Feb 15 2021

We Are All Conspiracy Theorists

I have often said, we all have a little conspiracy theorist inside of us. By this I mean that we all have some common psychological features that can lend themselves to believing in conspiracies. Some, of course, more than others. Going down a conspiracy rabbit hole is a tendency we may have to fight against. There has to be a point where we say to ourselves, wait a minute, can this actually be true? What is the evidence? Am I just fooling myself, giving in to my prejudices, or going along with my tribe? We all have a little skeptic inside of us as well, and at some point one wins over the other.

Conspiracy researcher Asbjørn Dyrendal, a professor in NTNU’s Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, agrees. He has found that if you ask subjects about enough conspiracies, everyone eventually endorses belief in some conspiracy. But there is, of course, a matter of degrees. Dyrendal thinks everyone believes in a conspiracy “a little”. Not everyone believes in a so-called grand conspiracy, or has made one or more grand conspiracies the center of their beliefs.

There is a general tendency, however, to accept some beliefs not based upon rigid logic and evidence, but because it fits with our biases:

We are all more vulnerable to believing what we think is right, especially when our identity is at stake and emotions are strong. It can be a bit like the emotions associated with football.

By “football” he means soccer (for my American readers), but it doesn’t matter for the analogy. Any sports fan has experienced this – your team is better and more deserving. The other team is lucky, playing dirty, and the referee’s are unfairly calling things in their favor. It’s not absolute, but it is clearly a bias, and the more of a fan you are of your team, the more your identity and emotions are attached to their victory or loss, the more biased you are likely to be.

These are some of the same factors that contribute to conspiracy thinking – when your identity and emotions are involved, your thinking becomes progressively more biased. This can be because of pre-existing beliefs, or because you form a new identity tied up with a particular conspiracy theory or conspiracy theories in general. Then other factors come into play, such as confirmation bias, subjective validation, community reinforcement, the echo-chamber effect, and the specific effects of conspiracy thinking which insulates beliefs from refutation.

It is important to note that this can be a self-reinforcing spiral. There are many off-ramps, but if you don’t take them you can eventually be led to believe the most absurd and easily refuted claims. Take flat-earthers, for example. Some members of this conspiracy actually believe that there is no gravity, that the Earth is simply accelerating upward at 1G. There is an ice-wall surrounding the flat Earth, protected by NASA soldiers to keep anyone from learning the truth. All photos of the round Earth are faked. The entire airline industry has to be complicit with this conspiracy on some level, as well as most scientists for centuries, and anyone with a backyard telescope.

I used to think the flat-earth conspiracy was the pinnacle of absurd conspiracies, but then came alone Q-anon. They believe that the world is secretly run by a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles, that Donald Trump is somehow onto them and his presidency was largely about exposing them. This, of course, never happened, but Q persists – you just have to keep pushing the conspiracy deeper, extending the narrative. In a way you have to “jump the shark” like a tv plot that is being pushed into extra seasons to keep the profits coming in.

Grand conspiracies are also not just fringe. Fully 76% of Republicans in a recent survey expressed some level of belief that the 2020 election was stolen. Make no mistake – this is an absurd grand conspiracy, refuted by copious evidence. There would have had to be massive fraud, without any evidence, in order to pull this off. Some of the specific claims, such as the fact that Hugo Chavez was somehow involved in rigging voting machines, even though they matched the hand count in Georgia, are downright silly. Over 60 court cases failed to reveal any evidence of fraud, Trump’s own people (the attorney general and the Homeland Security appointee in charge of election security) said there was no massive fraud. Republicans at the state level in charge of certifying the results said they were accurate.

The survey also found features that are consistent with conspiracy research in general. Republicans, of course, were far more likely to think the election was rigged than Democrats (only 3% of Democrats endorsed conspiracy beliefs about the election). Among Republicans election fraud beliefs were more common in those with less education, who dislike Democrats, and who identify as White Nationalists. In other words – the more your emotions and identity were in line with the stolen-election fiction, the more likely you were to believe in it.

The education bit is interesting, both because it is a factor and because it is only a tiny factor. Dryendal lists the features of a conspiracy theorist:

  • tend to have a little less education.
  • more often live in societies that have less successful democracies, which influences trust in others and in the authorities.
  • belong to groups that feel they should have more power and influence.
  • belong to special political organizations or religious groups a little more often.
  • more often use intuition – their “gut feeling” – when making decisions.
  • see connections more often than most people do, also where such connections do not exist, and they are more likely to see intention as the cause of events.
  • are a little more narcissistic and paranoid than others.
  • more often obtain their information from social media

Education is a factor, but not a big one. The other factors are more important, and anyone, regardless of education, can become a conspiracy theorist. But I admit it is really hard to shake the intuition that people who believe in certain conspiracies must be, on some level, intellectually lacking. It may be just ignorance of facts, or a general scientific illiteracy. Think about what it must take to actually believe the world is flat. But really I think the biggest factor is metacognition – the ability to think critically about your own thinking.

Education in general may slightly increase our critical thinking skills. This may be one of the biggest bottom lines – education does help, but only a little. Perhaps we need to change education to make critical thinking far more central and important. Education should be a huge factor – we should be teaching people, above all, to think clearly, logically, and critically. We need to teach how to evaluate claims and information, and how to question our own beliefs the most.

Social media now makes this more acute. There have always been ridiculous grand conspiracy theories, but social media has been jet fuel for them. The rabbit holes and self-reinforcing belief systems are now automated into social media algorithms. People are clicking conspiracy videos like pulling the arms of slot machines, or rats hitting that button to give them a shot of dopamine. The social media infrastructure has organically developed to maximize echochambers, polarization, conspiracy theories, and to elevate the fringe to mainstream. We need a critical thinking vaccine for this mental virus.


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