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Why Conspiracy Theories Are So Alluring

An anti-vaccine protester

Erin Scott/Bloomberg via Getty Images

An anti-vaccine protester at a pro-Trump rally in Washington, D.C., January 5, 2021

Today, nearly two in five Americans surveyed say they will definitely or probably never take the new Covid-19 vaccine. Many people are understandably wary of the vaccine because it represents a new technology: it contains mRNA, and they worry it might permanently alter their genomes. In fact, this mRNA is quickly degraded by the body after its biological information is read by cells and translated into the viral spike protein, which then triggers an immune response. The vaccine cannot give a person the coronavirus; neither can it alter their DNA; nor does it contain any microchip.

In spite of this, some of these reflexive anti-vaxxers apparently believe that the vaccine is really a cover for a nefarious scheme on the part of Bill Gates, the multibillionaire cofounder of Microsoft, to implant us with microscopic tracking technology in order to dominate us, the economy, and then the world. As a result of this belief, Gates and his family have been the target of numerous death threats.

In the face of complicated events, bewildering new technologies, and sometimes contradictory information, the explanatory power of some occult yet totalizing narrative easily overmasters more prosaic explanations of the world. To those in thrall to such conspiracy beliefs, observable reality conceals plots that are hatched in secret by powerful people and organizations with malevolent purpose—to control, harm, or kill us.

Some conspiracies are laughable and harmless, like the notion that the earth is flat or that the 1969 moon landing was faked. Others, like the belief that vaccines are harmful, can lead to disease outbreaks—or the failure to contain a deadly pandemic. And still others, such as the belief that climate change caused by human activity is a hoax, to which 13 percent of US respondents subscribe, threaten the very planet. But there is nothing new, or uniquely American, about conspiracy theories. They have been so widespread throughout history and across different cultures that it invites the question: What makes humans so vulnerable to these often outlandish explanations of everyday experience?

Even before the vaccine arrived, conspiracists were highly suspicious about the origin of the coronavirus pandemic. It could not just be the catastrophic result of contact, probably through the close proximity of market trading, between humans in Wuhan, China, and bats and pangolins, which are natural animal reservoirs of this novel virus. According to the conspiracists—chief among them former President Trump, who referred to the SARS-CoV-2 virus as “Kung Flu”—there was nothing innocent or random about the deadly pandemic. Forty percent of Americans believe the virus was made in a Chinese lab, according to a recent NPR/Ipsos survey, despite the fact that a comparison between the genetic sequence of the coronavirus in humans and the virus isolated from the animal vectors from which it originated shows that such a feat would be highly unlikely. (The reasoning behind this is that if someone wanted to engineer a new coronavirus, they would have built it from the genetic “backbone” of a virus known to cause illness. But studies show that SARS-CoV-2 backbone differed substantially from those of already analyzed coronaviruses; and it mostly resembled coronaviruses found in bats and pangolins, strongly suggesting it was not man-made.)

One of the intriguing characteristics of conspiracy theories is that many of them are at least plausible. It is theoretically possible, albeit technically improbable, to bioengineer an entire virus. And doping a vaccine with a microscopic tracking chip would seem to be right on the cusp of medical technology and science fiction. That Bill Gates has invested heavily in an effort to contain and cure the pandemic is widely known: the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has pledged a total of $1.75 billion toward the global Covid-19 response, which includes support for testing, innovative treatments, and, indeed, vaccines. The foundation’s investment in the fight against the pandemic is in line with its prior work on diseases like HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria, but that has not prevented conspiracists from seeing its funding for vaccination against the novel coronavirus as evidence of Gates’s financial motive in perpetuating it.

What makes these particular conspiracy theories difficult to defeat is that their common underlying notion that we are influenced, if not frankly manipulated, by hidden actors is not only plausible, but sometimes happens to be true. Facebook, Amazon, and Google are, as the scholar Shoshana Zuboff has written, “ruthless surveillance capitalists” that collect vast quantities of data about our personal preferences effectively without our consent; they then monetize this information, and use it to predict and shape our behavior. Who, today, has not had the experience of being served web ads based on some fleeting reference made in a social media post or even in a supposedly private email? The anxiety of being secretly controlled can indeed be based in reality.

