Illustrations: Ariel Davis

Why Your Brain Loves Conspiracy Theories

Wild and seemingly crazy conspiracy theories can spring from any stressful or disruptive event or phenomenon, as people seek tangible explanations for the invisible or the inexplicable.

Belief in ideas such as “the U.S. government covered up its role in the Twin Towers destruction” or “global warming is a hoax designed to diminish American manufacturing prowess” can be widespread. About 30% of U.S. adults think the coronavirus was created and spread on purpose and that the threat of Covid-19 has been exaggerated to damage President Trump. Such beliefs can threaten public health, as when people won’t wear masks in a pandemic or refuse vaccination against deadly diseases.

Meanwhile, many experts fear a growing erosion of trust in science and the government amid increasing ideological polarization. Health experts have faced death threats over Covid-19 distrust. Researchers are under attack on social media by conspiracy theorists, human trolls, and their robotic puppets, who resort to misogynistic and racist name-calling in attempts to rattle the scientists and discredit the science.

“There’s an entire movement of anti-science, contrarianism, and hucksters who thrive on attention/clicks,” says Ryan McNamara, PhD, a research associate at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “They’re amplified while many of us in infectious diseases are relegated to being on an equal plane with them.”

It might seem the sheer volume of conspiracism is exploding in this new age of social media disinformation, and that Americans are more gullible than ever — especially some Americans. But like many conspiracy theories, none of these notions are fully supported by facts.

“To one degree or another, we all have a disposition within us to view events and circumstances as the product of conspiracies,” says Joseph Uscinski, PhD, an associate professor of political science at the University of Miami. “If we have this disposition very strongly, then we will turn to a conspiracy as the explanation. Generally that explanation will accuse people we already don’t like.”

Uscinski has a sea of data to back up this claim, and to show that conspiracism may be no more common today than ever — that in fact America was founded on a conspiracy theory. We’ll get to all that, as well as who is most predisposed to conspiratorial thinking and why. First, we need a definition.

What’s a conspiracy theory?

A conspiracy is a secret arrangement by two or more people to gain political or economic power or otherwise break the law for some sort of gain. By itself, it’s not a theory, just an act.

“A conspiracy theory,” Uscinski says, “is an accusatory perception in which a small group of powerful people are working in secret for their own benefit against the common good and in a way that undermines our bedrock ground rules against widespread force and fraud, and that perception has yet to be verified by the appropriate experts using available and open data and methods.”

Accusatory perceptions of a conspiracy can be spot on, as it was when reporters suspected something fishy was going on with Watergate. Ultimately, the evidence showed President Richard Nixon and others conspired to subvert democracy, win an election, and cover it up. That was a conspiracy, but we don’t call it a conspiracy theory in hindsight because it actually happened; the president resigned, case closed. More dubious theories can be wildly unsubstantiated, as with claims the government harbors aliens at Area 51 or faked the moon landings.

Either way, a supposed “theory” may start out as nothing more than vague suspicions that eventually turn out to be true, or not… or whose validity is never conclusively known.

Conspiracy theories are distinct from myths (stories not always purporting to be literal, often related to the supernatural, and which endure across millennia) and hoaxes (a deception that’s often preposterous, sometimes funny) and disinformation in general (there’s a ton of that floating around these days).

While definitions vary, conspiracy theories typically aim to explain some event or phenomenon. They may be supported by false “facts,” but disinformation or fake news alone do not make a theory.

Who believes in conspiracy theories

How likely a person is to buy into conspiracy theories exists on a continuum that Uscinski and his colleague Joseph Parent call “conspiracy dimension,” which runs from those who never believe in them to those who suspect a conspiracy behind everything. “Most of us are somewhere in between,” the pair write in the book American Conspiracy Theories, widely respected for its empirical and historical research. Among their findings on who is most prone to conspiracism:

  • There’s little difference between men and women, between races, or among religious and nonreligious people.
  • People with no high school education and poorer people are somewhat more likely to believe in conspiracy theories.
  • Conspiracy theorists don’t seem to be socially isolated, generally, but they may be more tight-lipped about their beliefs with friends and family.

Among the most surprising findings:

There’s very little difference in conspiratorial tendencies based on liberal or conservative leanings, and likewise very little between Democrats and Republicans. That’s not to say ideology doesn’t play a huge role in conspiracy thinking — it just isn’t a good predictor of a person’s tendency to believe.

Why people believe conspiracy theories

The psychology of conspiracism is harder to suss out than the sociology, but there are some generally agreed upon contributing factors.

