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Why Even Rational People Believe Conspiracy Theories

Evidence-free beliefs are not just a matter of ignorance and gullibility.

Key points

  • Belief in irrational conspiracy theories is a mainstream phenomenon, not fringe. We're all susceptible to such thinking; some more so.
  • Many cognitive biases are at play in making us prone to such beliefs. Those biases are a feature, not a bug of human thinking.
  • It’s not irrational to be alert to possible conspiracies—real ones are not rare. But those tend to be messier than conspiracy theorists suppose.
  • Most of us hold beliefs contradicted by evidence, driven by intuitive rather than empirical thinking, and feeding our need for comfort.

“I’m excited. I’m happy! Once you know the information you are not in fear; you’re, like, empowered! You are excited. You can’t wait for justice to go down, you can’t wait for the kids to be saved, you can’t wait for the bad guys to be put in jail.” —QAnon YouTuber1

Johns Hopkins University Press
Source: Johns Hopkins University Press

There is little doubt these days that belief in irrational conspiracy theories is a widespread societal problem. What might in the past have been dismissed as a fringe phenomenon is clearly not. Numerous surveys have borne this out, showing, for example, that half of Americans harbor at least one conspiracy theory.2

Also readily apparent now, if it wasn’t obvious before, is the potent destructive power of such beliefs—as seen in the COVID-19 pandemic, and in the toxic political polarization of the last few years. But in fact, conspiracy beliefs have always been very widely prevalent, and the assumption that they are mainly the domain of mentally unstable or low-functioning individuals on the fringe of society was always a myth, even for the more outlandish beliefs.

The observation that belief in conspiracy theories is a mainstream phenomenon is one of the starting points for the deep and engaging analysis by Michael Shermer in his book: Conspiracy: Why the Rational Believe the Irrational.3 Shermer is the founding publisher and editor-in-chief of Skeptic magazine, a multiple New York Times bestselling author, and was a monthly columnist for Scientific American for 18 years. He is a leading expert on “why people believe weird things” (the title of his first book, in 1997).

He reminds us that conspiracies (“two or more people, or a group, plotting or acting in secret to gain an advantage or harm others immorally or illegally”) do occur quite often, and occasionally the conspirators are indeed people at high levels of democratically elected governments or trusted institutions.

Nevertheless, Shermer suggests keeping in mind what he calls a conspiracism principle: Never attribute to malice what can be explained by randomness or incompetence. Furthermore, even many real conspiracies turn on chance, coincidence, and contingency. In contrast, people prone to believe in conspiracy theories tend to believe that nothing happens by accident, everything is connected, and there are no coincidences. They usually imagine conspirators as “preternaturally competent” and “unusually evil,” often with elaborately grand schemes.

A phenomenon cutting across demographics and political orientation

People on the political left often assume, incorrectly, that belief in conspiracy theories is an overwhelmingly right-wing phenomenon. Yet, to cite just two of many examples, 911 Truther conspiracies and GMO conspiracies have been predominantly believed by people on the left.4

Political scientists Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent found that conspiracists (believers in conspiracy theories) “cut across gender, age, race, income, political affiliation, educational level, and occupational status.” Education does appear to reduce conspiracism: 42% of those without a high school diploma scored highly in having conspiratorial predispositions, compared with 22% of those holding postgraduate degrees.5 Yet, the fact that over one in five Americans with MAs or PhDs believe in conspiracies indicates that there are additional determining factors besides education.6

Why do so many people believe conspiracy theories, even outlandish ones?

Shermer hypothesizes that there are three overarching factors at work, which he calls:

  1. Proxy conspiracism: Many conspiracy theories are proxies for a different type of truth believed by the conspiracist—"a deeper mythic, psychological, or lived-experience truth.” For this reason, the particular details of the conspiracy theory may matter less to the conspiracist than the “richer truths” represented in the conspiracy theory.7
  2. Tribal conspiracism: embracing conspiracy theories may be motivated more by the need to signal one’s loyalty to the tribe than true belief in the particular conspiracy. This might account for how several apparently intelligent and sane Republican politicians could have endorsed such a bizarre conspiracy theory as QAnon.
  3. Constructive conspiracism: Some kinds of conspiracy theories may be rational and realistic in certain situations, such as those “pertaining to normal political institutions and corporate entities that are conspiring to manipulate the system to gain an unfair, immoral, and sometimes illegal advantage over others.” Therefore, conspiracism may be a rational response to a dangerous world. (Whereas theories involving “ultra-secret and über-powerful entities for which there is little to no evidence” are largely driven by paranoia.)8

