According to a 2013 poll, as many as 12 million Americans believe in the possibility that reptilian overlords rule our country—that’s intergalactic, shape-shifting lizards in Congress and on TV. Granted, the lizards-in-people-suits theory is one of the less popular in the nation; according to the same poll, 21 million believe the moon landing was faked. A hundred and sixteen million think climate change is a hoax.
Mock those statistics if you want, but here’s the thing about conspiracy theories: They’re only theories until their hypotheses turn out to be rooted in non-fiction. As one prominent and level-headed researcher, Joseph Uscinski, told The Atlantic last week, “I think every single one has a better than zero percent probability of being true.” Ask any activist who went to a “no-phones meeting” before it was unearthed that the NSA can turn your device on to remotely listen in to your conversation. Imagine what you might have said to someone in 2011 if they claimed Facebook was conducting psychological experiments on them.
Yet in pop culture and, until fairly recently, in psychological research, conspiracy theorists have been painted as mentally ill; psychologists and scholars have at times dismissed them as a “lunatic fringe,” a subculture suffering from a clinically delusional mindset. The dominant internet-age stereotype is of a wild-eyed white dude sitting in his basement, editing surveillance footage down to slo-mo, dotting it with shaky red arrows.
But in the last few years, the way researchers think about conspiracy theories—and the minds that cling to them—has begun to change.
“There’s not that much of a difference, really, between conspiracy theorists and the rest of us,” says Rob Brotherton, whose exhaustive book on the subject of conspiracy theory psychology, Suspicious Minds, is out next month.
According to the author, who holds a PhD from the University of London and currently teaches at Barnard, the qualities that make people believe the truth is out there “are things we all suffer from ... They’re biases that are built into our brains,” whether they affect how we remember meeting our partners or whether we think Osama bin Laden is really dead.
Brotherton’s book covers a broad range of common psychological phenomena, including intentionality bias—the tendency to ascribe motive to animate and inanimate objects—and our brain’s natural tendency to detect patterns, even where a linear relationship may be tenuous.
“Perhaps the ultimate demonstration of the power of confirmation bias,” writes the author, is the so-called “backfire effect,” a phenomenon analyzed over several studies by Dartmoth political science professor Brendan Nyhan.
Not shockingly, black Americans who know about the Tuskegee syphilis experiment are more likely to believe conspiracy theories about the US government
Essentially, the backfire effect is what happens when you attempt to reason people out of their strongly held beliefs: it’s why explaining Obamacare doesn’t erase some people’s conviction that government-sponsored death panels are on the horizon, and why despite all evidence to the contrary many believe vaccination causes autism.
Such extreme versions of confirmation bias don’t just apply to crazies, though. Last year the researcher interviewed by The Atlantic, Joseph Uscinski, and his co-author Joseph Parent published a book that represented one of the most comprehensive studies of conspiracy thinking to date. Working against the idea that the internet ushered in a unique age of conspiratorial theorizing, they studied over 120,000 letters to the editor sent to the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune between 1890 and 2010, as well as online discussions and news posts discussing conspiracy theories before and after the 2012 presidential elections. They also conducted their own extensive opinion surveys.
Their research covered a fantastic number of theories, from the mundane (JFK was assassinated by the CIA, duh) to the obscure (a Congressional plot to kill off domesticated dogs). It also suggested not only that conspiracy theories were just as—if not more—popular before the internet, but that people who believe in conspiracy theories were pretty heterogenous, demographically speaking. Obviously, what sorts of conspiracies people believed in were varied, but as the authors wrote, they “permeate all parts of American society and cut across gender, age, race, income, political affiliation, educational level, and occupational states.”
“Based on this,” they conclude, “it is safe to say that almost everyone believes in at least one conspiracy theory and many of us believe more than one.” The authors’ larger point: that one of the biggest causes of conspiratorial thinking was perceived power imbalances, a way of seeing the world that’s a little more political than pathological.
Uscinski and Parent’s research has been complemented by other recent work on the way that conspiracy theories appeal to our natural talent for pattern detection and paranoia, particularly in moments when we feel we have little agency. Last year, a survey conducted in the Netherlands by Jan-Willem van Prooijen found that a belief in an invented conspiracy—in this case, a cover-up by an Amsterdam city council—was higher among test subjects who had been primed to feel a lack of control over their immediate surroundings. When people feel like they’re powerless (hello, electoral college) they look for simple explanations, often of mythic proportions.
Conspiracy theories tend to reach a truly epic pitch when they’re used to explain massive geopolitical events like 9/11; both Uscinski and Brotherton point to the importance of proportionality bias, a tendency to assume monumental events must have similarly monumental (not to mention straightforward, if shady) causes.
But of course, to complicate matters further, evil forces totally do exist, and conspiracies abound in the modern world. In his book, Brotherton gives one particularly gruesome example: the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, a Public Health Service initiative from the ‘20s to the ‘60s that deliberately infected black Americans with the infection under the guise of treating them for “bad blood,” then actively prevented them from receiving treatment in order to study the long-term effects of the life-threatening affliction.
Not shockingly, black Americans who know about the Tuskegee syphilis experiment are more likely to believe conspiracy theories about the US government—for instance, that it invented AIDs.
“There’s a kernel, if not of truth, of plausibility to most conspiracy theories,” says Brotherton. “There are legitimate concerns over the militarization of the police, the power of government.”
If anything, that image of the Reddit-addicted conspiracy theorist is more a product of advances in telecommunications than a rise in the number of people buying into this stuff. Interestingly, that paranoia (or, if you prefer, skepticism) does tend to remain consistent in certain types of people: it’s been shown that those who believe one set of conspiracy theories are just as likely to believe another, even if the hypotheses contradict each other. For example: you’re more likely to believe Princess Diana is still alive if you also believe she was killed by the royal family.
The internet “has probably changed the character of conspiracy theories,” says Brotherton, allowing for them to unfold in real time, a la the Boston Marathon Bombing—”when you had to write a book about your theory, you had to communicate it at length.” But it hasn’t, as some claim, facilitated a significant change in how many people believe in them.
So what separates a reasonable level of paranoia from true conspiracist thinking? Likely, it’s a matter of how high up you think the conspiracy goes, and whether your worldview hangs entirely on a belief in shadowy circumstances rather than, say, the logic of reality. But, if Brotherton and his colleagues working to dispel the myths about conspiracy thinking are to be believed, the ways in which these theories appeal to our senses are fairly universal.
As Brotherton says, “people want to see the world in these terms, good versus evil. They want to believe we’re ruled by these forces.” At the center, he says, there’s even a hopeful (if far-fetched) message in conspiracy thinking: “[It says], We can identify these people, and we can fight against them.”
All in Your Head is a series that takes a scientific look at all things spooky and scary. Follow along here.