Strong predictors of beliefs in Covid-19 conspiracy theories, according to a peer-reviewed essay by nine researchers published earlier this year in the Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review, include three psychological factors that people are predisposed to in varying degrees:

  • Rejecting expert information and accounts
  • Viewing major events as the product of conspiracies
  • Being motivated by partisanship and ideology

Ample research has shown we all tend to take in information that confirms our beliefs, and consciously or unconsciously reject information that does not.

Rob Brotherton, PhD, a psychologist at Barnard College, cuts to the chase in his book Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories: We’re not fully in control of whether or how our brains take in new information and what we do with it or how we think, he writes.

“We are all natural-born conspiracy theorists.”

“Conspiracy theories resonate with some of our brain’s built-in biases and shortcuts, and tap into some of our deepest desires, fears, and assumptions about the world and the people in it,” Brotherton writes. “We are all natural-born conspiracy theorists.”

He likens conspiracism to other personality traits, driven in part by a person’s assumptions about how the world works, whether or not others are always trying to deceive, and whether there’s always more than meets the eye. “When we believe something, our belief doesn’t seem like a product of some ineffable ideology; it just seems correct, independent of our personal foibles or preferences,” he writes.

Anxiety, alienation, paranoia, or loss of control are all feelings that can lead to conspiratorial thoughts, according to Uscinski and Parent. But there’s much more to it, and that’s where ideology figures in.

“If you’re a Christian person on the right and you are a conspiracy-minded person, then you’ll believe conspiracy theories that posit your side is good, and maybe you might think the theory of evolution is a conspiracy among Satanists and biologists to cover the truth of God’s word,” Uscinski tells Elemental. “But if you’re an atheist communist with high conspiracy thinking, you might think that corporations are conspiring against us to keep us down, and the 1% controls everything.”

Socialization and group identity are behind these tendencies, Uscinski and Parent argue. Humans learn about trusting authority from their parents, teachers, and friends, and from the media they consume. A person’s worldview can be heavily influenced by group identity and the desire to feel included, which at its worst can lead to us-them tribalism.

In their polls, Uscinski and Parent find Gen Xers (born between 1965 and 1980) are the most conspiratorial-minded age group, which is offered as evidence for the role of socialization. Trust in government was at historic lows in the 1970s and not much better in the 1980s — a “period effect” on Gen Xers growing up, the researchers argue.

Conspiracism has run amok, right?

There is no shortage of articles today about the rise of conspiracism. But Uscinski says there is no data suggesting that the number of conspiracy theories or the number of people who believe in one or more is on the rise. Remember, we’re not talking about the documented rise in fake news or misinformation here, but the breadth and depth of conspiratorial beliefs.

“Journalists every year say this is the year of conspiracy theories,” Uscinski says. “This is the golden age. Every freaking year. And it can’t always be true.”

“Humans have always believed in conspiracy theories. You can find evidence of this going back to antiquity. It’s not a new thing, and it’s not clear that it’s more prevalent now than it has been at any time.”

Uscinski and Parent examined a thousand New York Times letters to the editor that mention conspiracies. Those mentions have declined steadily since 1890, when big businesses were a main target of conspiracy theories. There were two notable spikes since, during the 1950s Red Scare — a widespread fear of a potential rise of communism — and after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

“Humans have always believed in conspiracy theories,” Uscinski says. “You can find evidence of this going back to antiquity.” Emperor Nero was said to have conspired to burn Rome in 64 A.D., for example, though there’s no convincing evidence he did so. “It’s not a new thing, and it’s not clear that it’s more prevalent now than it has been at any time.”

The internet, and particularly social media, are frequently blamed for the supposed rise in conspiracism. A rumor that 5G technologywas actually transmitting the coronavirus — a claim tied to the conspiracy theory that 5G is bad for us — spread like wildfire on Facebook, according to a study published August 4 in the journal Media International Australia.

“Preexisting conspiracy groups have jumped on the Covid-19 bandwagon and retrofitted their conspiracy theories to the pandemic, to argue the coronavirus outbreak justifies and proves their claims,” says study co-author Axel Bruns, PhD, a professor of communication at the Queensland University of Technology. “If you are against the rollout of 5G, for example, then you link it with Covid-19.”

But just because we can see the conspiracy chatter on Facebook or Twitter does not mean that’s where the ideas take root, Uscinski says. “People are looking for a boogeyman, and they’re blaming new communication technologies for old human problems,” he says. “People were doing this thing called talking, for a long, long time,” he says, “and they were able to do this talking with conspiracy theories for a long, long time.”

