Why your brain loves conspiracy theories

Scientists figure out why so many people believe in conspiracy theories.


Let’s face it - you love a good conspiracy theory. At least, statistically there is a good chance you do. About half of Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory in any given year. How could that be? What is it about the regular, everyday reality we don’t like?

A recent study published in Applied Cognitive Psychology says that the answer to this predilection towards conspiracy-fueled thinking may lie in how our brains deal with probabilities. What may be responsible is a general cognitive bias associated with low probabilities. People tend to believe more in conspiratorial explanations of events as the probability of them actually occurring gets lower.

A conspiracy theory offers an alternative explanation for events and how things seem to be in the world around you. No, says a conspiracy theory, just because most people think this is the real state of things (especially politically), that’s not how matters really stand.

 

The reason people may engage in such thinking, says the study from Switzerland that was carried out by Marko Kovic and Tobias Füchslin, is essentially an error in how we process probabilities.

“A number of cognitive biases are, in essence, errors in probabilistic thinking,” write the scientists,” “and conspiratorial reasoning might represent just another such bias.”

In 5 experiments involving 2,254 participants, the researchers found that people tend to have less faith in common, popularly-accepted explanations if an event, especially a high-impact event, becomes less likely to happen. For example, in one study the subjects were discovered to believe more a hypothetical journalist was murdered if the official explanation of him having a supposed heart attack was lower in probability.

“It’s not ‘us’ (reasonable people) vs. ‘them’ (irrational conspiracy nuts),” explained Kovic, “conspiratorial reasoning is a coping mechanism that we all use.”

Engaging in conspiracy theory thinking allows us to make some sense of uncertainty, often spinning a tale that has little basis in facts. A large number of people is still convinced that we don’t know who really killed JFK or that Obama is a Muslim and some secret group is controlling the world. Why are these ideas believed? Largely, because they allow people to explain why the world around them is not what they want, ruled by forces beyond their control. If my life is not working out or the people around me on the street don’t do what I want or don’t look how I’d like them, it’s easier to imagine that there is a group or entity out there making that happen. Something totally beyond my control.

To combat this type of reasoning, confronting people with facts might not work either, say the researchers. We need to figure out a way to address the way our brains devise them.

“If conspiratorial thinking is indeed a heuristic that we are all prone to, then we should rethink how we go about ‘debunking’ conspiracy theories,” said Kovic. “As has been shown in existing research, merely confronting people with facts does not necessarily work. ‘Debunking’ conspiracy theories might be more effective if we adapt to conspiracy believers’ – and thus also to our own – cognitive style.”

They call this potentially more effective anti-conspiracy training a “metacognitive debiasing” in probabilistic thinking.

 


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