We're All Conspiracy Theorists

Through a study of human psychology, "Suspicious Minds" suggests that we’re all conspiracy theorists—some of us just hide it better than others.

Conspiracy theory word cloud

Conspiracy theories are as likely to appeal to women as to men, college students as to retired professors, middle-class bloggers as to blue-collar workers.

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The human brain is wired to see patterns and to weave unrelated data points into complex stories. We instinctively see events in the world in terms of human motives and intentions, leading us to discount the role of chance and unintended consequences. We look for some hidden meaning behind catastrophic events. In his book Suspicious Minds, Rob Brotherton explores the phenomenon of conspiracy theories and reveals the important consequences they can have—from discouraging parents from vaccinating their children against deadly diseases to hampering political policies to combat climate change. And by the end, Suspicious Minds proves that conspiracy thinking doesn’t just come from a handful of people who wear tin-foil hats and have bizarre ideas about aliens, but from each of us.

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Down the Rabbit Hole

All is not as it seems. There is a hidden side to reality, a secret realm buzzing with clandestine activity and covert operations. This invisible network constantly screens, sifts, and manipulates information. It conjures up comforting lies to hide the real, bewildering truth. It steers what we think and believe, even shapes the decisions we make, molding our perception to its own agenda. Our understanding of the world, in short, is an illusion.

Who is behind this incredible scheme? Some sinister secret society? Psychopathic bureaucrats in smoke-filled boardrooms? The Queen of England? The intergalactic shape-shifting lizards who she works for? All of the above?

No. This is an inside job. It’s not them—it’s us. More specifically, it’s you. More specifically, it’s your brain.

Everything Is a Conspiracy

The rabbit hole runs deep. The conspiracy allegedly extends to the air we breathe (tainted by chem-trails), the food we eat (monkeyed with by Monsanto), the medicine we take (filled with deadly toxins), and the water we drink (spiked with mind-warping fluoride). Elections are rigged, politics is a sham, and President Obama is a communist Muslim from Kenya.

These are a few of the theories, but who are the theorists? According to cliché, conspiracy theorists are a rare breed—a small but dedicated lunatic fringe of basement-dwelling, middle-aged men, intelligent outsiders with an idiosyncratic approach to research (and, often, a stockpile of Reynolds Wrap).

Most elements of the stereotype, however, don’t hold up. 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. Senior citizens are no more or less conspiracy-minded than Millennials, on average. At the low end of the age bracket, legions of American teens suspect that Louis Tomlinson and Harry Styles of the inordinately popular boy band One Direction are secretly an item, and that the band’s corporate overlords invented a fake girlfriend for Louis as part of the cover-up.

As for the idea that conspiracy theories are a fringe affair, nothing could be farther from the truth. All told, huge numbers of people are conspiracy theorists when it comes to one issue or another. According to polls conducted over the last decade or so, around half of Americans think their government is probably hiding the truth about the 9/11 attacks. Almost four in ten suspect that climate change is a scientific fraud. Something like a third believe the government is likely hiding evidence of aliens. More than a quarter are worried about the New World Order. In a 2013 survey, 4 percent of the people polled (which, extended to the entire population of the United States, would mean twelve million people) said they think “shape-shifting reptilian people control our world by taking on human form and gaining political power to manipulate our societies.” A further 7 percent said they just weren’t sure.

These sorts of public opinion polls, it’s worth bearing in mind, only provide a rough indication of any particular theory’s popularity. Estimates vary depending on exactly who you ask, how you ask them, and when. But this much is crystal clear: There are more conspiracy theorists out there than you might expect. Chances are you know some. Chances are you are one.

It’s not just Americans. People in the United Kingdom and Europe are similarly suspicious. And it’s not just Westerners. Conspiracism is a global phenomenon.

So, was there a gunman on the Grassy Knoll? Is Elvis alive, relaxing by the pool with Jim Morrison, Marilyn Monroe, and Princess Diana in some secret resort for aggressively reclusive stars? Who really rules the world, and what did they do with flight MH370?

If you’re looking for answers to these questions, then I’m afraid you’ve picked up the wrong book. The truth might be out there, but it’s not in here. If there really are sinister schemes taking shape behind closed doors at this very moment, if the real perpetrators of atrocities have not yet been brought to justice, if everything we think we know is a lie—it’d be nice to know. But there are plenty of other books dedicated to compiling evidence of some alleged conspiracy, and almost as many books that purport to tear the theories to shreds. That’s not what this one is about. In fact, this book isn’t really about conspiracy theories at all (though we’ll encounter plenty of theories along the way). It’s about conspiracy thinking—about what psychology can reveal about how we decide what is reasonable and what is ridiculous, and why some people believe things that, to other people, seem completely unbelievable.