The witches of Salem supposedly conspired with the devil. Queen Elizabeth I, who reigned from 1558 to 1603, was thought by some to be a man. The Illuminati, a real society of intellectual thinkers that came and went more than two centuries ago in Germany, allegedly orchestrated the French Revolution in 1789, is responsible for the eye in the pyramid on the U.S. $1 bill, and is purported to rule the world today — with pop stars among its members.

A country founded on conspiracism

Americans are no more conspiratorial than people in other countries, on average, researchers say. But the roots of American conspiracism run deep, all the way back to the original American conspiracy theory — the Declaration of Independence.

The founders, mostly well-educated folks, it should be noted, had a problem: They reasoned that merely asserting that King George trampled colonists’ rights was insufficient inspiration for a revolution. They needed specific accusations to create the perception of a fiendish conspiracy aimed at total domination. Hence this lesser-known passage that follows the stirring self-evident truths:

“The history of the present king of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.”

The 27 accusations that follow — including that the king “sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people” and “cutting off our trade with all parts of the world” — have been called “obscure” and “lacking truth and sense” by historians, Uscinski and Parent write. And while unquestionably important and inspiring, the document exemplifies Americans’ long history of fearing authority and being “quick to anticipate tyranny, despotism, and a full spectrum of apocalyptic scenarios,” they conclude.

Such stretchings of the truth are common to conspiracism.“That’s how conspiracy theories work,” says Nancy Rosenblum, PhD, a professor of ethics in politics and government at Harvard University. “They’re not cockamamie. They can be important explanations of the sources of power and how it operates.”

There was no internet to help spread the accusations behind the American Revolution, nor to fan the flames of one of this country’s most widely believed modern conspiracy theories: Shortly after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, 52% of Americans believed there was a conspiracy behind the killing, that Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t act alone. The Mafia, the CIA, and Fidel Castro were cited as possible conspirators. The belief soared to 81% of Americans by 1976, according to Gallup polling, and it remains around 61% in recent polls.

No polling has shown higher levels of belief in a conspiracy theory before or since, Uscinski says.

Which brings us to QAnon, the supposedly burgeoning and dangerous conspiracy theory of the day. If you don’t know much about it, you’re not alone.

Who is Q?

QAnon (pronounced as two words, “Q anon”) began in 2017 with anonymous posts on a “dark” website called 4chan, and by many expert accounts has developed a cult-like following.

One or possibly multiple people called “Q” claim allegiance with President Donald Trump in fighting the deep state, which, by some Q accounts, supposedly gains magical powers by dining on sex-trafficked children for magical powers. Believers follow clues and crumbs that purport to prognosticate coming events, and all anticipate a “great awakening” and a new world order. QAnon sees Trump as its hero, sparking concerns among researchers, journalists, and others that the movement is dangerous to democracy.

But a Pew Research Center poll this spring found 76% of Americans have heard nothing at all about QAnon. Only 3% say they’ve heard a lot. An August 2019 poll by Emerson College found 5% of voters believe in QAnon, including 6% of both Democrats and Republicans and 2% of independents. (Like any polls, results can vary notably depending on how questions are asked.)

Uscinski’s own polling over the past two years finds people across the United States who have heard of the QAnon theory don’t like it. In Florida, it is only slightly more liked than Fidel Castro.

“It’s not well liked, it’s not well liked comparatively speaking, and it’s equally not well liked by the left and the right,” he says. “All this talk about this being a far-right belief system is not true. The belief about it being big and growing is simply false.”

But since QAnon is so much in the news lately, I asked Uscinski: Could it become dangerous? “Any set of beliefs that are disconnected from our shared reality could be dangerous,” he says, “because the behaviors that would spring from them could be potentially bad.”

The perceived threat of QAnon, and the way it differs from some modern conspiracy theories, worries Rosenblum, the Harvard professor of ethics in politics and government.

The new conspiracism

First off, QAnon is marked by a slew of unrelated assertions, predictions, and false rumors, rather than a pattern of apparent evidence making up an argument pointing to a culprit or culprits. “We now have conspiracy without the theory,” Rosenblum says in a phone interview. Unlike an assassination or a terrorist attack or the imperialism behind the American Revolution, “there’s nothing that needs to be explained.”

“We have a conspiracist as president. He sees conspiracies everywhere, and he pronounces them. And he has, as president of the United States, the capacity to impose his own compromised sense of reality on the nation.”

Second, Trump is in the middle of it all, having not denied the merits of the QAnon movement and meanwhile spouting unsupported claims of rigged elections, fake news, and unproven Covid-19 treatments.