Shermer suggests that layered on top of these three overarching factors are a number of additional well-recognized psychological and sociological forces that serve to reinforce conspiracy belief:

Cognitive bias and habits of thought

[See footnote 9 for definitions, explanations and examples of the following]

  • Motivated reasoning and confirmation bias
  • Attribution bias
  • Hindsight bias
  • “Patternicity”
  • "Agenticity”
  • Cognitive dissonance
  • Proportionality bias
  • Monological thinking
  • Oversimplification of complex problems
  • Teleological thinking
  • Transcendental thinking
  • Locus of control
  • Anxiety reduction
  • “Myside” bias
  • Negativity bias
  • Anomaly hunting

Even highly educated and highly intelligent people are bedeviled by many of these, and as Shermer points out, they are even better at rationalizing and justifying beliefs that they hold for non-smart reasons.

Personality factors

The research on personality factors predisposing to conspiracy belief is inconclusive, but findings do point toward certain traits being more associated with such belief. These include [See footnote 10 for definitions and explanations]:

  • Low interpersonal trust
  • Ideological eccentricity
  • Excessive concern about personal safety
  • Dangerous-world beliefs
  • Hyperactive agency detection
  • Schizotypal personality
  • “Bullshit receptivity”
  • Less science-mindedness
  • Feelings of control

Entertainment value

An additional factor in the appeal of conspiracy theories, one also borne out by research, is their entertainment value—“not unlike science fiction, fantasy, horror, detective, and adventure novels and films that titillate readers and viewers with fantastic Manichaean stories of good and evil forces and people plotting to assassinate a foreign leader, overthrow a political regime, conquer an evil empire, or even rule the world.”11

Intuition

Academic researchers Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood have extensively researched susceptibility to conspiracy theory belief. In their 2018 book Enchanted America: How Intuition and Reason Divide Our Politics, they identify a more general factor accounting for such susceptibility, one that is broadly consistent with all the other factors discussed above:

  • Intuitionism—A strong tendency to utilize intuitive thinking ("gut" feelings) over evidence-based rational thinking.

"Our central argument is that the most important political division in the United States is […] between Rationalists and Intuitionists. Rationalists are people who comprehend reality using nonintuitive sources. They utilize abstract theories, philosophical deductions, and observable facts. They view social and political problems in a dispassionate manner, seeking pragmatic, technical solutions. They exist all over the political spectrum but generally share a common respect for science and reason. They may adhere to different philosophies, but inevitably, they all draw from the same intellectual wells dug by Locke and Kant, Smith and Mill, Keynes and Hayek." —Oliver and Wood, Enchanted America12

The higher a person’s Intuitionism score, the more likely that person will also be drawn to religious, spiritual and other supernatural beliefs, paranormal beliefs, and unscientific alternative medicine.13, 14

The internet and social media

Conspiracy theories are nothing new, and neither is their widespread uptake. But there is no doubt that the internet and social media have made their spread much easier and faster.

The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt provides a particularly excellent analysis of the dumbing-down effect of social media on civil discourse and rationality in his 2022 article in The Atlantic: “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid.”15

Societal stress

Societal stress, instability and uncertainty increases the receptivity of citizens to conspiracy theories, as we saw during the COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, in times of political instability, economic insecurity, and war. Cultural anxiety about erosion of values may also contribute, as during the "culture wars" of the last few years.

Real conspiracies

Shermer provides many examples of real conspiracies in recent and distant history, using those examples to illustrate how actual conspiracies tend to unfold, and in many cases to unravel or ultimately be exposed. He highlights the many differences compared with imagined conspiracies. For example, in real conspiracies, things seldom go according to plan, schemes are thwarted by unforeseen circumstances and obstacles, people mess up, become afraid, change their minds, can’t keep their mouths shut, defect or betray each other, or become whistle-blowers motivated by moral scruples or by personal gain and fame. The more complex a conspiracy and the more people it involves, the harder it is to control all the variables, pull off the plot, and keep it all secret.

In Parts II and III of his book, Shermer provides tips on how to determine which conspiracy theories are unlikely to be true, including a useful Conspiracy Detection Kit, and helpful tips on how to talk with your friends and relatives who have fallen for fallacious conspiracy theories.