Of course, if you ask someone why they believe—or why they don’t believe—some theory or other, they’ll probably tell you it’s simple: They’ve made up their mind based on the evidence. But psychology tells a different story. It turns out that we’re not always the best judge of why we believe what we believe.

Tidy Desk, Tidy Mind (or: The Unexpected Virtue of Neatness)

In a recent experiment, psychologists at the University of Amsterdam had students think about something that they felt ambivalent about—any topic about which they had both positive and negative feelings. Imagine, for instance, eating an entire tub of ice cream. It would be a nice way to spend twenty minutes, but it’d also be pretty bad for you in the long run. You know there are pros and cons. That’s ambivalence.

Each student sat at a computer, thought about whatever it was that made him or her feel ambivalent, and typed up a few of the pros and cons. At that point, an error message appeared on the screen. Fear not—it was all part of the psychologists’ devious plan. The researcher monitoring the experiment feigned surprise, and told the participant that they would have to complete the next (ostensibly unrelated) questionnaire at a different desk. The unwitting subject was led to a cubicle across the room, where they encountered a desk in disarray, strewn with pens, books, magazines, and crumpled pieces of paper. Then, nestled comfortably amid the detritus, the participant was shown a series of pictures.

Some pictures had a faintly discernible image—for example, a sailboat. Others consisted of nothing but random splotches. The students weren’t told which were which; they simply had to say whether they saw a pattern in the static. Pretty much everyone spotted the boat and all the other real pictures. More interestingly, a lot of the time people said they saw images where, in reality, there was only randomness. There were twelve pictures that contained nothing but random blobs. On average, the students saw imaginary images in nine of them.

At least, that’s how the experiment went for one group of students. For another group, things started out pretty much the same. They had to think about something that made them ambivalent, they saw an error message, they were led to the messy cubicle. Then there was one crucial difference. Before carrying on with the experiment, the experimenter asked each student to help tidy up the mess. Once the desk was straightened up, the students saw those same pictures. Compared to students who had worked amid the clutter, these students consistently saw fewer phantom images. They saw imaginary patterns in just five of the twelve meaningless pictures, on average—which was about the same number as people who hadn’t been made to feel ambivalent at the start of the experiment.

Feeling conflicting emotions about something is unpleasant, the researchers explained. We habitually seek order and consistency, and to be ambivalent is to experience disorder and conflict. When that happens, we might try to change our beliefs, or simply ignore the issue. Or we can use more roundabout strategies to deal with our unwanted emotions. Ambivalence threatens our sense of order, so, to compensate, we can seek order elsewhere. This is why the first group of students saw so many imaginary images. Seeing meaning in the ambiguous splotches—connecting the dots—allowed them to satisfy the craving for order that had been triggered by their sense of ambivalence. And it also explains why the second group of students saw fewer imaginary images. The simple act of tidying the desk—transforming the chaos into order—had already satisfied their craving. They were no longer on the lookout for patterns in the static. They didn’t need the dots to be connected.

What does this have to do with conspiracy theories? In another experiment, the researchers again made people feel ambivalent. This time, instead of looking at strange pictures, the students were asked to imagine they had been passed over for a promotion at work. What are the chances, the researchers asked, that a conniving co-worker had a hand in the boss’s decision? Compared to a group of people who hadn’t been made to feel ambivalent, the ambivalent students were more likely to suspect that a conspiracy was afoot. Sometimes, it would seem, buying into a conspiracy is the cognitive equivalent of seeing meaning in randomness.

Who Is Pulling the Strings?

As neuroscientist David Eagleman points out in Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, there is a complicated network of machinery hidden just beneath your skin. Your body is chock-full of organs, each with its own special job to do, all working together to keep you alive and healthy, and they manage it without any conscious input from you. Whether you’re paying attention or not, your heart keeps on beating, your blood vessels expand and contract, and your spleen does whatever it does. Our detailed scientific understanding of how the body works is a relatively recent development, and yet, for some reason, the idea that our organs can go about their business without us telling them to do it, or even being aware of what they’re up to, doesn’t strike us as particularly hard to believe.

