The Real Reason How Conspiracy Theories Work

Insaf Ali

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Conspiracy theories have been around for centuries. In fact, many historians believe that the American Declaration of Independence was created in response to a potential British plot that actually didn’t exist.

And while you may not think that you believe in any conspiracy theories, they follow such an effective, cognitive formula that you might believe in one right now without even realizing it.

Studies have found that actually, over 50% of Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory. YouTube and other social media platforms have come under a lot of fire for conspiracy theory content proliferation online, so I wanted to investigate two things.

One: whether or not there has been a measurable rise in conspiracy theories in recent years.

And two: how conspiracy theories work to manipulate your brain so you can better defend yourself against their tactics and ultimately find out what it means if you believe in one in the first place.

From an evolutionary perspective, biologists hypothesized that we’ve been programmed to fall for conspiracy theories as a protective measure. As hunter-gatherers, violence was a common cause for danger, and so being able to identify conspirators became an evolutionary advantage.

This theory was eventually developed into something that smart academics refer to as the adaptive conspiracism hypothesis.

The hypothesis is essentially this: if you’re walking in the jungle, and you see a snake but it’s actually just a stick, okay, that’s embarrassing, but you’re still alive. But if you’re walking in the jungle and you see a stick, no biggie, but it’s actually a snake, okay, oops, you step on it, it bites you, now you’re dead.

This explains how our brains have been programmed into thinking ‘’better safe than sorry’’ when it comes to survival.

In short, we fall for conspiracy theories because they seem like the safer option. It feels a lot better to be prepared for an enemy attack that might not even be there than to not be prepared at all.

This brings us to a pattern found in many conspiracy theories that makes them so effective. And it’s called the illusory pattern perception.

The illusory pattern perception is a cognitive bias we humans have evolved. We tend to notice patterns within random stimuli in order to create conceptual meaning behind the world we live in.

Let’s take a simple example of this scenario: if you flipped a coin three times and each time you got heads, what do you think would happen next?

If you’re unlikely to fall victim to the illusory pattern perception of conspiracy theories, you’d say there was always a 50/50 chance that you get either heads or tails. Because obviously the flips you got before having no impact on the flip you get next.

But others who are more prone to illusory pattern perception, well, think they’re more likely to get tails as three heads in a row?

‘’That’s insane. It has to be tails next!’’ They’re noticing a pattern and creating meaning behind it.

We were deeply entertained by Shane Dawson’s conspiracy theory videos. They made us LOL and the music was extremely effective. It’s like a move over Hans Zimmer. There’s a new gun in town

When I started to apply our research to Shane’s videos, whether he intended it or not, I could see the illusory pattern perception. He establishes a pattern and then directly correlates it to something bigger.

These are just pieces of information that are strung together to form a theory that’s not necessarily substantiated. Even though there’s no solid evidence. It’s really entertaining and really enticing. But what’s most interesting is that some people might be more convinced based on their biology. Being vulnerable to conspiracy theories has been directly linked to dopamine in your brain.

In one study after participants were given a drug to increase dopamine levels, they were more likely to exhibit the illusory pattern perception.

Another study showed that people with genetically higher levels of free dopamine in their brains were more likely to believe in one or more conspiracy theories.

On top of this, if you have feelings of anxiety, uncertainty, or powerlessness, it can encourage you to search for order within chaos.

One study showed participants paintings that were very orderly by Victor Vasarely and paintings with a lot of disorder by Jackson Pollock. The participants were then asked to look for patterns.

Everybody was able to see patterns in the orderly Vasarely paintings, but those who found more patterns in the disordered Jackson Pollock were also more likely to believe in conspiracy theories.

Just to be clear, falling for conspiracy theories does not mean that you are stupid. As humans, we are brilliant, smart animals, like, for example, if I ever need an ego boost I just go up to my dog and I’m like ‘’Literally, compared to me you’re so dumb’’, but our brains are susceptible, and this is why we need to be talking about why conspiracy theories may be damaging our society.

Studies show that right now 37% of Americans believe in the conspiracy theory that global warming is a hoax. Of course, the scientific consensus is that not only does it exist, but it’s having an immense impact on our environments and our economy, as well as displacing and killing people.

20% of Americans still believe the conspiracy theory that vaccines cause autism. This one has been extremely rampant on YouTube, Facebook, and Pinterest, and has been helped by celebrities like Charlie Sheen and Kristin Cavallari. Not sure if it’s smart to be taking medical advice about safety from someone who casually walks in the middle of the street.

Science again proves that vaccines are one of the most effective ways to prevent disease and the proliferation of these vaccine hesitancy conspiracy theories online are the reason that measles is now having new outbreaks all over America, in the world and also the WHO claims that vaccine hesitancy is the third-largest threat to global health this year.

Where this all comes to head is the proliferation of conspiracy theories by algorithms. Like our favorite, notorious and elusive YouTube algorithm.

Combine the technological algorithm with your brainy biological algorithm and you can see why YouTube has a problem on its hands.

Former YouTube software engineer Guillaume Chaslot started to speak about how YouTube would actually target vulnerable people to show them conspiracy theory videos to keep them on the platform for longer.

He even created a website called AlgoTransparency that you can go on right now and what it does is shows you the top YouTube channels and the videos that they are currently recommending.

It’s very interesting to sort of just keep up and check out what it is that YouTube is suggesting to the world right now.

But interestingly, scholars have actually studied the prevalence of conspiracy theories through the years and it actually remains pretty consistent. They do, however, say that the Internet has displaced the gatekeepers, the producers, editors, and scholars who decide what is worthy of dissemination.

This has caused YouTube and other platforms to start actually taking action: as Pinterest has actually banned all conversations about vaccines until they can figure out how to manage and stop the spread of misinformation.

And YouTube doesn’t take down the videos as of now, but they do demonetize anti-vax videos. YouTube has also started putting little Wikipedia blurbs underneath videos that may contain misinformation and they claim to be reducing recommendations of borderline content.

So now you know from an evolutionary perspective why we might fall for conspiracy theories and the common cognitive formula that makes them work so well. And lastly, why, from a biological perspective, you might be more susceptible.

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