Does believing in conspiracy theories mean you have delusional disorder? Think about your answers to the following questions, and then we’ll analyze further. Was the moon landing fake? Did President George Bush have insider knowledge about 9/11? What was the true story of John F. Kennedy’s assassination? Are we sure the earth isn’t flat? Are birds even real?
A conspiracy theory is defined by the Encyclopedia Britannica as an attempt to explain harmful or tragic events as the result of the actions of a small powerful group. During a pandemic, it’s natural for people to speculate on the credibility of information being given to them. A recent, infamous theory discussed in the “Speaking of Psychology” podcast we will discuss later, was that the new 5G cell phone towers were built to spread Covid-19, and dozens of those towers were burned across Europe in 2020.
This is not a new phenomena, according to an article written by Thomas Milan Konda, conspiracy theories have been around for at least 200 years. Dating all the way back to 1831, An Anti-Masonic Party held its first national political convention with speeches peppered with conspiratorial expressions about Freemasonry. Freemasonry is defined by the Britannica as the teachings and practices of the fraternal order of Free and Accepted Masons, the largest worldwide secret society—an oath-bound society, often devoted to fellowship, moral discipline, and mutual assistance, that conceals at least some of its rituals, customs, or activities from the public.
These types of secret groups have been the subject of multiple conspiracy theories. There are ideas that these secret groups are running the world behind closed doors. Some of these groups include the Freemasons, the Order of Skull and Bones, Bilderberg, and the Illuminati.
While conspiracy theories can be fun to speculate, are truly believing them a sign of Delusional Disorder? According to an article published on the Cleveland Clinic, delusional disorder, previously known as paranoid disorder, is a type of serious mental illness in which a person cannot tell what is real from what is imagined.
Delusions are unshakable beliefs in something untrue. They usually involve misinterpretation of perceptions or experiences, however, the situations are either untrue or highly exaggerated. People with delusional disorder usually function normally and don’t behave in an odd or bizarre manner, although there are other psychotic disorders that might also involve delusion as a symptom. In some extreme cases, people with delusional disorders can become so preoccupied that their lives are disrupted due to the delusions. Delusional disorder is most common in people in middle to late life.
6 Types of Delusional Disorder
There are six types of known delusional disorders and they are as follows.
Someone with Erotomanic Delusional Disorder believes that someone else, most commonly a celebrity or a person of power, is in love with them. This could eventually lead to stalking, or attempting to contact the person. Counselor Sara Makin says erotomania delusions can manifest in different ways. Some examples include:
• A person believing a local news anchor is secretly saying things on TV to get their attention.
• A person listening for secret messages in songs directed at them from their favorite musicians. • A person finds out everything possible about a famous person that they believe loves them.
Someone with Grandiose Delusional Disorder has an over-inflated sense of worth, power, knowledge, or identity according to the article from Cleveland Clinic. They might believe they have a great talent or they made an important discovery. In a study reviewed by psychologist Timothy J. Legg, it’s found that some examples of this disorder include:
- A belief they have a special ability, object, or talent. Such as someone believing they have an Elvis Presley record no one has listened to.
- A belief they are actually a famous person and the actual celebrity is an imposter.
- A belief they are in a secret relationship with someone or something important. They could believe they are a spy and are relaying messages to the president or other world leaders.
- A belief they are a religious leader.
Someone with Jealous Delusional Disorder believes their spouse or partner is unfaithful. According to findings posted on BrightQuest.com, some examples of jealous delusions include:
- Frequently questioning and accusing partners, and watching of signs of bad intent.
- Prohibiting the partner from having social media accounts or even checking them secretly to see their communications.
- Paranoia over phone calls or emails the partner is involved in.
- Constantly attempting to “catch them in the act.”
- Obsessive behaviors, such as stalking, or forcing isolation.
Someone with Persecutory Delusional Disorder believe they or someone close to them are being mistreated, or someone is spying on them, or planning to hurt them. People with this disorder usually make repeated complaints to authorities.
Someone with Somatic Delusional Disorder, believes they have a physical defect or medical problem. Some examples on the BrightQuest website are as follows:
- Fears of infestation or infection. They believe they’ve been infected by parasites or tiny insects under their skin.
- Distorted body image. Despite evidence to the contrary, they will believe their bodies are deformed, misshapen, or unattractive.
- Imagining unpleasant odors. They may detect foul odors coming from their own body, and won’t allow others to convince them it’s false.
People could have two or more types of the delusional disorders we listed above.
