Your Brain on Conspiracy Theories

Neuroscientist Shannon Odell shows us why our brains love conspiracy theories so much.

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Whether it’s a rapper determined to prove the Earth is flat or a basketball player who’s convinced the moon landing was filmed on a Hollywood sound stage, conspiracy theorist believers are notoriously difficult to persuade. Presenting theorists with evidence usually results in a whack-a-mole style argument, and everyone goes home indignant and even more convinced of their own narrative. But how do perfectly functional humans with otherwise working brains find it so easy to believe far-fetched ideas?

Conspiracy theories are so appealing because our brains are literally hardwired to find patterns in the world around us. As we evolved, this ability to sniff out patterns could mean the difference between life and death. If you couldn’t associate dark clouds with an incoming storm, you might get killed in a flood. If you didn’t sense the connection between a shadow and a predator waiting to kill you, it might be the last mistake you ever made.

As much as the brain thrives on finding the signal in the noise, the real world is a terrifyingly random place. Sometimes our brains try to make sense of a situation by finding a pattern, whether or not one really exists. This phenomenon is called illusory pattern perception, and research suggests it plays a huge role in conspiracy theory belief.

A person seeing connections where there aren’t any doesn’t appear to be isolated to a particular topic. In one recent study, subjects record the results of a series of coin flips. Those who sensed a pattern in the random results were more likely to believe in at least one major conspiracy theory. Researchers also seemed to be able to prime people to illusory pattern perception. By asking subjects to read about conspiracy theories immediately prior to recording coin flips, the test subjects were more likely to see patterns in the random coin flips than the control group.

So are conspiracy theorists just better at intuiting what’s really going on? According to them, yes. But, according to neuroscientists, almost certainly not. As it turns out, the real culprit may be the dopamine in their brains. People who have higher levels of naturally occurring dopamine have been found to be more susceptible to conspiracy theories. One experiment even showed that non-believer subjects were more likely to see patterns in random shapes after receiving a drug designed to artificially boost their brain’s free dopamine levels.

There is also a powerful social dynamic that allows conspiracy theories to flourish in an otherwise enlightened society: confirmation bias. When the brain comes to a conclusion, information which supports that conclusion is easily assimilated and added to the mental library of facts. This has a reinforcing effect and allows contradictory information to be easily dismissed as false. Ironically, the explosion of information on the internet has made the problem worse, not better. More information may mean more correct information, but it also means more reinforcing falsehoods for conspiracy theorists to assimilate. Conspiratorial echo chambers form, creating communities of people who believe everything from lizard overlords secretly running our government to passenger jets spreading mind-controlling chemicals across the country.

While it’s fun to think about living on a big flat disc controlled by NASA in a gravity-free bubble, disregarding facts and scientists is dangerous and can lead to some unsavory outcomes. But despite what conspiracy theorists say, we’re not doomed just yet. Studies show these beliefs are often triggered by a perceived lack of control, and that empowering people to take action in their own lives can help mitigate the impulse to see patterns when there are none.


See The CW’s take on a favorite UFO conspiracy on the new series Roswell, New Mexico, Tuesdays at 9/8c.

Media via The CW, Inverse Original Video