Belief in conspiracy theories is primarily driven by a constant urge to avoid uncertainty, something that we deeply despise. Forming conspiracy theories seems to be a coping mechanism to regain certainty or control.
A recent statistic revealed that 50% of Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory in any given year. Conspiracy theories are quite difficult to dismiss, even though some of them sound absolutely ridiculous. It is their compelling nature that tempts us to incredulously ask “what if?”. Political scientists Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood define conspiracy theories as “an explanation that makes reference to hidden, malevolent forces seeking to advance some nefarious aim.”
Political conspiracy theories seem to be the most compelling. These theories draw a web of cynicism in a citizen’s mind surrounding government authorities that connects a sequence of events in new ways, such that the previously accepted, innocuous version of a phenomenon is entirely warped and perceived to be a subterfuge to hide the “true”, malicious intent beneath. Some are quite harmless, such as the top-secret military base called Area 51 where the government is believed to study alien technology and who can forget the fake moon landing? Others are just morally disturbing, such as the belief that 9/11 was an inside job and that the Holocaust never happened.
Barring politics, there are other ridiculous conspiracy theories, my favorite ones being the Flat Earth Movement and the replacement of Paul McCartney by a double after his death in 1996. Whether in politics, science or popular media, the list goes on. These theories are so interwoven with certain cultures that the line between fact and paranoia-driven fiction becomes a knife’s edge or completely obscure. A single insignificant event illuminated in the light of suspicion can tilt us toward the other side. Once proliferated in a mélange of ideas, some minds are bound to consume them. And worse, once accepted as a fact, owing to our irrational biases, these theories become nearly impossible to fully efface.
Yet how do conspiracy theories manage to survive without a single shred of concrete evidence to back them up? What makes them so compelling?
We love patterns
Belief in conspiracy theories is primarily driven by a constant urge to avoid uncertainty, something that we deeply despise. Forming conspiracy theories seems to be a coping mechanism to regain certainty or control. The emotional satisfaction we gain by minimizing uncertainty is evident in a number of pattern-solving exercises, such as solving a jigsaw puzzle or an algebra problem. We adore pinning down pictures on a board and ”connecting the dots”, obtaining a vantage point to the bigger, overarching picture. Realizing that the line is a part of a larger circle, which is, in turn, the perimeter of a thick white dot painted on a die, makes us happy. The larger the puzzle, the happier its comprehension makes us.
The mental shortcuts we use to seek and comprehend patterns consisting of relationships between different events are called heuristics. Heuristics enable us to make sense of the unpredictable world around us. As Adam Galinsky, a social psychologist, puts it: “lack of control seems inherently threatening.” Other than enabling us to grapple with tantalizing patterns, conspiracy theories allow us to put into perspective an uncertain event, thereby freeing us from distress and helping us regain emotional equilibrium. To study the relationship between uncertainty and the overuse of heuristics, researchers conducted a number of experiments characterized by a lack of control.
First, they induced uncertainty in a group of participants by asking them to write in detail about their apprehensive experiences that progressed without their control, such as an accident caused by someone else. Later, when asked to comment on short stories in which significant events unfolded after the execution of certain superstitions, such as someone getting a job after tapping their shoes thrice before entering the interview, the uncertain group tended to express grief, while contemplating the turn of events if the superstitious behaviors weren’t repeated.
Furthermore, they examined whether their subjects could discover patterns in randomly scattered objects. They used images where a few of them obscured a faintly visible, actual pattern of say, an image of a boat under a seemingly random alignment of dots, while the other images were made up of a truly random alignment of dots, with no image lurking underneath. While 95% of the participants recognized the boat in the images, the group whose control was eroded in previous experiments “saw” patterns in 43% of images that contained no actual, hidden patterns. A correlation between a lack of control and pattern-seeking behavior was observed.
When the subjects were asked to write about things they value, such as nature and beauty, their sense of control resurrected and the pattern-seeking behavior gradually vanished. Galinsky comments: “It’s exciting – restoring people’s sense of control normalized their perceptions and behavior.” Simply put, pattern-seeking behavior characterized by conjuring conspiracy theories provides respite, a sense of agency in a chaotic environment. This is the reason why conspiracy theories are so compelling.
Anxiety stems from the amygdala, a primitive part of the brain that deals with negative emotions. The apparatus was originally devised to analyze bad experiences to make sure they weren’t repeated in the future, but it is often misused to ironically cause misery upon ourselves. Conspiracy thinkers are often known to display negative emotions that result from over-analysis or paranoia. There is a consensus that these thinkers are largely paranoids or the less educated among a population. A lack of education could exacerbate the capacity for critical thinking and the renunciation of ludicrous theories. However, this is not entirely true. Conspiracy theories are ubiquitous in both cultures left and right. While the right believed that the FDA withheld the cure for cancer to keep their jobs, the left believed that the 2017 presidential election was hacked by the Russians.
Galinksy’s experiment resulted in another major finding. Let me remind you that these are merely correlations, not causes. Galinsky found that conspiracy theories were fodder for people who also tended to find patterns in other areas of life, such as believing in superstitions and religious prophecies.
So, at the heart of the problem lies uncertainty. However, what is uncertainty but a lack of information? Surely, a large, global network that distributes information regarding just about anything and everything, which can be easily accessed by anyone, could solve the problem? Right?
If you think the Internet has solved the problem, let me regretfully inform you that it has only made it worse. Social media has exploited our intrinsic biases to create platforms that provide us with information that only supports our pre-existing beliefs. This cherry-picking of evidence to strengthen your beliefs is known as confirmation bias and social media has been its most dominant enabler. Because a majority of our “news” is received and not sought, the categorized distribution or presentation of information becomes even easier. Rather than bridging the gaps, the Internet has widened the asymmetry of information.
Confirmation bias serves a major evolutionary purpose — it expediently protects us from the derision that arises from being wrong – something that damages our psychological well-being. Indulging in this self-congratulatory behavior, albeit unconsciously, provides an emotional satisfaction. Coupled with fear and other irrational biases, events or powerful groups previously thought to be potentially hostile become even more prone to suspicion and condemnation. Belief in conspiracy theories also seems to provide a sense of belonging to a special group that is “enlightened” and claims to know “what is truly going on”. They are secluded from the “sheeple” who are easily duped by conformists. Theorists pride themselves on knowing something to which others are oblivious.
Yes, some of these conspiracy theories are harmless, but a few of them have grave, fatal repercussions. An irrational fear of vaccinations causing autism has led to the unnecessary and – more importantly, avoidable – proliferation of diseases. While the denial of climate change and global warming, despite a glut of evidence, is choking the planet. Here lies the beauty of the Scientific Method. While the human condition, ridden with its anxieties, refuses to shrug off its biases, science with speculation and unbiased skepticism — its scalpels — makes observations without any deep-seated motives. Science repudiates ideas with the same alacrity with which it accepts them.
The Internet is a library of information – the biggest there is. Essentially, we must make a choice. We can seek comfort in a soft couch of complacency and let algorithms shape our ideas to a degree that the boundary distinguishing self-contrivance and implantation becomes indiscernible. Or, we can make a choice to break free from our mental shackles and utilize the unique gift of cognition to analyze information objectively, regardless of its potentially repugnant conclusions. The truth doesn’t have to be necessarily desirable. Wake up, sheeple.
- British Psychological Society
- Wiley Online Library (Link 1)
- Wiley Online Library (Link 2)
- The University of Texas at Austin
- New York Times
- American Psychological Association