Nobody is in control

Part of the appeal of conspiracy theories is that it is more comforting to believe there is a simple order and coherence to the world—even when we believe the bad guys are trying to take control. At least we, the clever good guys, have gained special knowledge of their plot and can engage in a righteous fight to thwart their evil intentions.

The true complexity of the world is much harder to grasp.16

“The main thing that I learned about conspiracy theories is that conspiracy theorists believe in a conspiracy because that is more comforting. The truth of the world is that it is actually chaotic. The truth is, that it is not the Jewish banking conspiracy, or the Gray aliens, or the 12-foot reptiloids from another dimension that are in control. The truth is far more frightening. Nobody is in control. The world is rudderless.” —Alan Moore17

Ultimately, as Oliver and Wood point out, conspiracy theories are intuitively compelling and comforting for many of the same reasons that normal, ubiquitous beliefs like religion and spirituality are so natural to most of us.18

References

1. Michael Shermer, Conspiracy: Why the Rational Believe the Irrational (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022), p.2. Quotation from an article by Daniel Loxton, “QAnon Is Just a Warmed Over Witch Panic—and It’s Also Very Dangerous.” Skeptic 24, no. 4 (2020).

2. Shermer includes results of a survey conducted in 2021 by the Skeptic Research Center in conjunction with social scientists to poll 3,139 randomly selected Americans on their attitudes about and belief in 29 different conspiracy theories. Similar to many other independently run surveys over many years, the results showed alarming levels of belief in a number of thoroughly debunked and extremely implausible conspiracy theories (including a couple of theories that the researchers invented and included in the survey!)

3. Michael Shermer, Conspiracy: Why the Rational Believe the Irrational (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022).

4. See also my previous post Spirituality, Wellness, and Conspiracy Beliefs.

5. Shermer, Conspiracy, p. 47. Citing: Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent, American Conspiracy Theories (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), pp. 5, 83.

6. Eric Oliver, a political science professor at the University of Chicago and expert in conspiracy theories, and Thomas Wood, associate professor of political science at Ohio State University, also found that the power of conspiracy theories is not limited to the politically naïve. “Even highly engaged or ideological segments of the population can be swayed by the power of these narratives, particularly when they coincide with their other political views.”[Oliver JE, Wood TJ. Conspiracy theories and the paranoid style(s) of mass opinion. American Journal of Political Science 2014; 58:952-966]. Such individuals may still make “attributions to unseen forces” or find “Manichean narratives” [explained below] intuitively compelling. “In fact, many predominant belief systems in the United States, be they Christian narratives about God and Satan or left-wing narratives about neoliberalism, draw heavily upon the idea of unseen, intentional forces shaping contemporary events.”

[The term Manichean, as Oliver and Wood explain, is borrowed from early Persian religion, which placed particular emphasis on a contest between forces of light and darkness. In this context, a Manichean worldview is adopted when a person believes that political events are the consequence of a contest between good people and malevolent people, rather than between self-interested actors possessed of different perspectives and priorities.]

7. Proxy conspiracism: Believers in a particular conspiracy theory likely often haven’t carefully thought through the evidence in each case but nevertheless believe it because “it’s just the sort of thing those people would do”—such as the belief that Hilary Clinton and leaders of the Democratic Party were operating satanic pedophile rings, or the less bizarre but unsubstantiated belief that the L.A. Police Department had planted evidence to accuse O.J. Simpson of murdering his his-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman, which led the jury to acquit Simpson.

8. Shermer, Conspiracy, p. xi-xii.

9. COGNITIVE BIAS AND HABITS OF THOUGHT:

-- Motivated reasoning—actively looking for reasons why one is right and rejecting facts and research that don't fit one’s beliefs (cherry-picking evidence, etc.). In similar vein: confirmation bias—the tendency to notice and accept information that agrees with or reinforces existing beliefs, and to overlook or question information that complicates or conflicts with those beliefs [The News Literacy Project]

As the physicist and science educator Jim Al-Khalili puts it: “Conspiracy theories are the polar opposite of scientific theories, in that they seek to assimilate whatever evidence there is against them and interpret it in a way that supports rather than repudiates their core idea, thus making them unfalsifiable.” [Jim Al-Khalili, The World According to Physics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020): Ch 10].