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Still, the epistemic error central to conspiracy thinking is a failure to distinguish what is plausible but fantastical from what is true. The violent mob of Trump supporters who stormed the US Capitol on January 6 screaming “Stop the Steal!” and “Fight for Trump!” were firmly convinced that the election had been stolen by voter fraud and manipulation, despite the fact that Trump had actually lost the election by 7 million votes and failed to provide evidence otherwise in scores of lawsuits. How did this mob—along with, according to surveys, some 70 to 80 percent of Republican voters—come to embrace the ridiculous lie that he won?

It was not because they were suffering from group psychosis. It is not probable that tens of millions of Americans would be frankly delusional, in a clinical sense. The answer lies, rather, in something fundamental about human psychology and cognition: we are hardwired for plausibility, not truth. We rely on our intuition, which is often misleading, not on fact. And this cognitive trait is a particular liability in the age of digital media in which we are drowning in information—as well as misinformation and outright disinformation—because we are ineluctably drawn to data that confirms our worldview and repelled by data that contradicts it.

The effect is reinforced by the algorithms that now govern so much of what we think we know—or what we want to know—by ensuring there is little risk we’ll ever encounter information that conflicts with our cherished beliefs. It takes a conscious, counterintuitive effort to step outside the self-perpetuating information bubble we share with other members of “our tribe.” It’s certain that the Trump insurrectionists were listening closely to former President Trump and his media propagandists like the One America News Network, and heard a patently false, though emotionally compelling, narrative of industrial-scale voter fraud—confirming exactly what they fervently wished to believe: that Trump had won the election.

As the opinion polling of Republican voters amply demonstrates, a surprisingly large fraction of the human population believes in conspiracy theories. That makes the phenomenon harder to dismiss as the crackpot thinking of a fringe element or a form of psychopathology; we are all more vulnerable to false beliefs than we care to admit. For example, fully half of New York City residents surveyed in 2004 agreed with the statement that the US government “knew in advance that attacks were planned on or around September 11, 2001, and that they consciously failed to act.” And in a nationally representative sample of Americans, 37 percent agreed with the following: “The Food and Drug Administration is deliberately preventing the public from getting natural cures for cancer and other diseases because of pressure from drug companies.” Another 31 percent said they weren’t sure, while 32 percent disagreed with this statement.

There is, or once was, a powerful evolutionary advantage to these kinds of beliefs that is reinforced by how we are cognitively hardwired. For most of our history, humans lived together in small groups of hunter-gatherers. Our survival depended, in part, on our ability to detect and deal with various perils. Besides predators, threats came from other tribes. For example, researchers in Kenya in 2012 found the grisly remains of twenty-seven individuals at the prehistoric site of Nataruk—some had had their skulls smashed, with their hands bound behind them—a mass killing that was dated to some 10,000 years ago.

Having the capacity to imagine and anticipate that groups of other people might conspire to harm your clan would confer a clear adaptive advantage; being wary of outsiders—even if mistaken—would be a safer strategy than uncritical trust. That’s why paranoid individuals, who constantly scan the world for threat and suspect the worst of others, enjoyed a survival advantage in a dangerous Paleolithic world. They still do in a modern one. In fact, in small doses, paranoid character traits can be quite useful in many professions, particularly for politicians who need to anticipate the challenges of their opponents.

Beyond threat detection, we have evolved over millions of years to rapidly discern patterns and understand the causal relation between things and events. But our tendency to quickly identify patterns and make the world comprehensible comes with a high price: it makes us prone to cognitive errors, such as seeing connections where none actually exist.

