Human Beings Are Born to Believe in Conspiracy Theories
An explanation for people’s attraction to QAnon, the Plandemic hoax, and more
From the conviction that there is a secret cabal of nefarious liberals puppeteering our lives to the belief that the moon landing was a hoax, conspiracy theories are a constant subject of perverse fascination in American culture. To believers, these theories explain the inexplicable; to outsiders they’re utter poppycock. And while it may be fun to indulge ironically in a pop culture conspiracy theory every once in a while (I jokingly enjoy the idea that Katy Perry is secretly JonBenét Ramsey all grown up), conspiracy theorists aren’t just weirdos on society’s fringes: The emergence of QAnon (and its many offshoots) has shown us that zealous believers (who started out as our neighbors and family members) can radicalize online, wreak political havoc, and provoke real-life violence.
So it begs the question: Why are conspiracy theories such a consistent fixture in society? Why can’t humans seem to resist these clearly irrational ideas?
This is one of the questions I sought to answer in my forthcoming book Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism. During my research, I learned that conspiracy theories happen to strike a chord with our deepest-seated psychological drives: our cravings for uniqueness, certainty, control, and closure, all of which surge with special intensity during turbulent moments in the culture. Conspiracy theories are not only attention-grabbing, they offer simple answers to seemingly unanswerable questions. “Conspiracy theories offer a kind of reassurance that things happen for a reason, and can make believers feel special that they’re privy to secrets to which the rest of us ‘sheeple’ are blind,” explains UCLA psychiatrist Dr. Joseph M. Pierre.
Subscribing to conspiracy theories is related to humans’ propensity to believe in all kinds of supernatural things. We humans tend to be a superstitious bunch, and that’s because we have the ability to do things with agency and intention, and we’re very sensitive to the intentions behind others’ actions, too. So obsessed are we with this idea of intentionality that we sometimes project it onto inanimate objects and random natural events. “Because the natural world is complex and acts in mysterious ways, we detect agency all around us,” analyzed Dr. David Ludden, a language psychologist at Georgia Gwinnett College, for PsychologyToday.com. “Beliefs in water sprites and woodland spirits, specters and spooks, ghosts and demons, are ancient and observed in every culture around the world.”
This supposition that there is magical agency controlling the world is called animistic thinking — and it’s found even in the least spiritual, most logical humans among us. If you’ve ever begged your computer to turn on when it wasn’t behaving or complained that the leftovers you ate for dinner last night are trying to poison you (just me?), that’s animistic thinking: our universal human tendency to assume that there’s purposefulness behind things where there really is none. It’s an impulse that tends to flare up in reaction to unpredictable or tragic events (a deadly worldwide Pandemic, for instance).
The types of animistic thinking we individually subscribe to are shaped by our backgrounds, lifestyles, group affiliations, daily habits, and other influences. For example, in the past, it was observed that women more than men had a penchant for New Age ideas (like the power of the mind to heal physical illness), while more men than women were attracted to conspiracy theories. In his 1997 book Why People Believe Weird Things, science writer and historian Michael Shermer wrote, “If you attend any meeting of creationists, Holocaust ‘revisionists,’ or UFOlogists … you will find almost no women at all (the few that I see at such conferences are the spouses of attending members and, for the most part, they look bored out of their skulls).”
But conspiracy theorists don’t just gather in tiny, testosterone-filled conference rooms anymore; they assemble online. A combination of social media algorithms and social tumult has paved the way for conspiracy theories to take hold of more believers than ever. Thus, the emergence of conspirituality (a portmanteau of “conspiracy theory” and “spirituality”) : a union of the New Age idea that we’re on the brink of a “paradigm shift” and the conspiratorial philosophy that a sinister group is covertly controlling the socio-political order. As the mass rejection of mainstream religion ushers in alternative belief systems, conspiracy theories have begun to play a profound role in many people’s lives, offering a sense of meaning, purpose, and pseudo-community that’s almost harder to give up than the beliefs themselves.
For this reason, renouncing one’s conspiracy theories would entail more than just logging off Reddit and screwing your head on straight. It would mean a loss of companionship, as well as a sense of control during uncertain times. It’d mean resisting psychological drives that are inherent to us as humans, which is easier said than done.
Do you know someone who’s way too deep into a conspiracy theory? If so, consider checking out my previous piece on three things never to say to someone involved with a cult.