This Is Why You Are Attracted to Conspiracy Theories
Conspiracy thinking and contemporary politics
Posted Oct 25, 2020
You won't like what I have to say, but chances are, you are currently not being particularly reasonable, logical, or sophisticated in your thinking about something in the world right now. It is very likely, in fact, that you are stuck in a self-fulfilling echo chamber of belief about something drip-fed to you by the media, YouTube, and social media. Really, it makes sense: With a bit of hardwiring here, and some pretty unethical practices there, it's not difficult to see why most of us buy into a narrative we want to believe. Let us discuss a particularly fashionable one at present: that a very orange man is indeed so bad, he is attempting to form a fascist tyranny in America as we speak.
Before we delve into the dystopian world of sweeping tyranny, let us backtrack just a little bit and look at what conspiracy theories are, and why your brain is hardwired to fall for them.
Hardwired for conspiracy
There is an insatiably curious, deeply rooted core part of the human condition which searches tirelessly for meaning in patterns. This birthed the gift of abstract thought, the scientific method, art, religion, and linguistics. It kept us alive long enough to pass on our DNA as the thoughts of a rustling bush kept our ancestors up at night, planning ways to survive a potential threat to life.
This freak-of-nature ability has led us down the tumultuous path, spanning thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years, on the quest to answer questions about the nature of consciousness, our role in this universe, and the ever-daunting question of life after death. Entire civilizations have built their culture, religion, literature, and science around these existential, ever-elusive questions, leading to some of the greatest achievements our species has to offer.
Therein lies, however, the dark side of this magnificent gift; a Pandora’s box that has unleashed some of the worst parts of species, which allows us to be exploited, conned, and likewise to exploit and con others. As reasoned and logical as we can be, we can also be wildly biased, aggressively protective of our in-group, and deeply insecure about our life lacking meaning.
Finding meaning appears to be a full-time passion project for our over-developed brains. Insatiably devouring the world, making sense of senseless images, searching our memory storage banks in a desperate attempt to find meaning in noise. Imagine being a human being, pre-scientific method, staring at the skies 10,000 years ago, and noting a cloud that catches your eye. If you squint and turn your head a little, it kind of looks like that goat you slaughtered last night. An hour later, it rains. Throw in a healthy dose of imagination and you have yourself the beginnings of a religion.
Fast forward to 2020, flying over from one state to another, thousands of miles in the air, you might note that tides forming near a coastline appear to be frozen in time, like a painting, totally void of movement. Without the benefit of science and rational thought, that 10,000-year-old human would be perfectly justified in believing that the tides were as still as the mountains encapsulating the coastline.
Today, we know better, of course. We know that your eyes and visual cortex are doing the best they can with the data provided, you also know that despite what your eyes are telling you, the water is actually moving. Thanks to the scientific method, we are able to step out of our own observations about the world and gaze upon data with a critical eye.
This cannot be understated. Your eyes and brain are making sense of data based on available information and preconceived notions. However, as noted in this example, and many others, your brain can be easily tricked. It is not an objective, reliable measuring device. We should be grateful for this, for the sacrifice would have likely cost us the works of Shakespeare, Picasso, Beethoven, and Einstein. Likewise, the requirements to have a far more advanced eye and visual cortex would likely have led the human species to have the collective imagination of a beetroot.
The psychology behind why we fall for conspiracies
Psychologist Christopher Thresher-Andrews suggests conspiracy theories are unsubstantiated, less plausible alternatives to mainstream reality, which often assume everything is intended with malignity. In part, this is due to our human brain being uniquely designed to be biased toward dispositional explanations of an event over situational ones. In short, we prefer to believe things that happen are intentional and internally motivated, planned by someone with a motive, rather than coincidence, a blunder, or just plain stupidity.
Secondly, is the human propensity to double down. Or put another way, it's confirmation bias — the desperate need to search for or interpret information in ways that confirm the belief we already hold. We will intentionally look for information to support what we already believe, and ignore confronting or conflicting evidence. We will continue to seek reassurance of our beliefs, long after they have been refuted. This will likely cause an emotional response toward someone attempting to alter your worldview and break this belief.
Thirdly, conspiracy theories serve as a very seductive ego boost. Unlike others, you have figured out the truth; you are different from the masses/idiots/sheep who have had the wool pulled over their eyes.
Finally, humans have a need for control and order when distressed. Fear, uncertainty, and feelings of being out of control can lead people to search for patterns and meaning in people's behavior as a way to make sense of the chaos and attempt to navigate the fear of the unknown. This is an evolutionary adaptive mechanism designed to keep us alive.
Throw in some cognitive distortions ...
Clinical psychologists often use the Socratic method, reframing an issue and challenging biases and cognitive distortions to aid people having difficulty navigating their life obstacles. These biases are typically a product of schemas, attachment styles, and experiences throughout one's life that have formed our opinion of reality.
