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.

 


3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less

Adam Gopnik on the rhinoceros of liberalism vs. the unicorns of everything else

Torn between absolutism on the left and the right, classical liberalism—with its core values of compassion and incremental progress whereby the once-radical becomes the mainstream—is in need of a good defense. And Adam Gopnik is its lawyer.

Think Again Podcasts
  • Liberalism as "radical pragmatism"
  • Intersectionality and civic discourse
  • How "a thousand small sanities" tackled drunk driving, normalized gay marriage, and could control gun violence
Keep reading Show less

You weren't born ‘to be useful’, Irish president tells young philosophers

Irish president believes students need philosophy.

Personal Growth
  • President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins calls for students to be thought of as more than tools made to be useful.
  • Higgins believes that philosophy and history should be a basic requirement forming a core education.
  • The Irish Young Philosopher Awards is one such event that is celebrating this discipline among the youth.
Keep reading Show less

Fascism and conspiracy theories: The symptoms of broken communication

The lost practice of face-to-face communication has made the world a more extreme place.

Videos
  • The world was saner when we spoke face-to-face, argues John Cameron Mitchell. Not looking someone in the eye when you talk to them raises the potential for miscommunication and conflict.
  • Social media has been an incredible force for activism and human rights, but it's also negatively affected our relationship with the media. We are now bombarded 24/7 with news that either drives us to anger or apathy.
  • Sitting behind a screen makes polarization worse, and polarization is fertile ground for conspiracy theories and fascism, which Cameron describes as irrationally blaming someone else for your problems.
Keep reading Show less