-- Attribution bias— the tendency for people to over-emphasize dispositional, or personality-based explanations for behaviors observed in others while under-emphasizing situational explanations: tending to assume that a person's actions depend on what "kind" of person that person is rather than on the social and environmental forces that influence the person (simplypsychology.org).

-- Hindsight bias—The belief that an event is more predictable after it becomes known then it was before it became known.

-- Excessive pattern detection, or what Shermer calls “patternicity”—The tendency to find patterns in meaningless noise.

-- Hyperactive agency detection or what Shermer calls "agenticity” —the tendency to ascribe agency (deliberate intention) to an event where none exists; the belief that there are hidden intentional agents controlling events.

The prehistoric environment in which humans evolved their cognitive proclivities was a dangerous one in which being more than a little paranoid was essential to survival from predators and enemies. In that environment it would have been adaptive to err on the side of over-identifying patterns and agency behind events.

-- Cognitive dissonance—mental discomfort experienced by a person when two of their actions or ideas are not psychologically consistent with each other, or when an outcome they strongly believed would happen and may have taken action to prepare for fails to materialize (for example, the belief that President Trump would be re-elected in a landslide and would arrest a secret cabal of thousands of pedophiles among Democratic party leaders and elites). In such situations, people tend to try hard to make their contradictory actions or ideas feel consistent. Not infrequently, people double-down on their beliefs rather than accept that these are inconsistent.

-- Proportionality bias—when there is an imbalance or mismatch between the size or importance of an event and that of its purported cause. This may create cognitive dissonance. For example, President John F. Kennedy, the handsome and articulate leader of the free world, the most powerful person on the planet, must have been killed as a result of an elaborate and powerful conspiracy involving such interests as the FBI, CIA, KGB, the Cubans, the Mafia, the military-industrial complex, or even Vice President Lyndon Johnson, not merely by a loan mentally unstable person like Lee Harvey Oswald. And Princess Diana, one of the most famous and glamorous people on the planet, must surely have been killed in a plot by the MI6 intelligence agency and could not merely have died because of drunk driving, speeding and no seat belt.

-- Monological thinking—the tendency to believe in a unitary, or all-encompassing belief system. People who believe in one such conspiracy theory tend to give credence to many other equally improbable and sometimes even contradictory theories. Once someone believes that “one massive, sinister conspiracy could be successfully executed in near-perfect secrecy,” this suggests that many such plots are possible. With this cabalistic paradigm in place, conspiracies can become “the default explanation for any given event—a unitary, closed-off worldview in which beliefs come together in a mutually supportive network known as a monological belief system.” [Shermer, Conspiracy, p. 67. Citing: Michael J. Wood, Karen M. Douglas, and Robbie M. Sutton, “Dead and Alive: Beliefs in Contradictory Conspiracy Theories,” Social Psychological and Personality Science 3, no. 6 (January 25, 2012), 767–773]

-- Oversimplification of complex problems—"a conspiracy theory is an explanation of the world that makes sense, is relatively simple, and accounts for a great many goings on in the world that, at first glance, may seem chaotic, random, and inexplicable. For instance, the economy is not this crazy patchwork of supply and demand laws, market forces, interest rate changes, tax policies, business cycles, boom-and-bust fluctuations, recessions and upswings, bull and bear markets, and the like. Instead, it is a conspiracy of a handful of powerful people variously identified as the Illuminati, the Bilderberger group, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Trilateral Commission, the Rockefellers and Rothschilds—or, more recently, the one-percenters—somehow determining economic outcomes.” Similarly, “politics is not this messy process of campaigns, primaries, the general election, the Electoral College, district gerrymandering, lobbying, voting, and the like. It’s all run by a secret cabal of cigarette-smoking, backroom-dealing, shady characters being bribed by corporate interests and other forces that determine the outcome of elections.” [Shermer, Conspiracy, p.69]. Such theories may also reduce the existential anxiety people have that the complex world we live in is in actuality impossible to control or predict.

People overestimate their understanding of complex problems. Conspiracy theorists fancy themselves as cleverly identifying complex patterns, but in reality they are failing to understand the true nature of complexity, which is vastly more complex than they can fathom. That complexity is why becoming a true expert or analyst (the ones dismissed by conspiracy theorists as part of the “elite”) requires many years of higher education. The oft-heard claim by conspiracy theorists that “I’ve done my research” just doesn’t cut it.

