Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories
© 2015 Rob Brotherton
We’re caught in a trap, and we can’t walk out*. Our brains orient us towards belief. No sex, no political leaning, no cultural demographic has a monopoly on conspiracy thinking — and while that can be either comforting or disturbing, depending on what implications we dwell on, it has to make a fella wonder: why? Why do we connect dots with lines that aren’t there, indue other people’s actions with purpose drawn straight from our heads, and crave above all some grand narrative that makes a tidy story out of our messy universe? The answer, Rob Brotherton argues, lies in our brain’s heavy reliance on mental shortcuts and biases. Conspiracism is the lens through which we see the world; the trick is that we all have slightly different prescriptions.
Brotherton opens by analyzing what makes a conspiracy theory different from any other explanation, reviewing pertinent characteristics of conspiratorial thinking. Brotherton holds there are six distinctive aspects of a conspiracy theory, and concludes: “The’prototypical conspiracy theory is an unanswered question; it assumes nothing is at it seems; it portrays the conspirators as preternaturally competent; and as unusually evil; it is founded on anomaly hunting; and it is ultimately irrefutable.” Interestingly, people who believe in one conspiracy theory are more likely to believe in others, and theories often interconnect to create ever-larger schemes, until eventually one’s wall is covered with pictures and documents with red yarn asserting connections between them.
Although Brotherton argues that we’re all born conspirators, conspiratorial thinking is more likely to dominate individuals who are in isolated, stressed conditions. The less materially comfortable and more socially isolated a person, the more likely they are to believe that things are set against them. When our sense of control is threatened, we are more likely to be paranoid. Brotherton suggests that dwelling on conspiracy theories is something of a comfort mechanism, ’empowering’ the theorist by making them believe they’re seeing through the lies, and explaining their disadvantages by blaming them on someone else. Stepping back from the specific subject at hand and thinking more generally — drawing on biology — the connection between comfort and paranoia makes perfect sense. An apex predator with no competition and plenty of food has no reason to be wary, but a stressed mouse at the bottom of the chain does. One is far more skittish than the other, more likely to interpret threats when there are none: it pays to be paranoid when you’re a mouse. While humans regard ourselves as being at the top of the heap these days, our ancestors lived in a far more dangerous world, filled with predators who were only happy to make a meal out of muscly bipeds.
Throughout the book, Brotherton reviews various other aspects of human cognition that make conspiracies easy to invent and latch on to. We’re a story-telling species whose brains are constantly involved in constructing the reality we live in — whose brains have been tailored by the stress of ages to look for and act on patterns immediately. Any connections are meaningful by default, unless we actively have a reason for doubting them, and that means we can interpret mere motive as evidence of wrongdoing. Other biases are at work: when something dramatic happens, like a presidential assassination that changes the world, we expect that drama to have been effected by an elaborate conspiracy with long-term goals, not a lone crank with a rifle. (Nearly 80% of Americans believe the JFK assassination involved more conspirators than Oswald.) We are not systematic, logical thinkers by default: without training, we look for evidence that supports a positive assertion, not evidence that can falsify something we already suspect — and we tend to interpret new information in the light of what we already believe. Brotherton also believes that the overwhelming complexity of the world, and frustrating loss of intellectual autonomy because of that, lures people into conspiracy theories: they offer the satisfaction of comprehensive knowledge with far less work: there’s just enough winnowing-out of the conspiracy’s secrets to satisfy the intellectually curious to make it fun.
Though thinking about thinking has its challenges, the influence of conspiracy theories on contemporary politics across the spectrum makes them important to understand. We’re all complicit in contributing to them, and a book like this is invaluable it not only understanding why sensible people can sometimes believe extraordinarily odd things, but to check ourselves from time to time.
* This book has been on my TBR list for three years, and every time I thought of it, I’d have Elvis in my head for the rest of the day. I sincerely hope my offering of that intro sentence appeases the gods and lets me escape the ear-worm of “Suspicious Minds“.
The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, Steven Novella et. al
The Believing Brain: How we Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths, Michael Shermer