by:Harika,Netra and Sakshi
In recent years, conspiracy theories have been running rampant (thanks to WhatsApp university, viral Facebook, and blush-pink Instagram posts). We have all talked or heard about the famous myths surrounding the Holocaust, the CIA’s hand in JFK’s assassination, or 9/11 being an inside job and numerous other theories. We even made conspiracy theories out of fictional stories of cartoons and TV shows be it ‘Scooby Doo’, ‘Stranger Things’ or any other Alfred Hitchcock movie. Time and again, people have proven to love picking up clues, recognizing patterns, figuring out things for themselves, and ultimately enjoying the thrill that conspiracy theories have to offer. But is there more to it? Weaving conspiracy theories into real-life events makes them even more deceptive as they are all strung together in a dramatic and fictional manner. So, in some instances, these theories might make sense. But when you dig deeper, you begin noticing the lack of consistency and fact-based proof. And no, lack of proof shouldn’t be taken as evidence for the conspiracy. That’s the whole point. So what drives people to believe these poxy explanations or theories for such significant events?
Conspiracy theories often take flight during unsettling times, for instance in a pandemic, after a terrorist attack, or during an election in a politically divided nation. It is natural and understandable to feel angry, frustrated, or saddened by these agonizing situations which lead people to find alternative ways to make sense of the situation. When people feel threatened and out of control, it’s natural to want to feel more control and bring order to the randomness. By cooking up a conspiracy theory, people try to understand the events and alleviate some uncertainty and anxiety. However, there’s more to conspiracy theories that we just need to make sense of.
If such theories are captivating and everyone wants to throw in their two cents, is everyone vulnerable to conspiratorial thinking? Not necessarily. It’s interesting to know that the people who believe in them have certain cognitive styles and personality traits.
Researchers have found that people who believe in conspiracy theories tend to show characteristics such as eccentricity, narcissism, not being open to new experiences, low trust in others, a stronger need to feel special, a strong belief that the world is a dangerous place, and figuring out meaningful patterns when none exist. In a world where you are always hustling and battling for your position on the top of the rat race, it is logical to feel the want of being special which explains the increased belief of people in such theories. The higher the need to feel special and unique, the more likely a person is to believe in a conspiracy theory.
Just like how you need to plant a seed to grow a tree, you need to plant suspicion to build a conspiracy theory. Human minds seem to be prone to suspicious thoughts and paranoia which is considered to be an important evolutionary advantage. The paranoia that drives individuals to constantly scan the world for danger and suspect the worst of others probably provided a survival edge for humans.
So how do we plant this suspicion?
There’s a mathematical explanation stating that any large structure will implicitly contain patterns if you pay attention. And here is where illusory pattern perception comes into play. Most of us, consciously or otherwise, have fallen prey to illusory pattern perception at least once in our lives. In my case, I’ve been going to sleep facing my left side for the past few days as I noticed that I tend to wake up earlier if I slept that way. There’s no logical reason behind that, except that, because it worked too often it felt like a pattern. Thus my mind unconsciously believed in this cooked-up theory of going to sleep facing my left side.
Pattern perception is the ability to perceive patterns and form meaningful connections between stimuli in our environment. These patterns can be real or something spun up by our creativity. While most of us seldom make huge decisions based on such patterns, we tend to take that direction in uncertain and desperate situations. In the case of conspiracy theories, conspiracy theorists carefully craft these theories, specifically highlighting these patterns. The more you think about these patterns, the more believable they start to sound and in no time you find yourself leaning further towards a claim that has no logical proof whatsoever.
(Chuck E cheese conspiracy theory would be a great example if the article isn’t long already)
Pattern perception, despite being evolutionarily advantageous, ends up being a huge setback when unable to differentiate between real and illusory patterns.
But to talk about these particular traits and stimuli that drive people into believing in conspiracy theories, they can be broadly classified into three motives- epistemic, social, and existential.
The epistemic motive categorically deals with seeking causal explanations to something unanswered or uncertain. These explanations serve the need for people to feel safe and secure in their environment, giving them a sense of control. A related property is that they can protect cherished beliefs. The belief that vaccination is harmful or that climate change is a trivial concern falls under this category.
The social motive, on the other hand, is a consequence of our tribe mentality. We may find a social connection with like-minded people by being part of a community of believers. We also tend to identify with ideas held by those we find similar to us or feel obligated to agree with baseless beliefs to maintain a positive self-image in a group.
The existential motive justifies the behavior of folks accepting theories as a compensatory satisfaction when their needs are threatened. This motive is predominant in situations where people feel they have a lack of sociopolitical control or psychological empowerment. For example, in the conspiracy surrounding the 2020 US presidential elections, Trump supporters were overwhelmed when he lost the election. Fearing financial and social vulnerability, they endorsed theories that made them feel more comfortable.
Conspiracy theories are hardly based on facts, rather, they serve the purpose of confirming things we already believe in. Illusory pattern perception is one of the tools used in crafting these theories, in addition, theorists often build gripping narratives centered around you, the protagonist bound to propagating the truth, and the other believers play mentors and guide you through your journey. This storyline is one of the principal methods used by theorists to get you to join communities of believers. When people get too submerged in these stories, existing shreds of evidence become part of the conspiracy theories themselves.
While the conspiracy theorists are responsible for conceiving an alluring and captive story, the internet promotes them. By prioritizing the most liked and shared posts, baseless theories end up being circulated uncontrollably.
Although it is difficult to keep calm during times of uncertainty, here are a few ways to avoid falling for conspiracy theories. Turn off the news, gadgets, or whatever is making you anxious. Stay away from social media or anything that repeatedly brings up concerning situations. Closely examine evidence and consciously tell yourself to think critically. Sometimes, even changing your perspective can help better your anxiety. Try to look at things more positively and visualize positive outcomes.
Last but not least, take good care of yourself. Remind yourself that your life lies in your hands and you’re the only person with actual control over yourself.