Illustrations: Ariel Davis

Why Your Brain Loves Conspiracy Theories

Who believes and why, and whether conspiracism is really getting way worse

Robert Roy Britt
Published in
16 min readSep 8, 2020


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…



Robert Roy Britt

Editor of Aha! and Wise & Well on Medium + the Writer's Guide at Author of Make Sleep Your Superpower: