True False Believers: The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy theories are byproducts of basic mind processes.

Posted Apr 21, 2020

Prevention is hard for us to do, and even harder to appreciate. This is because it requires long-term thinking, which is not our species’ specialty. It is also because paradoxically, successful prevention efforts tend to look like overreactions.

Prevention isn’t exciting, and doesn’t produce easy heroes. When something is broken, the problem is self-evident, and the person who fixes it is the clear hero. When a problem is prevented, nothing bad happens, and we often can’t know for certain whether it would have happened had we not intervened. Perhaps the calamity we claim to have averted would not have materialized in the first place. That’s why all the TV shows are about detectives and lawyers and surgeons—the people who solve murders, try criminals, and save the sick, not the people who prevent criminality and sickness from happening in the first place.

The current coronavirus response constitutes a public, large-scale, and acute attempt at prevention. Our preventative measures, in addition to the technical, economic, and political problems they pose, are also bound to be psychologically trying. We can therefore anticipate a backlash. Such a backlash will take various forms, but without a doubt, it will involve the flowering of a thousand conspiracy theories. The 5G coronavirus conspiracy theory is but the beginning.

Source: Pixabay

Just a few days ago in Columbus, Ohio where I live, some of the Trump-supported demonstrators agitating to "liberate" America from preventative quarantine measures were waving a sign that had on it a picture of a rat wearing a Star of David and the caption: “the real plague.”

This, of course, manifests anew one of the most enduring conspiracy theories, the reliable go-to move for conspirators everywhere--the anti-Semitic canard about the Jews secretly running the world.

Being Jewish, albeit one who's been thus far rudely excluded from our people’s Secret World Domination Zoom sessions--and given the popularity and danger of such theories—I thought it worthwhile to try to shed some light on this phenomenon.

A conspiracy theory is a belief that some covert but influential organization is responsible for a circumstance or event. More specifically, as the British psychologist Christopher Thresher-Andrews puts it: “Conspiracy theories are unsubstantiated, less plausible alternatives to the mainstream explanation of an event; they assume everything is intended, with malignity.”

Why are we so susceptible? The answer, of course, is: It’s complicated. Multiple factors and motives—among them economic, historical, and sociological—are involved. Yet as always when it comes to us humans, psychology too plays a major role. Psychological research has uncovered several mechanisms underlying our perpetual penchant for purveying preposterous plots. Here are a few central ones:

First is the fundamental attribution error, which is our tendency to prefer dispositional explanations to situational ones. When we observe an event happening, we are much more likely to attribute it to some intentional, internal motive than to circumstance and happenstance.

Conspiracy theories are by definition dispositional—someone planned this for a purpose. They are thus uniquely satisfying to our minds. Australian philosopher Steve Clarke writes: “As explanations, conspiracy theories are highly dispositional. When conspiracies occur it is because conspirators intend them to occur and act on their intentions … In most cases, the received view, the conventionally accepted nonconspiratorial alternative to a particular conspiracy theory, is a situational explanation.”

Second is confirmation bias and its brother, the belief perseverance phenomenon—two well-known aspects of our cognitive hardware. Confirmation bias refers to the fact that we tend to become attached to our beliefs and to search for (or interpret) information in ways that confirms our preconceptions. Once we settle on a conviction, we will search, remember, and accept only evidence that supports it, while ignoring and neglecting to seek disconfirming evidence. This is why people online gravitate to sites that echo their preexisting beliefs and prejudices.

Belief perseverance refers to the fact that we seek to maintain our beliefs even after the information that originally gave rise to it has been refuted. Once we’re set in our beliefs, evidence to the contrary will be dismissed, actively.

This is why politicians promote polls that show them to be popular (confirmation bias) and label as "fake" those polls that don’t (belief perseverance). This is why when you’re in love, you tend to latch onto everything good about your love object and gloss over or fail to notice warning signs (confirmation bias). When your friends warn you about the love object, you accuse them of lying out of jealousy (belief perseverance). 

Thus, ironically, once we settle on a belief, however deluded or implausible (e.g., the earth is flat), we’re highly likely to seek and believe information that supports it (“looks flat to me!”) while rejecting any data to the contrary, however plausible, as false, malevolent, or deluded (“The science? All the scientists are lying”).

A third psychological factor is our desire to be uniquely knowledgeable, to possess knowledge that others don’t. Knowledge is power. And we all prefer feeling powerful to feeling powerless. This is gratifying and empowering for us particularly when the complexity and uncertainty of life feels overwhelming. “Conspiracy theories … supply a seductive ego boost. Believers often consider themselves part of a select in-group that — unlike the deluded masses — has figured out what’s really going on.”

