why do people believe in conspiracy theories?

A study of conspiracy theorists shows that conspiratorial ideation is actually a political, not a logical matter.

bill cypher
Illustration from Gravity Falls

For as long as there have been conspiracy theories, there have been explanations for why the vast community of people who hang on conspiracy theorists’ every word exist. Some might just be paranoid in general. Others may be exercising their hatred or suspicion of a particular group of people, be they an ethnic group or a political affiliation. Others might just want to sound as if they’re smarter and more incisive than everyone else. Others still seek money and attention in their pursuit of a stable career of preaching to the tinfoil choir. But that doesn’t answer the really big question about the constant popularity of conspiracy theories throughout the ages. Is there something specific about how the believers are wired that makes the more prone to believe? Is ascribing to 9/11 Trutherism, or fearing Agenda 21, or looking for alien ancestry in one’s blood actually a case of a brain generally seeing patterns in randomness and conspiracy theories are just an outlet waiting to tap into this condition? Swiss and French researchers recently decided to try and answer that question by experimenting on college students and the public.

First, they evaluated whether their test subjects would detect patterns in truly random coin flips and doctored ones, with and without priming them. Then, they would ask political questions to measure the degree of conspiratorial thinking and level of belief in popular theories such as the notion that the Moon landing was faked or 9/11 was an inside job of some sort. Obviously, they found that they more conspiratorial view of politics the subjects took, they more likely they were to be Moon hoaxers and 9/11 Truthers, but paradoxically, that had absolutely no reflection on if they claimed to see human interference in random patterns of coin flips or identify sequences a researcher manipulated, priming or no priming. In other words, in everyday, low level tasks, the mind of a conspiracy theorist doesn’t see more patterns in randomness. As the researchers put it themselves, for a group of people who like to say that nothing happens by accident, they sure don’t think twice if something apolitical and mundane has been randomly arranged.

What does this finding mean in the grand scheme of things? Well, for one it means that there’s really no one type of person just wired for conspiratorial thinking or whose brain wiring plays an important role in ascribing to conspiracy theories. Instead, it’s more likely that all these theories are extreme manifestations of certain political beliefs or personal fears and dislikes, so the best predictor of being part of the tinfoil crowd is political affiliation. It’s not too terribly surprising if we consider that most climate change denialists who fear some sort of implementation of a sinister version of Agenda 21 they imagined exists are on the far right, while those terrified of anything involving global vaccination or commercial agreements are on the far left. And while there are a few popular conspiracy theories that overlap because people are complex and can hold many, many views even if they are contradictory, you can separate most of the common theories into ones favored by conservatives and ones favored by liberals. And as for what biology is involved in that, well, that’s been a minefield of controversy and statistical maelstroms for a long time…

# science // conspiracy / logic / scientific research


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