The reality of it is humans are highly emotional thinkers, prone to knee-jerk responses. This is especially true when we think others are suffering, or when we feel powerless. Jon Haidt outlines the following classic distortions, which make us highly susceptible to conspiracy:
- Doubling down — continuing to invest in a narrative we already have a lot of stake in
- Post-hoc justification — finding reasons to make our already determined narrative of reality make sense
- Emotional reasoning — just because we are in pain it does not mean someone has hurt us, yet we appear to fall into this trap with surprising frequency
- Catastrophizing — assuming the worst possible outcome to an event or series of events
- Overgeneralization — making sweeping assumptions about a situation or person based on limited data
- Dichotomous thinking — all-or-nothing, black-and-white thinking which often reduces information into two extreme categories (he is the second coming of the messiah vs. he is the devil incarnate).
- Mind reading — knowing someone's true intent, despite what they may say or do; finding hidden meanings in their "cryptic" messages.
- Labeling — applying sweeping assumptions about someone to fit them in a box
- Negative filtering — focusing on the negative information only to fit a narrative
- Discounting positive — ignoring positive information about someone or the situation to fit a narrative
Echo chambers of social media
Taking all of this into account, what possible chance do you have when your social media experience is specifically designed to provide you with a drip-feed of information confirming what you already believe? How is your brain, which evolved to conform to in-group narratives for survival, meant to handle this radical bias bombarding it on a daily basis?
Concerning research by Robert Epstein and a controversial Netflix special called "The Social DIlemma" reveals some deeply concerning social media and Google manipulation strategies to attempt to sway your opinion and influence your decision making processes. Both are equally worth exploring, but the bottom line is: You are a product, and like any product, you are being sold to people who can afford it, including election campaigns.
Epstein, a Democrat and Clinton supporter, spoke out when he noticed that Google was intentionally manipulating search results to be more favorable to the Democratic nominee, and more punitive toward the Republican nominee. The research concluded that this search engine manipulation bias was enough to actually swing potential voters. With elections in mind and without further adieu, let us discuss the God-Emperor himself, Donald Trump.
Donald Trump is an unhinged, fascist white supremacist tyrant in the making
Truth is, you probably don't like Donald Trump, and frankly, why would you? Let's face it, the fact that he got into power may have challenged your entire worldview. He says things you really don't like, he is a Republican (which at least 50% of you reading this will be highly distrustful of) and he is not shy to pedal conspiracy theories. There is no shortage of pundits, psychiatrists, and the like clambering over each other to demonstrate to you how Trump is: Hitler incarnate, Russian asset, racist, white supremacist, ultra-nationalistic, unhinged, narcissist, mentally unfit to serve as President and the cause of mass shootings.
With voices of authority, you may trust pedaling alarming hyperbole. You may be tempted to believe the absolute worst. I ask you to take a moment and consider the following published talking points collected from CNN, MSNBC, Vox (and other mainstream media), and reflect on the content of this post:
- Do you have knowledge of his internal motivations and thinking patterns? When Trump lowered flags to half-mast in honor of the dead, was he secretly signaling to white supremacists?
- Do you hold contradictory beliefs about Trump both being an idiot whilst simultaneously playing 4D Chess with the American people? Does Trump have no filter and tweet his innermost thoughts at 3 a.m. on the toilet, or does he have some complex plan to dismantle democracy?
- Do you find you ignore anything positive about Trump, and further look for sinister motivations behind these "good" actions, such as the Middle East peace deal?
- Do you think that Trump is both a mastermind Fascist dictator, whilst at the same time the most ineffective President of all time and that others "secretly" run the Trump presidency?
- Is the most likely reason a billionaire would suddenly decide to become president at 70 years old a long-term plan to become a dictator?
- Does it make sense that Trump is a white supremacist with Jewish grandchildren and a pro-Israel stance?
- Do you find yourself looking for hidden meanings and codes in Trump's rhetoric such as the term "rat infestation" referring to people of colour?
- Is your concern about Trump's desire to become a fascist dictator tempered by the various checks and balances in place for the American republic to prevent tyranny, or is your fear of his inevitable rise to power dwarfing the complex, intentionally designed ineffectiveness of the American governmental system?
- Do you feel there is overwhelming evidence that Trump is attempting to dismantle the constitution and democracy to bring about a fascist state?
- Do you conflate "a**hole" and "narcissist" with "evil" and "danger to democracy? Are you well informed about narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder enough to have a democratically elected president removed from office under the 25th amendment as mentally unfit?
Conclusion: You think I am an idiot
If Donald Trump has aspirations to become a fascist dictator, then he may go down in history as the most ineffective tyrant of all time. Indeed various experts on fascism and tyranny have stated that Trump does not appear to fit the bill.
With the most powerful military on earth, a budget that would have Hitler and Mussolini clawing their way out of their graves for a piece of the action, Trump appears to do little to suppress dissenting opinion (CNN hammers Trump on a daily basis free from punishment or fear of incarceration). Likewise, as observed by academics in this field of study, Trump has made zero attempts to disarm the population, overthrow democracy, or destroy the constitution, a strategy most commonly seen with rising fascist dictators. Trump does not romanticize the rebirth of America, which, as professor of history Roger Griffin notes, is different than the slogan "make America great again;" it requires the dismantling of the American Democratic Institution with a new order.
Within this post, you have been confronted with information that may go against the narrative you have formed, and continue to get reinforced on a daily basis. If reading this post made you uncomfortable, perhaps it is time to ask yourself why, and more importantly, what are you going to do about it?