Conspiracy Theories and Our Minds That Produce Them

You can’t really argue with people who believe in conspiracy theories, because their beliefs aren’t rational. Instead, they are often fear- or paranoia-based beliefs that, when confronted with contrarian factual evidence, will dismiss both the evidence and the messenger who brings it. John Grohol, PsyD, Psych Central

Just for starters: If the statistics are right, we’re all just as likely to believe in at least one conspiracy theory as we are to be tempted to argue with someone who does.

Dr. Rob Brotherton, author of Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories (2015), offers further info:

On the whole, women are just as conspiracy-minded as men. Education and income don’t make much difference either. The ranks of conspiracy theorists include slightly more high school dropouts than college graduates, but even professors, presidents, and Nobel Prize winners can succumb to conspiracism. And conspiracy theories appeal to all ages…

Furthermore, we all have cognitive biases that can set us up to believe unproven things. Adrien Chen, New York Times, citing Brotherton:

For example, psychologists have discovered that we possess an ‘intentionality bias,’ which tricks us into assuming every incidental event that happens in the world is the result of someone’s intention. A ‘proportionality bias’ convinces us that momentous events must have equally momentous causes, which is why some people vainly shake a die harder when they want to roll a large number as if it were a fairground strength tester. We are all predisposed to see patterns in coincidental events. Normally these biases help us navigate the world and stay out of danger, but left unchecked they can lead us astray.

Other research results regarding the minds of conspiracy theorists:

  • …(C)ertain personality traits such as Machiavellianism, openness to experience, narcissism, and low agreeability seem especially high in conspiracy believers. They also show lower levels of analytical thinking and a tendency to see “patterns” in often unrelated events…
  • …an underlying need for uniqueness
  • …the sense of personal identity that comes from belonging to a particular group…(above three points courtesy of Romeo Vitelli, PhD, Psychology Today)
  • Jan-Willem van Prooijen, researcher: “…(W)hen they lose their jobs, or when a terrorist strike or a natural disaster has occurred — then people have a tendency to want to understand what happened, and also a tendency to assume the worst.”
  • Van Prooijen: “Frequently oppressed minority groups in society are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, and one reason why they do so is because they’re trying to make sense of the actual problems they have.”
  • “The best predictor of believing in one conspiracy theory is believing in another. Once they firmly start to believe in one specific conspiracy theory, it opens the door to many others. Because then people start thinking, ‘Hey, there may be a lot more going on behind the scenes that I don’t know. What else is there’?” (Van Prooijen’s research as reported by Brian Resnick, Vox)

So, how can we lessen the incidence of conspiracy thinking? NPR interviewed another expert, Professor Viren Swami:

I think the first thing I would say is that we need to teach people and teach everyone how to be better critical thinkers, how to use information, how to understand pieces of information and how to look at information and work out whether it’s good or bad information…But I don’t think that’s going to be enough.

I think if you kind of go along with this idea that conspiracy theories are more likely to emerge when people feel disaffected, when people feel alienated, then the…the natural answer to what we should do is that we should be promoting greater democratic access. We should allow for everyone to be part of a democratic process in which they have a say, in which they have a voice. And once you start to have that, I think you will start to see the conspiracy theories start to diminish.

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