“We have a conspiracist as president,” Rosenblum says. “He sees conspiracies everywhere, and he pronounces them. And he has, as president of the United States, the capacity to impose his own compromised sense of reality on the nation.”

The bizarre claims of QAnon — including a bestselling book that alleges Democrats eat their children, the government created AIDS, and Hillary Clinton leads a Satanic cabal that secretly runs the world — may not all be believed by the movement’s followers, but they are viewed as “true enough,” Rosenblum argues, and are linked to “a general sense of your enemies, who are so awful that they have no political legitimacy and they have to be jailed or destroyed.”

Another popular, self-published book of Q theories suggests an executive order by President Trump to crack down on sex trafficking is “directly related” to the resignation of Google CEO Eric Schmidt and several other CEOs. Books like these and the accessibility of them in the era of self-publishing, along with professional-looking, conspiracy-oriented websites, are part of a new culture and economy of conspiracism that make it potentially more dangerous, Rosenblum and other experts contend.

“The new conspiracism betrays a new destructive impulse: to delegitimize democracy,” Rosenblum and her colleague Russell Muirhead write in their book A Lot of People are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy. “The new conspiracism dispenses with the burden of explanation,” they write. “Instead, we have innuendo and verbal gesture: ‘A lot of people are saying…’ Or we have bare assertion: ‘Rigged!’”

This new conspiracism has created a fresh divide in American society that is deeper than partisan polarization, Rosenblum tells me. “It’s a divide over what it means to know something,” with conspiracists driven by what she calls a strange elitism. “They are the cognoscenti. They know what’s really going on.”

Rosenblum is concerned that the idea that everyone is susceptible to conspiracism “tames and normalizes” the new conspiracism, which is not at all about gullible or crazy people, but rather emanates from the halls of power and becomes a mindset that arises collectively.

Already, trust in government has been declining steadily since the early years of the George W. Bush administration. In 2019, just 21% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say they trust the government, compared with 14% of Democrats and those who lean Democratic, according to the Pew Research Center.

Meanwhile, a growing partisan divide in trust of scientific expertise is evident. In a Pew poll done this spring, 31% of Republicans and people leaning Republican expressed “a great deal of confidence” in medical scientists to act in the public interest, roughly the same level as in January 2019. Among Democrats and people leaning to the Democratic party, 53% expressed such confidence, up from 37% in January 2019.

Why it’s so hard to argue

Conspiracists can be frustrating to argue with because conspiracy theories are often made unprovable by design, Brotherton argues. They can be dumbfoundingly complex, “weaving seemingly unrelated events together, into a single rich tapestry,” and the false claims can be difficult or impossible to disprove.

The hallmark of any bogus conspiracy theory is the conspiracists’ blatant disregard for expert knowledge in favor of “elastic evidence from unconventional sources and amateurs,” Uscinski and Parent write.

QAnon believers have two mantras that illustrate how to properly promote a conspiracy theory: The first is “do your own research,” which is bound to lead you to amateur-informed but professional-looking websites that in turn link to other fringe sites and “studies” that have not been peer-reviewed or published in journals. The second one is impossible to argue against: “Is there any reason not to believe?”

There’s no perfect way to expose any given conspiracy theory as hokum. But Uscinski and Parent point to Occam’s razor as one handy tool. The principle asserts that the simplest explanation is often the best one. They note that the complex 9/11 conspiracy theory — that the U.S. government blew up the Twin Towers — would have required a tremendous number of conspirators to set the explosives without being caught, ace pilots to fly right into the spots where the explosives were set, then collusion by then-President George W. Bush, the FBI, CIA, NYPD, and the media to cover it up.

Conspiracists also have a habit of moving the goalposts — as with the disinformation suggesting 5G was spreading Covid-19. When then-President Barack Obama released his birth certificate in 2011, the conspiracy theory around his legitimacy shifted to the certificate being forged, Uscinski and Parent note. Another flaw to look for, Uscinski and Parent say: Conspiracies tend to point to supposed villains ranging from boring, respectable organizations to people who are generally perceived to be good. Track record of behavior ought to count for something, they argue.

In the end, don’t expect to win any arguments over what you see as obviously outlandish ideas that someone else clings to as an explanation of the threats they perceive.

“One person’s conspiracy theory is another person’s conspiracy fact,” Brotherton writes. “Any attempt to draw a neat line between true and false conspiracies is doomed to endless debate about what evidence is compelling, who the real experts are, and whether they can be trusted.”

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