Part I. And yet it moves
1633 AD. Galileo Galilei has just been forced to recant years of his life’s work and all of his claims regarding heliocentrism. However he got off rather easily when compared to Giordano Bruno, who only decades before was hung by his legs and burned in Rome for his “heretical” ideas. Throughout history, hundreds of scientists have dedicated years of their lives in attempts to answer the questions posed by our place in the universe, which along the way has led to new discoveries and innovations, enhancing our lives as we know them today.
Yet today in the 21st century, some of the public seem to become sceptical of some established ground truths, as can be read in popular news outlets such as Forbes which writes “… only two-thirds of American Millennials believe the Earth is round”. However, the Americans are not alone and this trend can be seen further afield as more than half of British people give credence to at least one conspiracy theory. Not to mention that 51% of Hungarians believe their government is involved in conspiracy, 44% of them were sure that “Jews want to rule the world.”
The apparent growing popularity of conspiracy theories seems to be even epidemic in different corners of the world, creating movements such as the “raid” on Area 51 and modern flat Earth societies. But what exactly is a conspiracy theory? And why do our brains tend to trust them so much? Let’s try to figure it out from psychological and neuroscientific point of view.
Part II. Definition
“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”Attributed to Mark Twain
A conspiracy theory can be defined as the belief that a common point of view, situation or an event is the result of a secret agreement or plan made by a powerful group. It is a point of view that rejects commonly accepted explanations and usually contains threat. Conspiracy theories should be distinguished from alternative explanations of particular events as unlike alternative explanations, they tend to be based on an abundance of unjustified and unproven set of additional assumptions. Such theories fail Occam’s razor, a philosophical principle which states that “entities should not be multiplied without necessity”.
For instance, one could consider the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 on 8 March 2014. Whilst enroute from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, Air Traffic Control lost contact with the aircraft and the fate of the aircraft, not to mention her passengers and crew, remains unknown and remains one of aviation’s greatest mysteries. In this example, the official and commonly accepted theory is that the plane crashed into the Indian Ocean following an unknown cause, whilst the suggestion that the plane landed at the United States military base on the atoll of Diego Garcia or the theory that the crew conspired together to commit murder-suicide could be considered conspiracies as opposed to an alternative explanation as rather than relying on evidence, they rely instead heavily on far-fetched assumptions.
Part III. The Brain and Conspiracy Theories
Evolutionary the attractiveness of conspiracy theories could be explained by the brains tendency to perceive and recognise patterns in the world around it. Pattern perception can be defined as an assumption about how certain events or people are causally connected. As an example, people noticed that birds flying low to the ground may be a sign of an upcoming storm, or a low noise can signal a predator close by. Many recent works on cognition and perception suggest that our brains use internal models of the world to predict upcoming events. The nervous system matches and compares the information it receives from the outside world and is constantly generating and updating our mental model, helping us to predict any immediate possibilities.
However, sometimes due to cognitive biases the human brain tends to see connections and patterns that are simply not there. Cognitive bias is a systematic pattern of deviation from rationality in decision making and judgment, forming the subjective reality as opposed to objective reality. For example, confirmation bias is a tendency to search and interpret information in a way that confirms one’s own convictions and assumptions. Imagine that Peter supports the statement that climate change is a lie fabricated by media and scientists. He seeks out opinions and stories that support his existing beliefs and tends to ignore contradictory evidence. According to Mercier and Sperber, this may be governed by a simple motivation: when people want to win an argument, they are looking for arguments that are able to support and defend their pre-existing opinions and convince others of this supposed truth instead of searching for the actual truth. According to C. James Goodwin: “…persons believing in extrasensory perception will keep close track of instances when they were ‘thinking about Mom, and then the phone rang and it was her!’ Yet they ignore the far more numerous times when (a) they were thinking about Mom and she didn’t call and (b) they weren’t thinking about Mom and she did call. They also fail to recognize that if they talk to Mom about every two weeks, their frequency of ‘thinking about Mom’ will increase near the end of the two-week-interval, thereby increasing the frequency of a ‘hit.”