Conspiracy theory researchers Oliver and Wood explain the tendency toward oversimplification of complex problems further: “For many Americans, complicated or nuanced explanations for political events are both cognitively taxing and have limited appeal. A conspiracy narrative may provide a more accessible and convincing account of political events, especially because it may coincide with their ordinary cognitive tendencies.” Oliver JE, Wood TJ. Conspiracy theories and the paranoid style(s) of mass opinion. American Journal of Political Science 2014; 58:952-966.

-- Teleological thinking—defined as “the attribution of purpose and a final cause to natural events and entities” [Shermer, Conspiracy, p. 67. Citing: Wagner-Egger P, Delouvée S, Gauvrit N, Dieguez S. Creationism and conspiracism share a common teleological bias. Curr Biol. 2018;28(16):R867-R868. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2018.06.072].

-- Transcendental thinking—believing that certain things lie beyond the practical experience of ordinary people, and cannot be discovered or understood by ordinary reasoning. A spiritual / supernatural / paranormal mindset. Transcendentalism is intuitive, and empiricism is not.

-- Locus of control—the degree to which people believe that they, as opposed to external forces, have control over the outcome of events in their lives. People with a low internal locus of control (high external locus of control) are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories.

-- Anxiety reduction—"there is some measure of comfort to be drawn from the notion that life’s ills are (at least sometimes) attributable to hostile agents working in secret, because in that event, at least there is ‘theoretically’ a solution to ones suffering.” [Shermer, Conspiracy, p. 49. Citing: Joshua Hart and Molly Graether, “Something’s Going On Here: Psychological Predictors of Belief in Conspiracy Theories,” Journal of Individual Differences 39, no. 4 (2018), 229–237]

-- “Myside” bias—tribalism. “Myside bias has been found to occur in every stage of information processing. That is, studies have shown a tendency toward biased search for evidence, biased evaluation of evidence, biased assimilation of evidence, biased memory of outcomes, and biased evidence generation.” [Shermer, Conspiracy, p. 81. Citing: Keith Stanovich, The Bias That Divides Us: The Science and Politics of Myside Thinking (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2021)]. Shermer notes that “the problem is especially prevalent among highly educated and highly intelligent people who are even better at rationalizing and justifying beliefs that they hold for non-smart reasons. As Stanovich documents, you might be subject to the myside bias if you evaluate acts more favorably when they support your group, apply logical rules better when logical conclusions support your strongly held beliefs, you search or select information sources that are more likely to support your position, you de-emphasize the costs of your moral commitments, you distort the perception of risk and reward in the direction of your personal preferences, you selectively use moral principles, you selectively learn facts favorable to your political party, you resist evidence when it leads to unwanted social changes, you interpret facts favorable to your preferred group, you selectively question the scientific status of evidence.” [Shermer, Conspiracy, p. 81].

-- Negativity bias—“bad” is stronger than “good.” We are more sensitive to risks than benefits, losses than gains, pain than pleasure, negative feedback than positive feedback, bad events than good events, morally bad actions of others than good actions, etc. Citing Steven Pinker, Shermer notes that our risk aversion makes evolutionary sense given the threat to survival that negative effects could pose: in our evolutionary past the cost of overreacting to a threat would have been less than the risk of underreacting, so we err on the side of overreaction and assume the worst. A belief in negative conspiracy theories is thus a feature, not a bug, in our cognition.

-- Anomaly hunting—looking for anything unusual and seemingly unexplainable, and then fixating on that anomaly as “evidence” for one’s conspiracy theory. In most complex events, there are sure to be particular details for which there is incomplete information and which may therefore seem anomalous. But for a new theory to be compelling enough to displace an accepted one, it must explain not only the anomalies but also the convergence of evidence already explained by the accepted theory. “Anomalies do not a theory make.”

10. PERSONALITY FACTORS:

-- Low interpersonal trust—tending to have a mistrustful, paranoid attitude, assuming the worst in other people. This distrust may encompass friends, neighbors, and coworkers, not just the government and the media.

-- Ideological eccentricity—propensity toward odd ideological beliefs.

-- Excessive concern about personal safety—anxiety and insecurity beyond what is warranted by the situation.

-- Dangerous-world beliefs—beliefs that life is a fiercely competitive and violent struggle and that others are constantly threatening harm)

-- Hyperactive agency detection—the belief that there are hidden intentional agents controlling events. This is also a common cognitive bias to which we are all susceptible (discussed above). But some people are more prone to it than others, so it may be regarded as a personality factor.