Paranoid Personality Disorder
While delusional people tend to believe conspiracy theories such as birds being fake or the earth being flat, paranoid people tend to believe differently. Delusional people will believe something is true that is clearly not true, while paranoid people think others are out to get them. People with paranoid personality disorder have an unrelenting mistrust and suspicion of others, even when there is no reason to be suspicious according to the Cleveland Clinic. This includes a person believing the government is out to get them, specifically, or a family member is out to hurt them. This disorder interferes with their ability to form close or even workable relationships. Some examples of a person with PPD are as follows:
- Doubt the commitment, loyalty, or trustworthiness of others, believing they’re exploiting or deceiving them.
- Reluctant to confide in others or reveal personal information out of fear it will be used against them.
- Unforgiving, hypersensitive, and takes criticism poorly.
PSYCHOLOGY BEHIND CONSPIRACY THEORIES:
Why do people believe things to be true that are proven to be untrue despite so much evidence to the contrary? It may be the same reason people choose to believe conspiracy theories.
On the Speaking of Psychology Podcast hosted by Kim Mills, Dr. Karen Douglas joined to discuss conspiracy theories and the psychology behind them. Douglas discussed how conspiracy theories may be believed to just be a result of social media fueling the fire, but that’s not necessarily true. She talks about how conspiracy theories have always thrived during times of crisis and social upheaval. She discusses how believing in conspiracy theories and being suspicious about others’ actions are actually an adaptive thing to do for humans.
Humans generally don’t want to trust others and things that happen around us because of a primal instinct to keep ourselves safe. It’s especially dangerous in the current landscape, as people have the ability to find information and other groups of people that have the same theories and beliefs online. These people could become consumed by the information they discover, and will only seek out that specific content from that source, and will disregard any other source that contradict their views.
Douglas continues to discuss that people are drawn to conspiracy theories in order to satisfy three important psychological motives. The first one being epistemic motives. Epistemic motives refer to the need for knowledge and certainty and the desire to obtain information. When a big event happens, people naturally want to know why it occurred.
The second set of motives is called existential motives. People have a need to be or feel safe and secure in the world they live in. They also want to feel a sense of power or control over the things that happen to them. The third and final set of motives would be social motives. They refer to a person’s desire to be a part of a group and feel good about themselves since they have information that others don’t.
According to research done by Steven M. Smallpage, Adam M. Enders, and Joseph E. Uscinski, group members subscribe mostly to conspiracy theories that malign out-groups or bolster their in-group, and they must know if the theories emanate from their own group or the opposing group. They go on to say sharing conspiracy theories provides a way for groups falling in the pecking order to revamp and recoup from losses. Therefore, those that tend to lean one way politically will be more inclined to believe conspiracy theories that their group endorse. Ultimately, it’s a psychological desire to be a part of a group as Dr. Karen Douglas stated.
TRUE CONSPIRACY THEORIES:
While someone spending the better part of their life believing every conspiracy theory could be a sign of a delusional or paranoid disorder, what about the conspiracy theories that turned out to be true?
For example, in an article written by Lauren Cahn, she finds at least a dozen conspiracy theories that turned out to be true. Some examples include Project Sunshine, known as the “dead baby project.” People believed the US government was stealing dead bodies to test the effects of nuclear fallout and radioactivity after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing. This turned out to be true. Turns out the government was stealing samples and even limbs of recently deceased children without permission of the families.
Another example of a conspiracy theory that turned out to be true was that first lady Edith Wilson was in charge of the country instead of her husband, President Woodrow Wilson. Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke towards the end of his presidency that rendered him incapable of governing. The government kept this quiet from the public and Edith Wilson stepped in and made most of the executive decisions while her husband was recovering for well over a year. These are just two examples of conspiracy theories that turned out to be true.
HOW FAMILIES OR FRIENDS CAN HELP A DELUSIONAL PERSON:
If, indeed, there is reason to believe that some conspiracy theories could be true, then why call it delusion or paranoia? As stated above, one should be open to the fact that there may be opposing evidence that debunks certain theories. Focusing on one source of information could lead people astray if they aren’t open to other sources and don’t look in the right places. Delusional disorder can become dangerous if a person decides to act on their delusions in someway.
If you find a friend or a family member is unshakable in certain beliefs despite it being proven time and time again not to be true, they may have some form of delusional or paranoid disorder. According to the BCSS, you must be extremely patient with them, and be assuring. There are options for therapy for someone who may be suffering from extreme delusion. Keep notes of how long it has been going on, and focus on the intensity and frequency of their delusions.
For more information on delusional and paranoid disorder and ways to find help, visit https://pheccinc.com/ or ask your doctor what your options are for therapy. You can also text NAMI to 741-741 where you will connect with a trained crisis counselor.