Strange Psychology: The Dangers of Conspiracy Thinking

From a lecture series: Your Deceptive Mind: A Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking Skills

By Professor Steven Novella, M.D., Yale School of Medicine

There is always some minutia about important events that we don’t know, and this opens the door to conspiracy thinking. We fill the gaps in our knowledge with notions that comfort us by offering the illusion of certainty. Like superstitious thinking, we fulfill a basic psychological need with an illusion of control.

Image of illuminati pyramid on dollar
A popular conspiracy theory claims that the Eye of Providence, shown atop an unfinished pyramid on the great seal of the US, indicates the influence of Freemasonry in the founding of the United States. (Image: Lubor Zelinka/Shutterstock)

Learn more: The Trap of Grand Conspiracy Thinking

Conspiracy thinking may be a reaction to an inability to attain one’s goals. It may enhance self-esteem. Being part of an army of light, for example, offers not only self-esteem but a way to channel feelings of anger. It makes one feel as if they are part of a privileged, enlightened few.

There is a struggle within our brains between reality testing and pattern recognition. The patterns we recognize can be crafted into conspiracies that we filter through reality testing. We ask ourselves if a pattern makes sense. Is it plausible? Does it conform to my internal model of reality?

Learn more: Pattern recognition—Seeing What’s Not There

Potential conspiracies are rejected by our brains, sometimes even subconsciously because they just don’t feel right. They fail our internal reality testing. People vary however in terms of the strength of their tendency to see patterns as well as the strength of their reality testing. For example, schizophrenics are marked by diminished reality testing. Conspiracies or paranoid notions that occur to a severe schizophrenic may, therefore, seem compelling and real.

This is a transcript from the video series Your Deceptive Mind: A Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking Skills. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Dangers of Conspiracy Thinking

Conspiracy Theory Bomb
(Image: Stuart Miles/Shutterstock).

What is the harm—if any—of conspiracy thinking? Some scholarly debate considers whether the existence of conspiracy theories is a net positive or a net negative. On the positive side, conspiracy theories challenge the powers that be by showcasing deficiencies or inadequate government explanations. They promote transparency and full disclosure. The extreme secrecy under which many governments operate encourages conspiracy theories, which results in the filing of freedom of information requests that focus public attention on the government.

On the other hand, conspiracy theories tend to erode confidence in our institutions. Some argue they may even hurt the cause of transparency just as the boy who falsely cried “wolf” one too many times was ignored when the wolf was real. In other words, the existence of absurd and implausible conspiracy theories can be used to dismiss any questioning of conventional explanations.

The existence of absurd and implausible conspiracy theories can be used to dismiss any questioning of conventional explanations.  

Reasonable questions or attempts at keeping governments and corporations accountable and honest can be confused, both intentionally, and unintentionally with the lunatic fringe of crazy conspiracy theories. Some conspiracy theorists have even hypothesized that the government is responsible for some of the worst conspiracy theories out there to delegitimize any questioning of the official version of events.

9/11 Truth movement sticker
9/11 Truth movement sticker (Image: 911conspiracy/Public domain)

For example, there have been 9/11 conspiracy theorists who have hypothesized that some of the more outrageous 9/11 conspiracy theories were perpetrated by the government. The government knows they are false and has proof that it withholds until the time is right, thereby proving the fallacy of all 9/11 conspiracies. This mistrust of everything can hurt the cause of transparency and honesty by categorizing every challenge to the government as nutty or kooky.

Conspiracy theories also often have a very simplistic or unidimensional approach to complex problems. They are sometimes framed in racist or bigoted terms. The imagined conspirators may be an ethnic group that is then tarred with the reputation of being part of a dark, evil group that is trying to perpetrate a nefarious conspiracy in the world or perhaps take control over segments of society. This both results from the underlying bigotry, but also reinforces that same bigotry and racism.

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For good or for bad conspiracy thinking is a type of pseudoscience. Conspiracy theories and pseudosciences meet many psychological needs. They are built on cognitive biases and maintained with logical fallacies and are further fueled by errors in perception and memory. The entire process is fatally flawed, what some psychologists have called epistemologically crippled because it is a manifestation of circular reasoning that immunizes the conspiracy theory from any possibility of refutation. Insulation from refutation is a huge red flag. We should all be on the lookout for subtle mechanisms that insulate our own beliefs from facts or evidence.

Conspiracies Move to the Mainstream

We shouldn’t think that conspiracy thinking is restricted to just the lunatic fringe. We all have a little conspiracy theorist hiding inside us. Genuine conspiracies do exist and provide fuel for the persistence of conspiracy thinking. Just because you are paranoid does not prove that they are not out to get you. The ability to uncover real conspiracies is clearly an adaptive way of thinking.

Let’s take a real conspiracy as an example. On 9/11, Al-Qaeda orchestrated and carried out a deadly conspiracy that was missed until it was too late to prevent it. Perhaps it could’ve been prevented if more of the dots had been connected. There was a conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln that succeeded and was eventually uncovered. The difference between searching for genuine conspiracies and the grand conspiracy theory is similar to the difference between science and pseudoscience.

Learn more: The Many Kinds of Pseudoscience

When a conspiracy is developed, it should be treated like any other scientific hypothesis, and not assumed to be true. Seeing only confirming evidence, insulated from disconfirming evidence, shifting the burden of proof to others, and then supporting the hypothesis with anomaly hunting are characteristics of the pseudoscience of grand conspiracy theories.

Real science asks skeptical questions and seeks falsification. Is there a simpler, more innocent way to interpret the evidence? What can we really say and what do we really know? Is there evidence for this conspiracy? What else does the conspiracy imply?

By examining the extreme conspiracy theories, we hope to identify those patterns of thought and cognitive traps into which we may fall. Understanding grand conspiracies will help us identify the subtler flaws in our day to day reasoning.

Common Questions about conspiracy thinking

What is a conspiracy theory?

A conspiracy refers to a group’s secret plan to do something illegal. A conspiracy theory is a belief that some secret group is behind a significant activity, such as the assassination of JFK.

Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?

People believe in conspiracies for many reasons. Humans are pattern-makers, so our natural impulse is to try to find order in chaos. A conspiracy theory explains the unexplained.

What are some examples of conspiracy theories?

There are numerous examples of conspiracy theories. For example, in America, people have developed conspiracies around who killed JFK, whether the 1969 moon landing was faked, and whether 9/11 was an inside job. People also assign power to secret groups such as Freemasons or Skull & Bones-type organizations.

Are conspiracy theories becoming more common?

People have long believed in conspiracies, so it’s difficult to measure whether conspiracy theories are becoming more common. Social media in the 21st century certainly allows ideas to spread faster and more widely than they might have in earlier generations.

This article was updated on May 14, 2020

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