Conspiracy theorists’ brains really are different – ​​here’s how

From the old-school Flat Earth movement to QAnon “truths” and anti-vaccine zealots, you don’t have to look far in our hyper-connected world to find someone spreading conspiracy theories. Often a descent down the rabbit hole into the dark world of conspiracies comes as a shock to one’s friends and family – how does a previously rational person get sucked into believing that dinosaurs aren’t real? Well, psychology may have an answer.

Seeing patterns

Insight into what drives people to conspiracy thinking has led to a number of scientific studies. There is one feature of the human brain that seems to bear much of the responsibility; the problem is that we couldn’t do without it either.

The brain is ready to look for patterns. As humans have evolved, this has proven extremely useful. For example, it is useful to learn that the color red often equates to ‘danger’. It’s less helpful to make the jump from “Hmm, looks like we’ve lost some ships” to “It must be a creepy triangle of ocean that’s swallowing ships like there’s no tomorrow!”

“Our brain is constantly trying to understand the outside world. One way the brain achieves this goal is by detecting and learning patterns, which are essentially statistical regularities in the environment, because these patterns help the brain decide how to respond or behave to survive,” says Dr. Jess Taubert, associate professor at the University of California. School of Psychology at the University of Queensland, previously at IFLScience.

The problems start to arise when this pattern-recognizing ability goes into overdrive, joining points in random data and adding two and two to make five. This concept is called illusory perception.

A 2017 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology explored this further. The scientists took groups of up to 401 people through five experiments designed to test the relationship between conspiracy thinking and illusory pattern perception.

One thing the study found was a link between belief in some common conspiracies – including those surrounding climate change, the moon landing and JFK’s assassination – and seeing a pattern in a series of random coin flips. Those who leaned toward a more conspiratorial way of thinking were also more likely to spot patterns in chaotic works of art, such as Jackson Pollock’s splatter paintings.

The researchers also explored a common observation in conspiracy spaces, namely that belief in one irrational theory is often indicative of belief in other, unrelated theories. If you can accept the idea that Barack Obama is a lizard in a human suit, then it’s actually a short step to believing that the US government had advance notice of September 11th.

“[A]Acceptance of a conspiracy theory implies an increase in the extent to which people perceive patterns in world events, as reflected in the belief that many events that occur in the world are not coincidences, but are somehow causally linked,” states the authors.

To test this, they asked participants to read a pro-conspiracy article or an anti-conspiracy article, before asking questions to assess their perception of a pattern in world events, finding that a correlation was present in those exposed to the conspiracy. theory.

To summarize the study’s findings, the authors wrote: “We conclude that illusory pattern perception is a central cognitive ingredient of beliefs in conspiracy theories and supernatural phenomena.”

In the wake of conspiracy theories surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, this research became all the more timely, and subsequent studies have built on the ideas explored here.

One from the height of the pandemic in 2020 supported the importance of illusory perception and also addressed the idea of ​​confirmation bias.

“[Conspiracy theory] Believers may find it difficult to believe that a virus could emerge randomly from the natural world because it does not fit their preconceived notions that events have a reason and usually have human or government influence behind them,” the authors explained.

The role of personality

Another key factor that has emerged in psychological studies of conspiracy beliefs is the role of personality.

Narcissism – the belief in one’s own superiority over others – appears to be one of the best psychological indicators of a predisposition to believe in conspiracies. A 2022 study outlined three characteristics of narcissistic personalities that appear to underlie this: agentic extraversion (which includes traits such as assertiveness, self-confidence, and reward-seeking); antagonism; and neuroticism.

In a nutshell, narcissistic people are more likely to believe that others are “out to get them,” meaning that conspiracies about sinister government conspiracies or shady cabals controlling the media narrative fit right into their mindset.

Narcissists are also driven by the need to feel unique and special, which research also shows is a predictor of conspiratorial thinking.

Others may be drawn to conspiracies out of a desire to “watch the world burn” – in fact, some people simply thrive on chaos.

Brisbane, Australia - November 20, 2021: Protesters holding signs during an anti-vax mandate rally.

As long as there have been vaccines, there have been anti-vax conspirators.

Image credit: GillianVann/Shutterstock.com

Still, more research has suggested a link between increased anger and belief in conspiracies, although it was not possible to say whether anger was a cause or effect of believing irrational things.

And some people may be attracted to conspiracies initially because they like them. I mean, there’s no denying that a certain amount of entertainment can be derived from discussing the most bizarre beliefs about our world, whether or not you see the truth in them. you did finally click on this article…

What we know, and what we still don’t know

A systematic review published in 2022 aimed to compile everything we know so far about conspiracy beliefs as they apply to COVID-19, with lessons that could be more broadly applicable.

Narcissism was discussed again, along with the three other personality traits that together form the so-called Dark Tetrad (Machiavellianism, psychopathy and sadism). Another factor mentioned was poorer psychological well-being, such as feelings of anxiety, depression or insecurity – something we all probably remember well from the early months of 2020.

What is still difficult to determine is which of the factors are causes and which are consequences. Maybe some people’s brains and personalities make them more likely to believe in conspiracies, but it takes certain external circumstances to send them falling over the edge and into the rabbit hole.

The review’s authors called for more research to answer these open questions, with more varied samples. Above all, understanding the motivations that drive people toward conspiracy theories—and considering that these beliefs can have real-world consequences—is critical if we want to tackle future waves of disinformation head-on.

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