comes from a government or corporation, the very entities who conspiracy theorists themselves are hardwired to disbelieve and doubt. Once you’ve been infected with the meme, absorbed it, and transmitted it to someone else, any social marketing message or scientific warning to encourage behavioural or believe change is futile in the face of a meme pandemic that attacks the rational mind. The truth is that climate change is a hoax if you believe it is. You’ve been exposed to the meme and now contribute to its survival. There may come a time when humans are faced with the incontrovertible truth that cannot be masked by belief. However, the power of the evolved mind demonstrates the uncanny ability to believe the invisible, rather than the observable reality. Belief in a monster living in a Scottish Highlands loch is easy, despite never seeing it. Belief in a dying world caused by overconsumption is hard, despite constantly seeing evidence of the effect. Just as the power of genetic transmission demonstrates survivability in adapting to environmental hostility, the power of memetic transmission demonstrates how the unbelievable becomes believable. 

Or, after reading this, you may believe that I’m just another cog in a meme machine peddling the climate conspiracy. Perhaps I have a wealthy unknown benefactor who’s forced me to write this article. Or perhaps the idea came to me after my recent Covid vaccination booster. All I can say is...REDACTED.