Fourth is our brain’s adaptive capacity for pattern recognition. As Johns Hopkins neurologist Mark Mattson puts it: “Superior pattern processing is the essence of the evolved human brain.” It is, “the fundamental basis of most, if not all, unique features of the human brain including intelligence, language, imagination, invention, and the belief in imaginary entities such as ghosts and gods.” 

Indeed, our brain has evolved in a dangerous environment where the ability to "fill in the blanks," to guess the whole from a few parts, conferred important survival advantages. If I can make out from a distance the hidden predator in the bushes, I’m more likely to survive. Thus our brain came to specialize in meaning-making and pattern-finding. In extreme form, this tendency is known as Pareidolia.

While entertaining at times, as when we see a face on the moon and Jesus in a piece of burnt toast, this tendency has a shadow side, since in the absence of a pattern, our brain will tend to invent one and impose it on the world, as when we think that a flipped coin is ‘due’ to hit ‘heads’ after a string of ‘tails,’

Our brain seeks order, cause and effect, and intentionality. But life is filled with chaos, blind chance, illusory correlations, and disorder. When these conditions impinge on us we become distressed, and to reduce the distress, we are compelled to make stories that fit the demands of our brain, rather than the facts of the world; stories in which intentionality, order, coherence, and purpose exist, albeit in hidden form—e.g.: conspiracy. As psychologists Jan-Willem van Prooijen and Karen Douglas conclude in their review of the literature: “Evidence suggests that the aversive feelings that people experience when in crisis—fear, uncertainty, and the feeling of being out of control—stimulate a motivation to make sense of the situation, increasing the likelihood of perceiving conspiracies in social situations." 

Moreover, as social animals, our brains have evolved to seek patterns not only in the external world but also in the interpersonal realm. The capacity to guess what another person knows and how that knowledge will affect the person’s behavior, what psychologists call, "theory of mind," develops in early childhood. That ability is foundational for our complex social commerce. In this context, we have evolved to speculate of the intentions of others and pay particular attention to their perceived hostile intentions, since the cost of missing such intentions is higher than the costs of a ‘false alarm.’ Believing falsely that you’re plotting to kill me will not get me killed. But failing to notice your murderous intents will.

Interestingly, the pattern recognition capability that gives rise to conspiracy theorizing also lies at the root of another defining feature of humanity—religion. Conspiracy theories are quite analogous to religion in that, “their contents, forms, and functions parallel those found in beliefs of institutionalized religions.”

Like religions, conspiracy theories tend to assume a powerful, unseen force that is responsible for those things that happen but defy explanation. Like religions, conspiracy theories tend to ascribe power to an entity that is hidden yet active in the world, that is more powerful than us, but not entirely unlike us psychologically (God rages; God forgives).

As with religion, conspiracy believers are uniquely reluctant to be swayed by argument. As law professors Cass Sunstein (University of Chicago) and Adrian Vermeule (Harvard) note: “A distinctive feature of conspiracy theories is their self-sealing quality. Conspiracy theorists are not likely to be persuaded by an attempt to dispel their theories; they may even characterize that very attempt as further proof of the conspiracy.”

Finally, like religions, conspiracy theories are, at the core, about community, manifesting our most fundamental tribal impulse—the psychological need to belong, to be part of a well-defined in-group and, by extension, to recognize and fight enemy out-groups. Like religions, conspiracy theories are group phenomena, shared by communication rituals that help adherents manage emotions by, “transforming unspecific anxieties into focused fears.” As in religion, successful (enduring) conspiracy theories produce narratives that are “framed as conflicts over sacred values.” With religion, the false God is never our God. With the conspiracy theory, the menacing shadowy group is never our group. Conspiracy theories are always about ‘the other.’ As psychologist Jan-Willem van Prooijen notes: “the root of conspiracy thinking lies in our ancient instinct to divide the social world into ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ categories.” The same psychological processes that produce God for 'us,' produce conspiracy theories about 'them.'

Our basic psychological structure has remained largely unchanged for as long as we can tell. To wit, ancient biblical stories, not to mention centuries-old Shakespearean plays, speak to us now because the characters in them--their tendencies, fears, struggles, and desires—resemble us greatly. As long as our basic psychology remains unchanged, conspiracy theories will continue to flourish as by-products of the evolved processes of our mind.