Think of a conspiracy theorist. How do you see the world? What did you notice? What is taking a back seat? Think of yourself now. How does your view of things differ? What do you think stopped you falling into a rabbit hole?
Conspiracy theories have long been part of American life, but they feel more urgent than ever. Harmless beliefs like whether the moon landing was a hoax feel like a no-brainer compared to more powerful beliefs like whether vaccines are safe (they are) or the 2020 elections were stolen (they weren’t). It can be easy to label our friends and relatives as weirdos by conspiracy theorists, but science shows that things are far more nuanced. There are traits that are likely to make people more prone to these beliefs, and you may find that taking stock of these traits you are not far from your cousin, who believes the world is ruled by lizardmen .
To jump to conclusions
Let’s start our tour of cognitive fallacies with bird watching. Imagine, if you will, the avid bird watcher Fivey Fox in her two favorite spots. There are more cardinals in a habitat than thrushes – a ratio of 60:40 – so Fivey calls this habitat “Big Red”. In the other habitat, “Big Blue”, there is an inverse ratio of bluebirds to cardinals (60 bluebirds, 40 cardinals).
In the interactive one below, you first tilt See where Fivey is watching birds, but you are can see which bird they spot. After each sighting, Fivey jots the bird down in his notebook, and then you decide if you’ve seen enough to guess the correct habitat or if you want to see more birds. Try!
Did you do it right Actually, who cares! I am more interested in How you made your decision.
This game measures a trait known as jumping-to-conclusion bias. If you made the habitat choice after seeing just a bird or two, you will have proven this trait even if you made the right decision. The bias indicates a tendency to form opinions quickly, often with very little evidence. A study found that people with this bias are more likely to advocate conspiracy than people without it, and have also been found to be correlates with harboring delusions.
It is not surprising that someone who tends to make a decision after reviewing very little evidence is more likely to believe in a conspiracy theory. But if you fall into that category, don’t freak out. It doesn’t mean you are meant to be b.s. to fall for. the rest of your life. This is just one piece of the puzzle. It is important to realize what these types of studies can and cannot tell us. Many of the studies only observe a correlation – Which we all know that causation is not necessarily the same – between certain characteristics and conspiracy theories. Just because people who believe in conspiracy theories are more likely to have Trait X, doesn’t mean that Trait X makes them vulnerable – the two could just go together. And even if there is a causal effect, that doesn’t mean that everyone with trait X will agree to a conspiracy theory or that everyone without trait X is immune to b.s.
“It’s all likely,” says Joshua Hart, a professor of psychology at Union College studied the personality traits of people prone to conspiracy theories. Hart said if you look at the population as a whole, you can see that these traits are correlated with belief in conspiracies, but on an individual level, not every trait predisposes someone to falling into the rabbit hole. “I don’t think either of them will make the difference.”
Still, this research is useful and helps us get a fuller picture of who is susceptible to conspiracy theories. Do another exercise where participants were shown the results of a series of coin tosses.
Patterns can be illusory
Participants were shown 10 sequences with 10 coins each. After each sequence, they were asked on a 7-point scale whether they thought the results were random or predetermined (where 1 means completely random and 7 means completely determined). Take a look at the sequence above: how would you rate that? Click the footnote to view the answer.
This particular exercise was used in a 2018 study to measure something called illusory pattern perception: the tendency to see patterns where there aren’t any. Respondents who believed that the coin tossing sequences had a specific pattern were more likely to believe conspiracy theories. Researchers tried some other methods of measuring illusory pattern perception – such as having participants try to spot patterns in abstract modern art paintings – and found similar results. Another Study found this property is also associated with people who ascribe profundity to randomly generated nonsensical statements. Again, these results agree with what you may suspect about conspiracy theorists: making connections between unrelated events or symbols is a key feature of many conspiracy theories.
In practice, it could look something like the following post shared on a QAnon Telegram group. It takes many logical leaps to suggest that the Ever Given, the ship trapped in the Suez Canal that many Q followers believe carried sold children, is somehow linked to a March Madness tweet from Mike Pompeo, the Transit of a Navy warship and a Q-Post from 2018.
But it is also a deeply human quality to perceive order in chaos. We see rabbits in the clouds and Faces in household appliances. The illusory pattern perception is only an exaggerated version of this universal phenomenon.
Let’s try another exercise. Answer the following question:
You run in a race and overtake the person in second place. What place are you in
There are two likely answers to this question, one intuitive (first place) and one analytical (second place). However, only the latter is correct.
Questions like these are often used to measure whether someone is naturally inclined to think analytically, to take the time to reflect on the information at hand before responding, or to follow gut instinct. In several studies, people who gave the analytical answer to questions like these – in this case “second place” – have proven to be less likely to believe in conspiracy theories and a study from 2014 even found that out Getting someone to think analytically could reduce their belief in conspiracy theories.
Each of these tasks captures just a drop of the cognitive stew that can make someone more susceptible to believing in conspiracy theories. But they show that conspiracy theorists are not just crazy – many of the qualities that can lead someone to believe that wild ideas are things that we are all prone to to some extent. We all have a little conspiracy theorist in us.
Set up the chessboard
Cognitive quirks only go so far as to explain why people believe in conspiracy theories. It is also important to consider the environmental factors.
“A key element is the extent to which you are exposed to conspiratorial ideas,” said Gordon Pennycook, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Regina who studies reasoning and decision-making. “Nobody is thoughtful enough to literally knock away everything that is wrong. Things will leak if you introduce them repeatedly. ”
In the context of modern conspiracy theories, social media plays an important role in introducing these theories to people who may be susceptible to them. Coronavirus vaccine conspiracy theories are a clear example. Though social media sites have made attempts to crack down on anti-Vaxx content last year, it flourished primarily thanks to the algorithms on these sites. And with so many of us spending more time at home – and online – during the pandemic, our surroundings are awash with all sorts of conspiracy theories. Anyone with the slightest inclination to this way of thinking would have trouble dodging the rabbit holes.
Research into what makes people fall down the rabbit hole shows that it’s not as easy as someone’s crazy – it’s a combination of cognitive quirks and environmental factors. You may even have recognized some of these traits in yourself, and even if you haven’t, you may be able to envision a scenario in which you would do it. For example, the bias to jump to conclusions is on a spectrum and its manifestation may depend on the situation. You may not be ready to guess what habitat Fivey is in after just seeing two birds, but you can probably envision a scenario where you would be personally comfortable talking on the phone with less information. None of us build every single one of our beliefs and opinions with perfect reasoning and extensive research. Just because we’re getting it right doesn’t mean our brains are doing something more impressive than those who don’t.
“It’s not that most beliefs are reached through some kind of pure logic. The world isn’t a bunch of Spocks walking around deriving everything, ”said Joseph Uscinski, a professor of political science at the University of Miami who studied conspiracy theories. “It’s just not how people work.”
This could help explain why belief in conspiracy theories is surprisingly widespread. over half the American public consistently advocates at least one conspiracy theory. According to a 2017 survey by SurveyMonkey, about 60 percent of Americans believe more than one person was involved in the shooting of former President John F. Kennedy. There’s a good chance you have a belief that is a conspiracy theory.
Each of us has a brain that takes shortcuts, makes assumptions, and works irrationally. The sooner we realize this and stop treating loved ones who have adopted conspiratorial beliefs as lost cause, the better we can contain the beliefs that threaten our democracy and public health. We are all human, after all. Except for the lizard people.
Art direction by Emily Scherer.