The deep state stole the 2020 US election. 5G towers spread COVID-19. Bill Gates is going to microchip you. At this point, conspiracies like faked moon landings or Area 51 seem almost quaint by comparison.
Conspiracy theories are slippery things, inhabiting a grey area that deals in the currency of the bizarre and the uncertain. And while it might be tempting to view them as the absurd abstractions of a tinfoil hat-wearing minority, the evidence is starting to show just how misguided that stereotype is.
As the social and political upheaval of 2020 demonstrated, conspiracies can manifest themselves in disturbing ways. Researchers in fields ranging from evolutionary psychology to political science have had a head start in grasping this, but the reality is that until recently, the psychological mechanisms behind conspiracies were as murky as the theories themselves tend to be.
In 2018, Jan-Willem van Prooijen and Karen M. Douglas, two scientists who study those mechanisms, published a paper in the European Journal of Social Psychology. In it, they acknowledge how young the field still is, while noting the growing consensus that conspiracy theories can contribute to radicalization and even violent behavior. This fact alone makes them worthy of further study.
Thankfully, the answers to some very important questions are beginning to take shape: Where exactly do conspiracy theories come from? Who believes in them? How do they affect our society? And perhaps most importantly, can anything be done to prevent them?
Before we start unpacking these questions, we need to define our terms: What exactly qualifies as a conspiracy theory?
Writing in the Association for Psychological Science, researchers classify them as, “explanations for important events that involve secret plots by powerful and malevolent groups.” A key component here is the insistence on secrecy, something that edges a conspiracy theory into the realm of the unfalsifiable. If the theory has any holes in it, they can be covered up and by invoking this sense of shadowy uncertainty.
The mysterious and the unknown are potent psychological constructs. By examining the mechanics and origins of this psychology, we’re able to see how history played a role in building the code by which our minds operate in the present day.
Our own worst enemies
Paranoia is a natural psychological phenomenon. Over the course of hundreds of thousands of years, our brains have become hardwired to be receptive toward it.
In a paper published by the journal Psychiatric Services in January 2021, Richard A. Friedman, a professor of clinical psychiatry at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, notes that our species’ long record of living in hunter-gatherer groups selected for a sensitivity towards unknown threats. “Having the capacity to imagine and anticipate that other people might form coalitions and conspire to harm one’s clan,” he writes, “would confer a clear adaptive advantage: a suspicious stance toward others, even if mistaken, would be a safer strategy than carefree trust.”
Humans are pattern-seeking mammals who generally prefer a bad explanation to none at all. That cognitive bias is a hazardous one. Friedman elaborates on this, stating that our, “tendency to discern patterns and make sense of the world also makes us prone to cognitive errors, such as seeing connections between events when none exist.”
We can also see evidence of this thinking today. In an experimental study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, researchers tested participants’ tendencies to perceive patterns in random coin-toss sequences. They then designed a test to find out if there was any correlation between pattern-seeking and irrational belief. Their results were telling. Those who perceived patterns in the randomly-generated tosses were significantly more likely to engage in conspiracy thinking, as well as hold supernatural beliefs.
“We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.”
These primitive mental mechanisms are still with us. Rather than protecting one’s tribe from the plottings of another, however, such thinking serves a different function in the modern era. In a 1994 study published in Political Psychology, researchers found that conspiracy theories provide something tangible to which people can attach blame and meaning. This is often attached to problems that appear impersonal and abstract.
According to work published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, it’s true that higher education levels correspond to a lower likelihood of believing in conspiracy theories. It would be a mistake, though, to assume that only the intellectually clumsy buy into them. As studies have shown, we’re all prone to thinking in this way to some degree, and conspiracy theorists are often remarkably academic in their approach.
In a seminal essay from 1964 entitled The Paranoid Style in American Politics, historian Richard Hofstadter observed just how refined that approach can be: “[The] paranoid mind is far more coherent than the real world. It is nothing if not scholarly in technique. McCarthy’s 96-page pamphlet, McCarthyism, contains no less than 313 footnote references, and Mr. Welch’s incredible assault on Eisenhower, The Politician, has one hundred pages of bibliography and notes.”
Hofstadter’s insights helped form a new consciousness on the motives behind certain social and political behavior. He framed the notion that conspiratorial thinking is perhaps more deserving of society’s sympathy than its rage: “We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.”
“Ideological convictions are a product of top-down cues from politicians and the media, and bottom-up psychological mechanisms.”
Recent work lends credence to this perspective. A 1999 study published in Political Psychology shows that “distrust of authority, hostility, feeling powerless, and being unfairly disadvantaged” are all strong predictors of conspiracy thinking. Work published in both Current Psychology and Frontiers in Psychology in 2013 reveals that people are more likely to think this way if they feel anxious or if they feel they lack social and political legitimacy. These ideas go a long way toward explaining why conspiracies are accepted by so many.
We can apply these insights to the paranoia of modern times. The World Health Organization has called for help in preventing conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 pandemic from spreading more than they already have. If Hofstadter and his academic descendants were right, we should be able to find evidence that those theories are being fed by societies whose populations are under the stress of negative emotions like anxiety and powerlessness.
This does indeed seem to be the case. In the US, for example, job loss has taken a significant toll on people during the pandemic. In a news release from March 2021, The US Department of Labor details how America’s unemployment woes have not yet recovered from COVID-19 reaching its shores. “Although [the unemployment rate and number of unemployed persons] are much lower than their April 2020 highs,” it states, “they remain well above their pre-pandemic levels in February 2020 (3.5 percent and 5.7 million, respectively).”
