Why Do People Believe in Conspiracy Theories?

(Editor’s note: This article is from the Winter 2016 issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please consider a print or digital subscription!)

Doomsday is just around the corner — the world’s banks are forging currency, vaccines cause cancer, and don’t even think about drinking the water. Whether you buy into one of the many conspiracy theories that freely float around the Internet, you’ve almost certainly brushed across someone who does: global warming is a hoax, the government planned the 9/11 terrorist attacks, John F. Kennedy was assassinated by the CIA (or the KGB) — or for the more outlandish, Hollywood faked the moon landing, or aliens built the pyramids.

It’s more common than you think. According to a recent study, nearly half of all Americans believe in some conspiracy theory or other, although some are more vocal than others. So why is that? Can they all be wrong?

1. Over a short period of evolution, human brains developed the ability to recognize patterns — something that can also be seen in our closer primate relatives.

Our senses take in a wealth of information at a time, and our brains try to put all of it into perspective. Back when our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, a dark storm cloud meant rain, and several days of rain meant that the seasons had changed, and so it was time to relocate. Today, our brains have a great deal more to choose from — the reason we see icons of the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich, or a demon peering through the smoke of Ground Zero, following the World Trade Center attacks. Ordinary events have no meaning until we put them in a larger context, but that total picture must change to fit with the evidence. The more uncertainty, the more likely people are to believe in a grand conspiracy — thinking that an all-powerful force, like the government or aliens, is actually in control.

2 Believing in conspiracy theories may satisfy some of our basic psychological needs — namely, the need for security and peace of mind.

It might sound contradictory, but being “in the know” gives people reassurance, making them feel they have knowledge of the unknown, while everyone else on the outside is lost. Consequently, those who believe in conspiracy theories tend to be less friendly, interacting with a smaller social network of people. Many parts of conspiracy theories are the result of not understanding how complex social structures like the government or scientific communities actually work. Correspondence between foreign nations following the crash of the Malaysian Flight 370, which was standard procedure, could be taken as evidence of a conspiracy to those who aren’t familiar with diplomatic protocol.

3. It’s not that conspiracies don’t exist.

A small group of sympathizers of the Confederacy did plot to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln, but usually these conspiracies thrive on a smaller scale, and are inevitably revealed once the job is finished. As they say, “Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead.” The more people trying to pull off a plot on a larger scale, the greater the odds of the plan being discovered, or someone coming forward and leaking the plot. This is why the government being responsible for 9/11 (or JFK’s death) is rather unlikely. Politicians have to pull strings and compromise (after much heated debate) when passing basic legislation — colliding two Boeing 757s into New York airspace, after having rigged the towers with explosives (as many 9/11 “truthers” claim), would require extreme ambition and organization that even the best lawmakers rarely show on a daily basis. Any number of employees or security personnel working on the morning of September 11 could have called in a bomb threat and foiled their plans.

4. What’s the motive?

Many climate change deniers allege that scientists are working to scam the public and politicians with fraudulent data in an effort of gaining more funding for research, or to get rich off green energy. Similar things are sometimes said of scientists working in research areas related to cancer and AIDS, being influenced by “Big Pharma.” However, the same research and data has been reproduced and confirmed by a number of scientists living in different countries across the world, and, yet, in many countries regulation of carbon still remains a divisive issue. Scientists could easily make more money working for a policy think tank than as university professors. At the same time, should the alleged conspiracy be uncovered, the consequences could be more severe than what was purportedly to be gained in the first place — the loss of their tenure and professional reputation.

5. The less in control a person feels, the more likely they are to believe in a conspiracy, as are those who feel their power is being threatened — a reason why so many dictators believed their subjects to be plotting against them.

Those less educated are more likely to believe fluoride in drinking water is dangerous, or that human civilization was shaped by extraterrestrials. Education may not always be the cure for believing in a conspiracy theory, however, as the more zealous believers will accuse universities or government organizations of being biased in the numbers they present. Statistics aren’t always airtight, of course, but where’s the evidence that a conspiracy is responsible?

6. While there are a number of similar conspiracy theories floating around, not all conspiracy theorists are the same.

For example, two people may not agree on the scientific consensus of climate change, but one of them may think that global temperatures are dropping, while the other thinks that temperatures are rising due to natural cycles. However, they will come together to rail against the commonly accepted truth before trying to correct each other, thus placing more importance on their emotional connection to the conspiracy rather than relying on an approach based in logic or evidence. You can see the world as it is, or as you want it to be, something to keep in mind when considering the tenets of any grand conspiracy.

(Editor’s note: This article is from the Winter 2016 issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please consider a print or digital subscription!)


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