Why Your Brain Loves Conspiracy Theories

Author: Britt, Robert Roy

Read the full Medium article here


Wild and seemingly crazy conspiracy theories can spring from any stressful or disruptive event or phenomenon, as people seek tangible explanations for the invisible or the inexplicable.

Belief in ideas such as “the U.S. government covered up its role in the Twin Towers destruction” or “global warming is a hoax designed to diminish American manufacturing prowess” can be widespread. About 30% of U.S. adults think the coronavirus was created and spread on purpose and that the threat of Covid-19 has been exaggerated to damage President Trump. Such beliefs can threaten public health, as when people won’t wear masks in a pandemic or refuse vaccination against deadly diseases.

Meanwhile, many experts fear a growing erosion of trust in science and the government amid increasing ideological polarization. Health experts have faced death threats over Covid-19 distrust. Researchers are under attack on social media by conspiracy theorists, human trolls, and their robotic puppets, who resort to misogynistic and racist name-calling in attempts to rattle the scientists and discredit the science.

“There’s an entire movement of anti-science, contrarianism, and hucksters who thrive on attention/clicks,” says Ryan McNamara, PhD, a research associate at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “They’re amplified while many of us in infectious diseases are relegated to being on an equal plane with them.”

It might seem the sheer volume of conspiracism is exploding in this new age of social media disinformation, and that Americans are more gullible than ever — especially some Americans. But like many conspiracy theories, none of these notions are fully supported by facts.

“To one degree or another, we all have a disposition within us to view events and circumstances as the product of conspiracies,” says Joseph Uscinski, PhD, an associate professor of political science at the University of Miami. “If we have this disposition very strongly, then we will turn to a conspiracy as the explanation. Generally that explanation will accuse people we already don’t like.”

Uscinski has a sea of data to back up this claim, and to show that conspiracism may be no more common today than ever — that in fact America was founded on a conspiracy theory. We’ll get to all that, as well as who is most predisposed to conspiratorial thinking and why. First, we need a definition.

What’s a conspiracy theory?

A conspiracy is a secret arrangement by two or more people to gain political or economic power or otherwise break the law for some sort of gain. By itself, it’s not a theory, just an act.

“A conspiracy theory,” Uscinski says, “is an accusatory perception in which a small group of powerful people are working in secret for their own benefit against the common good and in a way that undermines our bedrock ground rules against widespread force and fraud, and that perception has yet to be verified by the appropriate experts using available and open data and methods.”

Accusatory perceptions of a conspiracy can be spot on, as it was when reporters suspected something fishy was going on with Watergate. Ultimately, the evidence showed President Richard Nixon and others conspired to subvert democracy, win an election, and cover it up. That was a conspiracy, but we don’t call it a conspiracy theory in hindsight because it actually happened; the president resigned, case closed. More dubious theories can be wildly unsubstantiated, as with claims the government harbors aliens at Area 51 or faked the moon landings.

Either way, a supposed “theory” may start out as nothing more than vague suspicions that eventually turn out to be true, or not… or whose validity is never conclusively known.

Conspiracy theories are distinct from myths (stories not always purporting to be literal, often related to the supernatural, and which endure across millennia) and hoaxes (a deception that’s often preposterous, sometimes funny) and disinformation in general (there’s a ton of that floating around these days).

While definitions vary, conspiracy theories typically aim to explain some event or phenomenon. They may be supported by false “facts,” but disinformation or fake news alone do not make a theory.


Who believes in conspiracy theories

How likely a person is to buy into conspiracy theories exists on a continuum that Uscinski and his colleague Joseph Parent call “conspiracy dimension,” which runs from those who never believe in them to those who suspect a conspiracy behind everything. “Most of us are somewhere in between,” the pair write in the book American Conspiracy Theories, widely respected for its empirical and historical research. Among their findings on who is most prone to conspiracism:

  • There’s little difference between men and women, between races, or among religious and nonreligious people.
  • People with no high school education and poorer people are somewhat more likely to believe in conspiracy theories.
  • Conspiracy theorists don’t seem to be socially isolated, generally, but they may be more tight-lipped about their beliefs with friends and family.

Among the most surprising findings:

There’s very little difference in conspiratorial tendencies based on liberal or conservative leanings, and likewise very little between Democrats and Republicans. That’s not to say ideology doesn’t play a huge role in conspiracy thinking — it just isn’t a good predictor of a person’s tendency to believe.


Read the full Medium.com article here