CONSPIRACY theories used to be confined to the fringes of society – now they’re everywhere.
From anti-vaxxers claiming Bill Gates is trying to use the pandemic to take over the world to people burning 5G phone masts because they think they cause Covid, baseless ideas are spreading like wildfire in the minds of millions at the moment.
But is there any reason why conspiracy theories seem to have such a hold at this particular point in history?
More to the point: is there a particular kind of person who’s susceptible to conspiracies?
And are you one of them?
Eric Oliver, Professor of Political Science at Chicago University, believes his research has insights which go some way to answering these questions.
Oliver, author of Enchanted America, spent years studying the beliefs and decision-making of conspiracy theorists.
He designed simple questions which can be used to see how open someone is to conspiracy thinking – without actually asking about specific beliefs.
Try answering these questions yourself:
Would you rather: Stick your hand in a bowl of cockroaches OR stab a photograph of your family five times with a sharp knife?
Would you rather: Pick a coin up off the pavement and put it in your mouth OR sleep in laundered pyjamas once worn by Charles Manson?
Would you rather: Spend the night in a dingy bus station OR spend the night in a luxurious house where a family had been murdered?
Would you rather: Queue for three hours to renew your driving licence OR grind you heels into an unmarked grave?
Would you rather: Ride in a speeding car without a seatbelt on OR yell out 'I hope I die tomorrow' three times?
It turns out that openness to conspiracy theories is highly correlated with relying on intuitions, rather than rationality, to make decisions.
Those who want to avoid highly symbolic costs – like stabbing a photo of your family or shouting “I hope I die tomorrow ” – over tangible costs, are much more likely to believe in conspiracies.
So if you chose to take the options on the left because the right seemed worse, you're more likely to believe in conspiracies.
'Evil essence' mind tricks
To some, a photo of their family is just a piece of paper – but others feel the symbolic weight of what the image represents much more keenly, and would be extremely eager to avoid stabbing it.
“For some people, that would be very emotionally painful or difficult to do,” Oliver tells The Sun.
Even the most rational of us has our superstitions and our magical thinking momentsEric Oliver
And sometimes that intuition-based distress is so great that people would prefer to put themselves in danger or discomfort – like choosing to put a coin you found in the street in your mouth – to avoid coming into contact with clothes once worn by a murderous cult leader, even if the clothes have been cleaned.
“People don’t like the idea of spending the night in laundered pyjamas worn by anybody,” Oliver explains.
“You’d probably be more likely to do it if it was George Clooney!
“Whereas with Charles Manson it’s icky, like: ‘I’ll get tainted with his grossness’.”
Oliver explains this belief, that somehow the cleaned pyjamas could retain some of Manson’s “evil essence”, stems from a phenomenon that psychologists call a “heuristic”.
Heuristics are mental shortcuts which help us make decisions quickly and efficiently about what to do.
But they can also sometimes cause more rational thinking and decision-making to be obscured.
Our intuitions are heavily influenced by these heuristics, along with emotion.
And what Oliver’s research found is that people who heavily rely on their intuition to make sense of the world were often more prone to “magical thinking”.
That’s where we believe some undetectable force is making things happen and we accept that explanation over something observable.
“When we engage in magical thinking, what we’re trying to do is manage our emotions, typically anxiety, and the anxiety that comes with uncertainty,” Oliver says.
By way of illustration, Oliver says his son was frightened one night that there was a monster in his closet.
When Oliver switched the lights on and showed him there was nothing in there, his son said: “Well if there’s no monster in the closet, why am I afraid?”
Even people who are really steeped in magical thinking can still be rational at timesEric Oliver
The point is, the emotion of fear led to the intuited belief in the monster, not the other way around.
But it’s not just kids who are prone to magical thinking and intuitionism when faced with uncertainty – we all do it to some extent.
“Even the most rational of us has our superstitions and our magical thinking moments,” Oliver says.
“And even people who are really steeped in magical thinking can still be rational at times.
“The question is: ‘Where are on this continuum are you?’”
Try answering some more questions:
How often do you check the locks on your doors and windows, shred bills before you throw them away, or change the passwords on your computer? (Always, often, sometimes, or rarely)
When it comes to really important matters is the head a better guide than the heart OR the heart a better guide than the head?
On the whole, is it usually better to trust the recommendations of scientists and experts OR trust the common-sense judgements of ordinary people?
When you have to make an important decision, do you generally get as much information as you can and weigh up the pros and cons of each option carefully OR trust your gut feelings and let them be your guide?
People who have a chronic level of higher anxiety are more likely to rely on intuitions to help them cope, which the first question aims to assess – if you answered 'always' or 'often', you might be more likely to engage in magical thinking.
The others are more specifically asking how much you prioritise intuitions over rationality.
If you chose the options on the right, you are more likely to believe in conspiracies.
Pandemic fear stoking conspiracy thinking
Oliver’s research, which cumulatively looked at responses to questions like these from over 20,000 Americans, found that intuitionism was correlated with several other factors in a person’s life.
Things like whether or not you had a religious upbringing, your education level, and how much economic stress you live with all seem to be linked with how likely you are to rely on intuitions to make sense of the world.
And it’s not simply the case that people are fundamentally intuitionists or rationalists all the time – it depends on the situation you’re in.
“I might be a rational person, but when it comes to watching my favourite baseball team, I have my lucky hat and I have to sit in my lucky chair,” Oliver says.
“Because suddenly I’m in a situation where I have to cope with a lot of stress and uncertainty.”
This happens on a collective scale too – Oliver thinks whole populations tend more towards intuitionism when they’re faced with stress and uncertainty as a society.
He points to seismic events like 9/11, the 2008 financial crash, and the pandemic as examples of things which could lead to spikes in intuitionism.
“I would imagine that, since Covid, people’s intuitionism is really ramping up because there’s so much uncertainty and stress and anxiety, both economic and health and social,” Oliver says.
“I think that’s one of the reasons why we’ve seen such a proliferation of things like vaccine hesitancy and conspiracy theories. It reflects this greater level of stress.”
The UK government is so concerned about vaccine hesitancy – where people refuse to get jabbed – that it recently launched an uptake plan which is partly tasked with dispelling myths around Covid vaccines.
If a party becomes an intuitionist party, that really destabilises democratic institutions and it can lead to disasterEric Oliver
But Oliver warns it can often be difficult to reason with people holding intuition-based beliefs because the beliefs are grounded in emotion, not reasons.
So simply telling them they’re wrong won’t work – instead, it’s more useful to ask them why they believe what they do and what the belief is doing for them.
Is it making them happy? Does it help them understand the world? Or is it keeping them from getting something they really want?
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While Oliver says he can’t comment on the UK, he’s been particularly alarmed by how much intuitionism is affecting political life in the US – particularly in the Republican Party.
“If a party becomes an intuitionist party, that really destabilises democratic institutions and it can lead to disaster,” he says.
“So that part concerns me a great deal.”