Your brain seems different, though. The brain is the most complicated organ of them all. It is made up of billions of specialized cells, each one in direct communication with thousands of others, all ceaselessly firing off electrical signals in cascading flurries of activity. Somehow—it’s still largely a mystery—out of this chaos arises consciousness: our experience of being us, of being a thinking, feeling, deciding person, residing just behind our eyes, looking out on the world, making important decisions like when to cross the road and where to go for lunch. Consciousness is all we know about what’s going on inside our head, and it feels like it’s all there is to know. Masses of psychological studies, however, lead to a surprising conclusion. Consciousness is not the whole story. We are not privy to everything—or even most—of what our brain is up to. The brain, like its fellow organs, is primarily in the business of keeping us alive, and, also like its less mysterious colleagues, the brain doesn’t need much input from us to get the job done. All sorts of activity goes on behind the scenes, outside of our conscious awareness and entirely beyond our control.

But just because our brain doesn’t let us in on all of its antics doesn’t mean its subconscious processes are unimportant or inconsequential. On the contrary, our perception, thoughts, beliefs, and decisions are all shaped by our brain’s secret shenanigans. Imaginative psychologists have come up with various metaphors for our mistaken intuition that we’re aware of—and in control of—everything that happens in our brain. As David Eagleman put it, “Your consciousness is like a tiny stowaway on a transatlantic steamship, taking credit for the journey without acknowledging the massive engineering underfoot.” Social scientist Jonathan Haidt likened consciousness to a rider on the back of an elephant: The rider can coax and cajole the elephant to go one direction or another by pulling on the reins, but at the end of the day, the elephant has whims of its own, and it’s bigger than we are. Daniel Kahneman, one of the pioneers of the psychology of our brain’s hidden biases and shortcuts, described the division of labor between our conscious and unconscious mental processes in cinematic terms. “In the unlikely event” of a movie being made in which our brain’s two modes of activity were the main characters, consciousness “would be a supporting character who believes herself to be the hero,” Kahneman wrote.

I’d like to propose a similar metaphor, one more in keeping with our theme. We imagine ourselves to be puppet masters, in full control of our mental faculties. In reality, however, we’re the puppet, tethered to our silent subconscious by invisible strings, dancing to its whims and then taking credit for the choreography ourselves.

Suspicious Minds

Does this mean that conspiracy theories are inherently irrational, nutty, harebrained, confused, crackpot, or pathological? Some pundits enthusiastically heap this kind of scorn and ridicule on conspiracy theories, painting them as the product of faulty thinking, which disbelievers are presumably immune to. Because of this dim view, tensions between conspiracy theorists and their critics can run high. As far as some conspiracy theorists are concerned, looking for psychological reasons for believing conspiracy theories is worse than simply challenging them on their facts. It can seem like an attempt to smear believers’ credibility, or even to write conspiracy theorists off as mentally unbalanced.

That’s not my goal. This book isn’t about listing conspiracy theories like some catalog of bizarre beliefs. It’s not about singling out conspiracy theorists as a kind of alien species, or as a cautionary tale about how not to think. The scientific findings we’ve amassed over the last few years tell a much more interesting story—one that has implications for us all. Michael Billig, an early trailblazer of research into conspiracy thinking, warned that when it comes to conspiracism, “it is easy to overemphasize its eccentricities at the expense of noticing what is psychologically commonplace.” Conspiracy theories might be a result of some of our brain’s quirks and foibles, but, as we’ll see, they are by no means unique in that regard. Most of our quirks simply slide by unnoticed. Psychology can tell us a lot—not only about why people believe theories about grand conspiracies, but about how everyone’s mind works, and about why we believe anything at all.

So here’s my theory. We are each at the mercy of a hundred billion tiny conspirators, a cabal of conspiring neurons. Throughout this book, we’ll be pulling back the curtain, shining a light into the shadowy recesses of our mind, and revealing how our brain’s secret shenanigans can shape the way we think about conspiracy theories—and a whole lot else besides. Whether conspiracy theories reflect what’s really going on in the world or not, they tell us a lot about our secret selves. Conspiracy theories resonate with some of our brain’s built-in biases and shortcuts, and tap into some of our deepest desires, fears, and assumptions about the world and the people in it. We have innately suspicious minds. We are all natural-born conspiracy theorists.

Reprinted with permission from Suspicious Minds by Rob Brotherton, published by Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016.