Why Do People Believe In Conspiracy Theories?

Recently, large social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, have been making an effort to de-amplify what they consider to be fake news. Unsurprisingly, a decent portion of that fake news consists of conspiracy theories. In fact, infamous charismatic conspiracy theorist Alex Jones saw his oddly popular YouTube channel removed in order to eliminate fake news. Those of us who don’t subscribe to the same conspiracy theories Alex Jones pedals never quite understood the appeal in the first place.

So, today we’re discussing conspiracy theories, the brain, and why people are so attracted to false information—or, at least, information that hasn’t been confirmed to be 100% true. A conspiracy theory is the belief in the occurrence, or even non-occurrence, of a situation or an event. This is then brought about by a small group of people without solid confirmatory evidence supporting this belief.

Why Do Conspiracy Theories Exist?

Some popular conspiracy theories in the United States include the denial of climate change and that former President Barack Obama was not born in the United States. According to researchers, anyone of any ideology is capable of believing in and even creating conspiracy theories. In fact, they note that half of all Americans believe in one or more conspiracy theories. Which, naturally, begs the question: why?

Two concepts may be working together that may result in one believing the seemingly unbelievable. The first is our need for order in an arguably unpredictable world. The second concept is the errors we make about the world and how others operate. According to researchers, our brains need to be able to make sense of the world around us; we need order and to be able to predict outcomes. In order to fulfill this need, our brains look for patterns. Some researchers suggest that when this need isn’t met, it creates anxiety because we don’t like ambiguity or uncertainty. This uncertainty may manifest in different ways, but more importantly, we solve matters of unpredictability in some interesting ways.

Conspiracy Theories Are Born in the Brain

Researchers have found that feelings of uncertainty are associated with increased activation of the amygdala, an area of the brain that is associated with fear. These feelings led some people to recognize patterns where no patterns existed, and once patterns were seen, amygdala activation reduced. So, while feeling as if they lacked control over their situation, these participants attempted to make sense of their surroundings. They did this by finding a clear association between random, unrelated things where no pattern existed. However, these researchers contend that some patterns seen during times of ambiguity or uncertainty may really exist. Also, some patterns may be not as factual as they appear to be.

Researchers also believe that humans have an innate ability to detect coincidences, which can lead to accurately identifying causal relationships. In order to find meaning in coincidences, we use our exciting understanding of the world. This understanding derives from culture, friends, family, and personal experiences. Yet, because we’re using previous experience in order to better understand new ones, we’re introducing a factor many people tend to disregard when it comes to interpreting events and other people’s behaviors, and that’s bias.

The Role of Bias in Forming Conspiracy Theories

Researchers have pointed to different bias types that help explain why we may attribute coincidences incorrectly. The big culprit is confirmation, which is the tendency to interpret information in ways that confirm one’s existing beliefs. Scientists have discovered that when people are presented information that is counter to their belief systems, it has the potential of inducing discomfort. This is seen in brain activation patterns where the prefrontal cortex, an area associated with making judgments and decision-making, was underactive. Areas in the brain associated with emotional distress, such as the amygdala and the cingulate cortex, were overactive when provided with stimuli that did not conform to one’s beliefs.

When provided with stimuli that did support their beliefs, areas of the brain associated with reward processing—the orbitofrontal cortex and the nucleus accumbens—were activated. This demonstrates a potential brain response associated with the confirmation bias. After all, it feels pretty good to be right about everything you already knew you were right about. Altogether, bias isn’t bad. We just need to recognize that bias may have an impact on how we interpret the relationship between co-occurring events.

As an example, researchers have found that those high in religiosity are more likely to find meaning in coincidences and see connections among people and their surroundings where no meaningful connections exist. Thus, these highly religious and spiritual people are utilizing their existing understanding of the world to find meaning and associations in co-occurring (but unrelated) events. This highlights an error in our thinking when we interpret the co-occurrence of events. Regarding conspiracy theories, these theories are an explanation for the co-occurrence of an event that has taken place. Researchers note that bias plays a key role in believing in and maintaining these conspiracies.

For instance, people prone to conspiracy theories are more likely to process an event selectively. This is opposed to viewing the event in a broader context. This attentional bias is selective in that conspiracy theorists use features of specific coincidences to confirm their worldviews—the confirmation bias—while disregarding features about a specific coincidence that counters or questions their views.

In these cases, coincidences we all use in order to understand causal relationships between events become conspiracy theories. These are reinforced through selecting features that confirm a particular set of beliefs. As mentioned, particular activation patterns are noted when the confirmation bias is active, but problems communicating between the two hemispheres—the right and left portions of the brain—may account for ascribing meaning to events where none exist, thus giving rise to the belief and maintenance in conspiracy theories.

Left Brain vs. Right Brain

Scientists are positing that the right hemisphere may be involved in creating these associations. They may be potentially true, such as, “when it’s humid and cloudy outside, it’s likely to rain.” However, it could also be potentially false, such as, “bots and fake accounts are found on social media. Some people are being mean to me online. Therefore, these people must be online bots.” It’s the job of the left hemisphere to suppress or question these associations. Studies that observed people with paranoid schizophrenia discovered key problems in communication between the left and right hemispheres of the brain.

So, it may be that in the absence of the more analytical, logical moderating influence of the left hemisphere, the right hemisphere may be creating associations with little to no impediment. This has given rise to the belief in and maintenance of conspiracy theories.

Can Conspiracy Theorists Change?

OK, I guess that’s it. It’s all in the brain, so if one believes in a conspiracy, there’s nothing to be done. Well, not exactly. Our brains are susceptible to change. Researchers have found that engaging in analytical thinking with conspiracy theorists had a measurable effect on reducing the belief in that conspiracy.

This may be because whenever one reinforces an idea or concept, we strengthen our connections between our brain cells. This strengthening of cell connections could have a more global effect. It will strengthen the connection between our left and right hemispheres. Whatever may be the case, one thing can be surmised. One who is seemingly hardened in their beliefs may still be susceptible to change.

On a more philosophical level, I want to note the following. While conspiracy theories tend to have a pretty negative connotation, it doesn’t mean necessarily mean that they’re wrong. Some may seem more outlandish than others, which would reduce the likelihood of these theories being the correct explanation for the co-occurrence of events. In fact, some conspiracy theories are shown to be the correct explanation over time. So, utilize your analytical skills and recognize the bias you bring when interpreting the world around you.

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