-- Schizotypy—“a personality trait dimension comprising a constellation of tendencies related to schizotypal personality disorder symptomology [but broader and less severe than the disorder; and overlapping with the above-listed factors]: for example, interpersonal suspiciousness, social anxiety and isolation, and eccentric ideas and perceptions.” [Shermer, Conspiracy, p. 49. Citing: Hart and Graether—see full citation above].

-- “Bullshit receptivity” —yes, this is the term used by the academic researchers [Pennycook, G., Cheyne, J. A., Barr, N., Koehler, D. J., & Fugelsang, J. A. (2015). On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit. Judgment and Decision Making, 10(6), 549–563)]. Pennycook and colleagues studied how impressed or not people were with “seemingly impressive assertions that are presented as true and meaningful but are actually vacuous.” They found that their Bullshit Receptivity Scale (BRS) was positively correlated with paranormal beliefs, and by some measures, with conspiracist thinking and belief in the efficacy of complementary and alternative medicine. Hart and Graether used Pennycook and colleagues’ BRS as one of their many measures of susceptibility to conspiracy theories and found that indeed it was one of the predictors of conspiracist thinking. In other words, conspiracists are more likely to read profundity into vague meaningful-sounding nonsense.

-- Less science-mindedness—the more one identifies with a scientific worldview, the less likely one is to believe in conspiracies [Shermer, Conspiracy, p. 49. Citing: Hart and Graether]. Shermer suspects that this is because the scientific mind is alert to the role of ineptitude and randomness in the unfolding of events: before attributing an act to malice first make sure it is not due to chance, randomness, accident, or incompetence.

-- Feelings of control: In a study of the relationship between loss of control and illusory pattern detection, psychologists Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky explored how people primed to feel a lack of control have a more difficult time recognizing randomness and instead attribute agency to the patterns they perceive. [Shermer, Conspiracy, pp. 48-49. Citing: Jennifer A. Whitson and Adam D. Galinsky, “Lacking Control Increases Illusory Pattern Perception,” Science 322, no. 5898 (October 1, 2008), 115–117].

11. Shermer, Conspiracy, p. 54. [See footnote 6 for an explanation of the term Manichean]

12. Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood, Enchanted America: How Intuition and Reason Divide Our Politics (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2018), p.xii.

13. “The Intuitionism scale is a remarkable predictor of magical beliefs. Across six national surveys and a wide array of notions, the results follow a regular pattern: the higher a participant’s Intuitionism score, the more likely that person will believe in supernatural or paranormal phenomena. The Intuitionism scale not only predicts a belief in God or life’s purpose, it also predicts a belief in horoscopes or ghosts. It also predicts whether Americans use alternative medicine, and if they are drawn to apocalyptic prophecies. And it predicts explicit measures of intuitive thought, such as whether Americans value ‘their heart over their head’ or ‘if they accept their own intuitions over the advice of a doctor.’ In short, this scale is a robust predictor of how much Americans rely on their intuitions when making sense of reality.” [Oliver and Wood, Enchanted America, p.11]

14. See also my previous post Spirituality, Wellness, and Conspiracy Beliefs, which cites the research of Oliver and Wood, and others.

15. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2022/05/social-media-democracy-trust-babel/629369/

I wish Shermer had said more about the role of social media algorithms, and the share and retweet buttons designed to enhance virality. And, in particular, Facebook’s irresponsible prioritization of profits over safeguards to prevent harms from those algorithms. As Jonathan Haidt points out in his article in The Atlantic:

“Recent academic studies suggest that social media is indeed corrosive to trust in governments, news media, and people and institutions in general. […] Mark Zuckerberg may not have wished for any of that. But by rewiring everything in a headlong rush for growth—with a naive conception of human psychology, little understanding of the intricacy of institutions, and no concern for external costs imposed on society—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and a few other large platforms unwittingly dissolved the mortar of trust, belief in institutions, and shared stories that had held a large and diverse secular democracy together.”

16. See the points about Oversimplification of complex problems in Footnote 9.

17. Shermer, Conspiracy, p. 77. Quotation from: Dez Vylenz, director, The Mindscape of Alan Moore, documentary film, Shadowsnake Films, 2003.

18. And yet, so deeply counter to everything science tells us.

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