On the 22nd of November 1963, at 12:30 p.m. in Dallas Texas, the 35th President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated while riding in a presidential motorcade with his wife Jacqueline. He was fatally shot by Lee Harvey Oswald, who was a former U.S. Marine. However at 11:21 a.m. November 24, 1963 during the live broadcast of his transfer to the country jail, the Oswald was also fatally shot by Dallas nightclub operator Jack Ruby. Later official investigations concluded that both Oswald and Ruby acted entirely alone. Nevertheless, this event has inspired numerous conspiracy theories. This is possibly another example of a cognitive bias contributing to conspiracy thinking – proportionality bias, which marks our tendency to believe that big and influential events must have big causes. Indeed, in our minds the assassination of J.F. Kennedy, who was the president of the most powerful nation in the world at the time, cannot have been caused by a random criminal, but must be caused by something more meaningful than that.
Finally, illusory pattern perception is a bias that describes the tendency to see patterns and connections where there may not be any. Random events often generate sequences that appear non-random in our minds. In other words, people who tend to buy into conspiracy theories overestimate the probability that events are interconnected. This can even be noticed in other species as demonstrated in Skinners classical 1948 study where hungry pigeons demonstrated behaviour attributed to illusory pattern perception. When fed at regular intervals, they began repeating the actions they were doing the before last time they were fed. According to Skinner: “The experiment might be said to demonstrate a sort of superstition. The bird behaves as if there were a causal relation between its behaviour and the presentation of food, although such a relation is lacking”.
In humans, one common suggestion is that belief in conspiracy theories constitutes attempting to explain distressing events that are difficult to explain otherwise. Similarly supernatural beliefs help people to make sense of their lives, giving them more perceived meaning and purpose. In their book “American Conspiracy Theories” Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent note that in laboratory experiments, researchers have found that inducing loss of control and increasing anxiety triggers participants to see non-existent patterns and create conspiracy explanations.
In 2018 Johan E. Korteling and his colleagues presented a new biological neural network framework on cognitive biases, which states that all neural networks include pattern perception and association as their fundamental property. The process is governed by the neocortex, in particular the prefrontal, the medial frontal and the intraparietal cortex as well as regions associated with the processing of sensory information (occipital and temporal lobe). In other words, the human brain is wired to prefer coherence. Our cortex processes information in the search for correlation and covariance. Consequently, this tendency may lead to numerous mistakes and distortions in the processing of cognitive information. But why do some people tend to have more cognitive biases than others? Why are they more susceptible to conspiracy theories? The answer to these questions may lie partly in the results of a study by Peter Krummenacher, Christine Mohr and others, presented in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. The researchers divided 40 healthy participants into two groups. One of these groups reported unusual or “paranormal” beliefs, whilst the other one consisted of “sceptics”. The researchers administered either a Placebo or 200 mg of Levodopa (a precursor of dopamine), to the participants. This study showed “sceptics” receiving Levodopa became more open minded to “paranormal” beliefs and conspiracies. This suggests that an increased amount of dopamine may correlate to an increase of conspiracy thinking. It is also interesting to note that a correlation has been found between a tendency to have “paranormal” beliefs and positive schizotypal traits, even in healthy participants. In a study by Katharina Schmack, Maria Sekutowicz and their colleagues, unfounded convictions and paranormal ideas were also linked to greater dopamine availability in participants. The main region involved in such activity is the orbitofrontal cortex.
What is more, their study showed that genetic differences in the neurotransmission of dopamine were related to the formation of paranormal beliefs. Together these findings suggest that the tendency to believe in conspiracy theories might be the result of both external, psychological and internal neural features.
Believing in conspiracy theories is not considered to be pathological. Conspiracy theories can be harmless. However, they can also be dangerous for individuals and society in general. For example the belief that vaccinations can be harmful could potentially trigger a pandemic. Strong belief in conspiracy theories can predict maladaptive perceptions and behaviours, including decreased civil virtue, withdrawal from politics, hostility and radicalization. Most people in the western world have easy access to the internet – an unlimited source of information, accurate or not. In this online frontier, it is possible to find resources to support any belief or opinion, regardless of how true it may be. Unfortunately the Human mind is not perfect. That’s why, combined with an inadequate education as well as a lack of critical thinking skills, unproven and unjustified information can easily be spread around pockets of society and some people may search for patterns that may not exist. On the other hand, a tendency to believe in conspiracy theories may have a physiological explanation. If this is the case, further studies should be conducted to gain a deeper understanding and find means of mitigating the negative effects caused by conspiracies. In the end, as attributed to Albert Einstein: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler”.
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