WHY CONSPIRACIES WORK SO WELL?
Conspiracies are alternate forms of base reality or we can say stories from other multiverses. They have been part of our lives, even medieval humans devised conspiracy theories against monarchs and the establishment. Our complex and advanced brain is able to come up with narratives that may or may not be part of reality. So as “Conspiracy theorists of conspiracy theorists”, let us try to unravel what goes into a conspiracy and why we love them.
WHY HUMANS HAVE A PROCLIVITY FOR CONSPIRACY?
In the book, Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, he discussed Homo Sapiens (ancients of present-day humans) have an affinity towards myth. “You can never convince a monkey to give up his banana in the promise that after he dies and reaches heaven, he will get 3 crore bananas from seemingly different persons, it is only possible with humans.” But this belief helped us in our survival and establishing dominance, sapiens are at the top of the food chain and rulers of this planet. Religion is a myth, we imagine that something bigger than us is controlling the flow of time. There is no tangible or visual feedback to corroborate this belief yet we follow them. Also, money is a myth. A piece of paper does not have any value, we perceive it to have some standardized value because there is consensus. Money transfer is just an update in a very secure Excel sheet inside Banks and it does not have any intrinsic value. The money enabled trade for merchants in the medieval period which helped in knowledge transfer and transportation of goods and services. It is an integral part of our lives and a basic necessity yet if we try to figure out its intrinsic value, it is just a token of consensus. Sapiens share common belief (which can be myths) which leads to more collaboration thus improving chances of survival and it helps to improve our social connections.
WHY CONSPIRACY THEORISTS HAVE A JOB?
What motivates people to devise a conspiracy theory? It is the lack of information that creates uncertainty. Our brain always tries to fill in the gaps in uncertain situations. It was essential for survival as our ancestors were able to predict the movement of predators at night through sound cues. Our retina produces a 2D image of the world but our brain does depth estimation and it sometimes fails in uncertain events like parallax. So our brain got wired to extrapolate in an uncertain situation. Information from an event (particularly related to government, corporations or celebrities) is generally limited like in the Robinhood case during the Gamestop saga. Robinhood, a retail investor stockbroker during the rallying of Gamestop stocks ran out of cash and had to halt the buy-side trading. But the company representative did not want to sell the “ran out of cash” narrative hence decided to stay quiet. This gap was filled with conspiracies of possible collusion between hedge funds and Robinhood and it snowballed into lawsuits against Robinhood and damage to brand image. Sometimes information is confidential like in the Sushant Singh Rajput suicide case. People made myriads of stories to fill in the gaps.
Also, you would remember this dress (Blue or Golden).
This photo rose to popularity as some people visualized this to be a blue or golden colour. It turned out that this photo had too much noise and our brain tried to interpret the missing information, so different people based on their colour perception perceived the colour differently. So our brain does not like uncertainty and it is evolutionarily wired to predict the missing information.
HOW DO WE THINK IN AN UNCERTAIN POSITION?
We try to fill in the gaps in information based on our prior beliefs, so it kind of gets personal. But we have confirmation bias where we first go for the conclusion and then reasoning, so we look for facts and figures that satiate our conclusion. From an evolution perspective, confirmation bias has a low cognitive load hence and our brain is trying to work efficiently by spending less energy, so cognitive bias is an efficient thinking process. Discussing or introspecting our assumptions can help us clear our biases but with the advent of the internet which enabled light speed information flow, we would always find someone agreeing with us. The time between a thought conception and letting the world know you had this though is significantly decreasing. This strengthens our feedback to cognitive bias because it lacks self-accountability. Like the story of Sushant Singh, the missing information was filled with stories of love story → rich girl → murder belies suicide → strong connections in family, the setting of every other Bollywood movie. The discussion deviated from real issues of mental health to enlightenment and intoxication. Netizens came up with conspiracy theories based on these emotions and people based on their exposure supported these theories and then tried to cherry-pick pieces of evidence to support their claim. These biases are hardwired in our brain and they are the default response to an uncertain situation and our brain attains peace (dopamine hit) after finally filling the missing pieces.
So in this article, we discussed the underhood working of conspiracy theory. Humans have an affinity towards myth, our shapeless imagination enabled strong collaboration and improved social connections. The human brain tries to predict the missing puzzle pieces in an uncertain situation because it was essential for our survival as it helps in predicting upcoming danger. Our cognitive bias which has a very low cognitive load kicks in these uncertain situations to predict the missing pieces. These all factors are conducive to conspiracy theories and with the democratization of information sharing and during these uncertain and hardship times we are seeing a rise in these conspiracies theories. But these made-up theories can affect people or the environment and we are seeing numerous examples. Hopefully, this article will help you to understand that this is how our brain is wired to respond and we should make sure that we ask the right questions to be accountable and responsible.
Here is my other article on the Rise of conspiracy theories. Would like to hear your thoughts and stay safe.