Why Do Our Brains Love Conspiracy Theories?
If you’ve ever been trapped at the end of a bar with a complete stranger, possibly holding a plastic bag, who is determined to convince you that roadworks are an integrated government conspiracy designed to make us use more petrol and so fund the New World Order - you’ll know that some people really, really believe in conspiracy theories. But is there a neurological reason which leads some of us to believe the moon landing was faked or Richard Madeley might be a related to lizards? It could be some, any or all of these factors.
To celebrate Tracks, a story about life, death and the human brain, we examine some neurological reasons behind our love of a good conspiracy theory…
Remember that face on Mars? That satellite photo of some rocks in the Cydonia region that appeared to contain the gurning grimace of some unknown Martian individual? That was down to Pareidolia - the human brain’s need to decipher patterns in any random collection of sights, sounds and facts. Animals in the clouds, hidden satanic messages when you play ‘I’m Too Sexy’ backwards, the Virgin Mary spotted in a Gregg’s Steak Bake. It’s all down to this phenomena.
So why does the brain seek out patterns? As part of our evolution as humans, we’re programmed to recognise environmental factors such as the thawing snow indicating the coming of Spring or the sudden appearance of a rival tribe appearing on our turf. It helps us to make sense of the world and keeps us safe from sudden, unknown threats. Our brains interpret a random collection of events and attempts to seek out a thread that holds them all together. To our minds, a conspiracy theory is preferable and more comprehensible than a series of unconnected occurrences.
These are anxious times. The development of the internet means we can now unearth (or be bombarded) with information constantly. According to Maslow's hierarchy of needs (which breaks down which elements humans desire for survival) after food and shelter our main concern in safety. And our safety is mainly compromised by the unknown.
The powerlessness inspired by modern times and this fear of the unknown causes our brains to provide answers and generate comfort. We cannot compute an unknown, unseen threat - but we have evolved to recognise other individuals as a danger. So our minds decide that some unseen set of human beings must be doing all these bad things for a specific, nefarious purpose. This is a more comforting, safe notion than ‘it’s just a bunch of random stuff that happens’. We’re even happy to accept completely contradictory elements, such as the idea that Arthur Askey was bumped off by the CIA and that also Arthur Askey is still alive and well and running a B&B in Rhyl. By adding layers of conspiracy theories on top of each other our brains consolidate our rationalisation.
Human beings derived from a pack. We’ve always lived in groups, tribes, communities, belonged to book clubs, football teams and the like. Being part of a ‘gang’ that believes in one particular thing provides a sense of community and belonging. It also assists our human, psychological need to install a sense of hierarchy on any collection of individuals. Gravitating towards those who have the same beliefs, no matter how bizarre and irrational, helps us to feel part of a special club.
As we’re social animals we long for this respect and acceptance. This can feed into conspiracy conjecture: for example by being the gang member who actually unearths proof that dogs have had the ability to speak for centuries but the Freemasons have suppressed it, you will get the respect and recognition. And, thanks to the internet, it is far easier to seek out and meet these like-minded souls and transmit your thoughts to anyone and everyone. Usually using block capitals.
In his book ‘Suspicious Minds’ psychologist Dr.Rob Brotherton discusses the idea of the ‘intentionality bias’. Basically, as kids, we assume that everything around us happens for a reason. If you see your dad hit his thumb with a hammer, our childlike brains tell us he must have done it on purpose, because he’s an adult and he’s in charge. We haven’t grasped the notion of things happening by accident or coincidence just yet.
Of course, as we develop, we learn certain things don’t happen by design… they just happen. But if our brains are distracted by an overload of information, or if we’ve had a few Babychams, or if your grey matter happens to be built that way, you can start to believe that there’s intent behind every action - even if it’s Bigfoot being alive and well in Surrey or Elvis on the moon.
Though, obviously, we could just be telling you all of this because this is the BBC - AKA The Berkshire Bactrian Cabal - a super secret organisation dedicated to the propagation of super-intelligent camels that secretly run everything from a base beneath Maidenhead. John Humphrys is our leader. Just please, don’t tell anyone.