Conspiratorial Thinking
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Average Duration
70+ Minutes
Difficulty Level
Lesson Host
Renée DiResta
of Stanford Internet Observatory

Learn to recognize conspiracy theories and explain what makes people vulnerable to conspiratorial thinking.

News literacy topics

Bias; Conspiratorial thinking; Digital citizenship; Evaluating evidence; Fact-checking and verification; Misinformation; Social media

Learning objectives

  • I can explain what “conspiracy theories” are and why people find them appealing and compelling.
  • I can recognize the key cognitive biases involved in conspiratorial thinking and identify the human needs that conspiracy theories address.
  • I can describe what conspiratorial thinking is and the role it plays in making conspiracy theories engaging and compelling to people.
  • I can demonstrate the social and political impact of conspiratorial thinking and conspiracy theories.

Essential questions

  • What is a conspiracy theory? What makes conspiracy theories unique compared to other kinds of misinformation?
  • How can conspiracy theories seem so compelling despite lacking evidence for their claims?
  • What tricks does conspiratorial thinking play on our brains? What makes people vulnerable to conspiratorial thinking?
  • Do conspiracy theories have real-world consequences? Can they be dangerous?


“According to a recent study, just over half of Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory. People believe in conspiracy theories for a lot of reasons and not necessarily because they’re too trusting or uneducated. So why do people sometimes find conspiracy theories so compelling?

They offer sensational and simple narratives. Conspiracy theories are often dramatic and even shocking stories that offer simplified explanations for events we may not fully understand and they often meet important psychological needs for the people who believe in them.”