Conspiracy theories run rampant when people feel helpless. Like now.

Conspiracy theories, more than benign beliefs in wacky ideas about the Illuminati or aliens, actually do serve valuable psychological functions. They don’t merely entertain us; they could be used to comfort us. They are tools for imposing structure on an unpredictable and unforgiving world, thereby relieving stress and reducing anxiety.

The less people feel in control of their world, however meek or grand, the more likely they are to seek out some method of restoring control — to fight their sense of powerlessness. The covid-19 pandemic is the ultimate power grab: No one knows when the threat will subside, what the economic impact will be or when a vaccine will be available. When events are, in actuality, out of our control, the psychological burden can be alleviated by turning to alternative explanations for events. In this case, we might choose to believe that covid-19 is a Chinese bioweapon, created in a lab and intentionally spread to cause harm. Alternative explanations such as this not only explain why things are as they are, but also incorporate the fact that one has no control over the situation.

Conspiracy theories nicely meet these criteria. Admittedly, they are ill-defined, illogical and, usually, just plain bizarre. But conspiracy theories aren’t attractive to people because of these qualities, but rather for the subconscious functions they serve. A conspiracy theory can restore control — you know what happened and why, and you have the psychological relief to know that it was out of your control!