In January, the worldwide death toll from the virus passed two million people. According to Reuters, casualties have accelerated quickly, having taken nine months to reach the one million mark but only three to jump up another million. These stressors may be why a quarter of adults in the US at least partly believe that COVID-19 was an orchestrated pandemic, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center.
We’re seeing similar trends across the Atlantic. The Guardian recently reported that people in southern Europe, a region hit particularly hard by the virus, are feeling distressed by the lifestyle changes it has engendered there, citing a study that ties these feelings directly to higher levels of belief in conspiracy theories. The emerging picture is almost straightforward: We’re more open to bad ideas—more radical ideas—when we feel insecure.
The truth is out there
As hard-wired as we are to think in paranoid ways, we’re not hopelessly destined to do so. Scientific study is starting to provide the insights we need to lessen our chances of thinking conspiratorially. It’s also revealing how to best help others who, at the behest of a cocktail of harsh circumstances and negative emotions, are already deeply involved in this kind of thinking.
Perhaps counterintuitively, these studies show that directly confronting conspiracy thinkers with facts may be the very last thing we want to do. In a paper published by The Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement, van Prooijen suggests that “empowering citizens may transform these negative emotions into a more constructive mindset that includes hope and optimism.”
“If policy-makers are concerned about the negative outcomes associated with belief in conspiracy theories, supporting the development of analytic thinking skills may be a useful beginning.”
We should also toss out any biases we have when thinking of conspiracy theorists themselves. In a recent episode of Tulane University’s On Good Authority podcast, Geoff Dancy, associate professor of political science at that university, notes that “there’s no racial demographic that’s more or less prone to conspiracy theories, there’s no gender demographic that’s more or less prone, and also [political] party affiliation isn’t really related to [it].”
The best thing to do when interacting with a conspiracy theorist, he says, is to find common ground with them and work from there.
“Find something to agree with them about first. Then say, “Show me the best evidence you have on this stuff,” then you can have a conversation and talk them through what’s good and what’s bad evidence. It’s teaching people scientific methods through conversation.”
Dancy’s not alone in this line of thinking. Research published in Cognition in 2014 indicates that encouraging analytical thinking reduces conspiratorial beliefs, a tool that might best be employed by getting ahead of conspiracy thinking before it begins. Their work suggests that, “if policy-makers are concerned about the negative outcomes associated with belief in conspiracy theories, supporting the development of analytic thinking skills may be a useful beginning.”
That statement is a stone’s throw away from calling on politicians and leaders to foster the kind of environment that those theories won’t be able to thrive in. Experts agree with this sentiment. Writing in the journal Nature in November 2020, Aleksandra Chichoka, a political psychologist at the University of Kent, states that, “Ideological convictions are a product of top-down cues from politicians and the media, and bottom-up psychological mechanisms.” Not only are our brains prone to embracing conspiracies by default, but this characteristic is also exacerbated by what we see and hear in the news.
In particular, scientists have begun to realize just how badly conspiracies are intensified by what we see and hear online.
An appetite for distraction
One reason for the proliferation of COVID-19 conspiracy theories is what the WHO calls the “infodemic,” the rapid spread of misinformation about the virus via social media that can lead to harmful outcomes for health. The infodemic concept can be applied to any issue that gets distorted and amplified in online spaces, however, and research is showing just how damaging it can be.
Writing in Psychology Today in January 2020, Joseph M. Pierre, a professor at UCLA’s Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, notes that the internet is an optimal environment for the spread of conspiracies. Searching for information online, he says, is a minefield for avoiding confirmation bias, the tendency to fold new evidence into what we already believe to be true.
The sheer amount of information available online is equally as problematic. In a 2017 study published in the journal Nature Human Behavior, scientists found that, the higher the amount of information overload in social media systems, the lower the quality that information will be.
Filippo Menczer, director of the Observatory on Social Media at Indiana University Bloomington, and Thomas Hill, director of the Behavioral and Data Science master’s program at the University of Warwick in England, are members of a team that uses data mining, artificial intelligence, and cognitive experiments to better understand how social media users are vulnerable to both receiving and spreading misinformation.
Writing in Scientific American, they describe worrisome patterns in online spaces. According to their models, even when social media users make concerted efforts to share credible evidence, the very presence of information overload will eventually lead to their spreading information that is at least partly untrue.
These concerns are neither trivial nor self-contained. The Global Network on Extremism and Technology is a research initiative led by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London. The group released a report in February 2021 describing how belief in conspiracy theories is psychologically tied to extremism and law-breaking tendencies. As a stark example of this, the report claims that the assailants connected with a number of recent mass shootings were at least partly motivated by worldviews connected to conspiracy theories.
So, how do we push back against these trends to ensure that accurate information spreads and the health and well-being of everyone in society is best protected? As for those bottom-up psychological mechanisms, we’ve seen how researchers suggest keeping our own cognitive biases in mind. That’s a good place to start. But if we’re likely to spread misinformation online even when we actively try not to, what solutions remain?
Daniel Allington, the author of the GNET report on radicalization, suggests online platforms have a significant role to play:
“As well as acting to remove misinformation, platforms can legitimately make a positive choice to disseminate information from reputable sources and to provide users with tools by which they may seek out life‑affirming online experiences and interactions. It is hard to imagine serious objections to such a move.”