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Why Aren't We All Conspiracy Theorists?

Turn conspiracy theorizing upside down and you begin to see solutions.

Key points

  • Some people aren't susceptible to conspiracy theories. Why?
  • Immunity to bad ideas is an overlooked trait.
  • We can study mental immunity and learn to inoculate minds, the same way we study bodily immunity and learn to inoculate bodies.
  • The science of mental immunity could someday give us "herd immunity" to cognitive contagion.

QAnon is now as popular as some major religions. That’s the finding of a study released by The Public Religion Research Institute. QAnon, of course, is a conspiracy theory centered on the idea that a cabal of Satan-worshipping, sex-trafficking pedophiles runs America. Another study found that 56% of Republicans believe that this theory is partly or mostly true. Facts like these underscore the importance of understanding how normal people become conspiracy theorists. But we also need to understand how others avoid this fate. When we study how minds resist the allure of conspiracy thinking, we discover overlooked ways to prevent cognitive contagion.

Asking “How does thinking go wrong?” has led to important discoveries. Such inquiries have shown that our minds are fundamentally lazy and like to take shortcuts. We’re hungry for confirming evidence and dismissive of inconvenient truths. When we reason, it’s often to protect our identities and rationalize self-serving delusions.

Findings like these paint a bleak portrait of the human mind. According to the now-standard view, our thinking is cynical, self-interested, and litigious. We’re seething cauldrons of biases and fallacies, many of them innate. Objectivity is a mirage; rationality, a false hope.

But if this is an accurate picture, why aren’t we all QAnon followers? Why aren’t we all in climate denial? I’d certainly sleep better if I thought climate change was a hoax; I bet you would too. So why don’t you and I believe that?

The answer is that some of us have a degree of immunity to the claims of climate denialists. You may be immune also to QAnonsense. The solicitations of Scientologists may strike you as silly, and belief in Bigfoot may strike you as bunk. If any of these things are true, you have a kind of resistance, or immunity, to some bad ideas. (None of us is immune to all bad ideas.) We’ll awaken from our post-truth nightmare when we understand mental immunity: what it is, where it comes from, and how to develop the mind’s defenses.

Sixty years ago, a psychologist named William McGuire discovered that minds behave as if they have immune systems. He established that you can expose minds to weakened forms of potentially mind-changing arguments and thereby inoculate them against stronger arguments. Since then, advertisers, religious apologists, and propagandists have leveraged his findings to close and manipulate minds.

Now, scholars are using inoculation theory to free minds. Some are inoculating minds against misinformation. Others are applying its principles to fight science denial. A new science is emerging: the science of immunity to bad ideas.

I call this new field “cognitive immunology.” It deploys a frame of reference that recognizes the ubiquity of infectious nonsense and treats resistance to it as a noteworthy achievement. Through this lens, senseless beliefs may warrant explanation, but acquired immunity to infectious ideas is especially salient. Cognitive immunology helps us understand what many minds are doing right.

Here’s the idea: false, baseless, and destructive ideas are mind parasites. Some are infectious and harm the minds that host them. But minds have defenses—“mental immune systems”—that offer some protection. These are natural systems, and we can study them like we do other natural systems. We can learn how they work and why they sometimes fail. Then, we can apply what we learn to prevent mental immune system breakdowns.

Cognitive immunologists are making strides. We’ve identified the mind’s antibodies. We know the basics of how mental immune systems work. (A healthy mind deploys questions and doubts to ward off problematic ideas; in unhealthy minds, this “mental immune function” is suppressed, misdirected, or hyperactive.) We’ve learned that intelligence does not prevent mind infections, and that critical thinking skills can be used in motivated and selective ways. We’re cataloguing species of mental immune disorders. We’re isolating mental immune disruptors (beliefs that interfere with healthy idea assessment) and designing mental immune boosters (instruction that strengthens our ability to spot and remove bad ideas). We’re even experimenting with mind vaccines.

We won’t achieve herd immunity to conspiracy thinking overnight. But there are grounds for hope. Thanks to the existence of healthy mental immune systems, we aren’t all conspiracy theorists. Our understanding of mental immunity is growing, and in coming years, we’re going to get much better at inoculating minds. The science of immunology has all but eliminated the threat to human well-being posed by smallpox, polio, and measles. Within months, it will probably rescue us from Covid-19. Someday soon, we’ll say the same of conspiracy thinking, science denial, and divisive ideologies: Immunology allowed us to conquer them.

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