banner by Matthew Stoss and Azeen Athar

Conspiracies Are All in Your Head

by Samantha Grimes

With the expanding presence of fake news stories in our lives, from Photoshopped images to genuine retweets of satire pieces from The Onion, it can feel as though people either have become more gullible or simply relish the scandal of a conspiracy. As a global society, we certainly have no shortage of conspiracy theories: allegations abound that the moon landing of 1969 was faked; that Elvis Presley, Osama bin Laden, Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diane and Adolf Hitler did not die in the way history has claimed; that the tragedy of 9/11 was orchestrated by the United States government; that climate change is a hoax; that global governments are hiding the truth about extraterrestrials; and that the Earth is actually flat.

 While conspiracy theories may seem more common today as a result of the increasingly globalized nature of our world and the vocal presence of ardent believers on social media, they are not a novel phenomenon. On the contrary, evidence seems to suggest that conspiracy theories related to political motives date back at least to ancient Rome. After the Great Fire of Rome in 64 C.E., conspiracies arose regarding the start of the blaze, with some people blaming the chaos on Emperor Nero himself, who had reportedly been in a town 36 miles away at the time. As time went on, later scholars further embellished the story. An account published 165 years after the fire described Nero’s arson as accompanied by maniacal glee as he “sang the Capture of Troy, as he styled the song himself,” while he watched Rome erupt in flames.

What’s more, conspiracy theories seem to find an audience in every niche of society, transcending gender, age, generation, and even schools of thought. Gobally, about 50 percent of all people accept at least one belief widely-held by others to be a conspiracy theory. Though these cases might seem to be born of naivety or even foolishness, our brains’ fascination with conspiracy theories seems to reflect a broader psychological phenomenon.

In a 2014 experiment conducted at VU University of Amsterdam, psychologists concluded that there is a human need to find patterns and make order from disorder. In the study, students were asked to consider a situation that had both pros and cons of different situations, such as eating an entire pint of ice cream. In this state of ambivalence, the students were interrupted from taking a preliminary survey and then moved to a messy desk. Half the students were immediately asked to straighten the desk before viewing several pictures made up by patterns, as well as random series of marks similar to inkblots. The other half was simply asked to look at the images. Those students who did not have a chance to tidy their space consistently saw more “images” in the random marks than those who did organize their desks. When the experiment was repeated with an unrelated survey of questions related to conspiracy theories, the same group that found patterns and images in randomness also had a significantly higher tendency to report believing in at least one conspiracy theory. It seems our penchant for conspiracy theories results from our innate altruism and desire to find patterns in randomness.

In another study at VU University Amsterdam, Jan-Willem van Prooijen, who has been studying the phenomena of conspiracy for the last seven years, demonstrated that feelings of control and order leads participants to be less inclined to believe in conspiracy theories. This relationship between perceived control and public suspicion might help explain why conspiracy theories tend to center around disasters, as in the case of the Great Fire of Rome or 9/11, social disruptions, like the deaths of pop icons and other political or social structures in which the public does not feel in control.

While this psychological hardwiring has been an evolutionary advantage in many ways, helping us to think critically and problem solve as humans, it can quickly become too much of a good thing when it leads people to become paranoid and distrustful. Consequently, these people may reject or skew readily available evidence to support the theory rather than reject it. Nonetheless, conspiracy theories are inherently social, often seeking to produce a sense of “us versus them,” which helps define social spaces and even plays on our altruistic natures to protect and defend others from a larger threat. Some conspiracy theories, however, are crafted more for entertainment and seem indisputably harmless, such as complicated, eccentric tabloid features, while others threaten to create societal rifts when people feel a strong sense of distrust in their communities or governments.

When the same set of evidence is available, what makes one person more likely to believe a conspiracy theory than another? Some studies suggest belief may be related to lower self-confidence, a need for social inclusion or even the environment in which the evidence is considered. Overall, it seems that our brains dismiss randomness and crave order, and conspiracy theories allow our minds to piece together a wider narrative. But then again, that might be just what they want you to think.