Through research, we know that people who tend to see meaningful design in random events or stimuli are much more likely to endorse conspiracy theories than those with less of this bias. In a 2017 study, the psychologist Jan-Willem van Prooijen and colleagues asked subjects whether they believed in a popular conspiracy theory, like the idea that the US government had advanced knowledge of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack and didn’t warn the public. The researchers also rated the subjects’ belief in a conspiracy theory fabricated entirely for the purposes of the experiment—that the manufacturer of the popular drink Red Bull had spiked it with substances to increase consumers’ desire for the product.

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Then they asked the subjects about a sequence of coin toss results, heads or tails, that was randomly generated by a computer, a fact that the subjects did not know. Subjects who were more likely to detect order or pattern in this random sequence were also more prone to endorse both of these conspiracy beliefs. In another study, subjects were shown paintings by two different artists and asked “To what extent do you see a pattern in this picture?”: a chaotic drip painting by the modern artist Jackson Pollock and a painting by the Hungarian artist Victor Vasarely who is well known for his works’ structure and sense of orderly design. The researchers found that perceiving patterns in the unstructured Pollock paintings significantly predicted belief in existing and fictitious conspiracy theories. In contrast, seeing patterns in the highly structured Vasarely paintings was unrelated to conspiracy belief. These findings support the hypothesis that irrational beliefs are driven by the tendency to see order and pattern where there really is none.

QAnon and Trump supporters

Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images

QAnon and Trump supporters in Londonderry, New Hampshire, August 28, 2020

The archetypal conspiracy theory of our time, QAnon, goes beyond mere illusory pattern-detection to seeing a grand design hidden from the rest of us and even claiming a prophetic power to predict future events. According to QAnon adherents, Trump’s war against an elite cabal of pedophiles will culminate in “the Storm,” in which the cabal will be exposed, its members punished, and America restored to true greatness. QAnon is essentially a mash-up of millennialism, which envisions a great restoration before a more perfect future state of the world, and the ancient blood libel that accused Jews of murdering Christian children and drinking their blood, with the difference that QAnon asserts that the cabalists are satanic pedophiles who eat their victims to extract a purported life-enhancing substance called adrenochrome.

Besides the yearning for order, what is notable in grand conspiracy theories like QAnon is the claim to have special, inaccessible knowledge about the world. There is a reflexive horror of uncertainty and complexity, which conspiracy beliefs are designed to ward off. They are the ultimate weapon of Know-Nothingism: when you have a theory of everything, you can dispense with learning and facts—along with any notion that real knowledge and expertise are valuable.

The psychology of conspiracy theorizing fits hand in glove with an aversion to seeing events as random and coincidental; we greatly prefer to think that things happen for a reason. As a psychiatrist, I see this all the time. Many patients who are stricken with a life-threatening cancer wonder what they “did wrong” to get sick, preferring to see it as a punishment rather than as an unlucky genetic mutation or an environmental exposure, both of which are largely random events devoid of any intrinsic meaning.

The human preference for the instant gratification of meaning and plausibility over facts and truth make us especially susceptible in a world where we are constantly flooded with information, much of it erroneous or too overwhelming to verify. For a species so bent on connecting the dots and making sense of the world, this is a new and dangerous breeding ground for conspiracy theories. People don’t instinctively fact-check what they read or see or hear on their devices; it requires too much cognitive work and runs counter to the way in which our brains evolved.

Yet fact-checking on the fly is exactly the sort of cognitive reflex we should encourage as a society—and one that education can cultivate. The research shows that higher levels of education are inversely correlated with conspiracy theory belief, presumably because learning and study encourage critical thinking and skepticism, which make it easier to suppress our often misleading intuition. It’s an uphill battle, but given the challenges we face—threats to democracy, the pandemic, climate change, and more—our survival may depend on our ability to resist conspiracy thinking and be open to facts that challenge our beliefs. A good place to start might be to reverse the social and economic changes that have increasingly made higher levels of educational attainment the preserve of an elite, out of reach of so many. No wonder that looks like a conspiracy.

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