Why Conspiracy Theories Are so Attractive

Put on your tinfoil hat, cover your webcam with a piece of duct tape, and wait for the imminent arrival of the lizard people because it’s time for some conspiracy theories. More than half of American adults believe in at least one wacky theory, but why are these absurd and complex ideas so attractive?

Many conspiracy theories refer to basic information processing. For example, we are trained to believe in deliberate causation. This means that when you go camping and hear bushes rustling, you probably assume that a dangerous animal is hiding nearby. You know it’s probably just wind, but it’s safer to assume the source is a threat. The same paranoia occurs all the time when you don’t quite understand the cause of something.

And then there’s pattern recognition, one of the fundamental features of how we see the world and communicate with each other. Our brain is constantly looking for patterns, but sometimes it finds them where they are not. Combined with the fear we experience when we are out of control and other psychological principles such as confirmation bias, our brains are practically wired to seek outlandish explanations.

Animation by Devin Clark.

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