This article first appeared in Issue 1 of our new free digital magazine CURIOUS.
Conspiracy theories can range from the small and innocent (blue tack is just white tack that’s been colored in with pen) to the downright dangerous and absurd (have the people who think Bill Gates is a super-genius capable of a global conspiracy to microchip everybody using vaccines ever tried using Bing?).
It may be easy to dismiss people who believe, for instance, that “the government, media, and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation". But it's less easy to dismiss that 15 percent of American adults agreed with the above statement, according to a 2021 survey.
Like it or not, you will probably engage with conspiracy theorists at some point, be it a family member, friend, or colleague, so it's best to know how to respond when someone tells you the Earth is hollow.
First, let's look at why they believe conspiracy theories in the first place.
Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?
Our stupid, stupid brains
“The human brain is wired to see patterns to help us survive,” neuroscientist Shannon Odell explained in a YouTube video for Inverse in 2019.
“Sensing patterns can save your life. Pattern processing became increasingly sophisticated with expansion of the cerebral cortex, particularly the prefrontal cortex and regions involved in image processing.”
This is all pretty useful. It's a good thing, for instance, if you recognize the link between bubbles in a swamp and an alligator attack. But sometimes this survival mechanism goes beyond this, going from a way to keep us alive to making Uncle Chad bore you with his theories about 9/11, completely ruining Thanksgiving.
“As we evolved, the brain got so good at finding patterns that it sometimes sees a pattern in completely unconnected data,” Odell explained.
This is how you end up with conspiracy theorists, and 200 BC peasants noticing their turnip harvest was diminished on the year they forgot to sacrifice a virgin to the volcano.
Out of control
Studies have shown that people who feel like they lack control over their lives or circumstances are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. One study in 2020 found that people who had been seriously affected by tornados reported decreased control, which in turn predicted their belief in conspiracy theories. Higher levels of depression and anxiety are also predictors of stronger beliefs in conspiracies.
We are terrible at assessing probability
One interesting study from the Zurich Institute of Public Affairs Research suggests that people may believe in conspiracy theories due to being absolutely terrible at math.
In the study, volunteers were asked to read fictional news stories involving a journalist having a heart attack. In different versions, they were told that his doctor had suggested he either had a 1 percent, 25 percent, 50 percent, 75 percent, or 95 percent chance of having a heart attack. They were then asked to rate how likely it was that the journalist had had a heart attack, or had been murdered.
When the fictional news report stated that a heart attack was unlikely, the participants were more likely to believe that the journalist was a victim of murder. In a second experiment, they were told that the journalist had recently reported on government corruption. In this scenario, more participants believed that he had been murdered.
"The lower the probability of an event, the stronger participants embrace conspiratorial explanations," the study authors wrote. "Conspiratorial thinking, we conclude, potentially represents a cognitive heuristic: A coping mechanism for uncertainty."
How to talk to a conspiracy theorist
Should I just mock them until they shut up?
No. As hard as it might be when someone tells you that Australia doesn't exist or when somebody reaches the edge of the world they are teleported to the other side like a flat-Earth Pac-Man, ridicule is not an effective way to get someone to change their mind.
In fact, studies have shown that by making people believe you are on their side (e.g. through the use of agreeing statements: “I understand,” “I see your point”, “you’re right” etc) you can make people more receptive to your own ideas and evidence.
Should I use evidence?
One of the most frustrating things about dealing with conspiracy theorists is that once they are committed to their beliefs it is almost impossible to refute using evidence. You aren't going to convince someone who thinks the Moon landings were faked because the flag is flapping on a windless Moon by pointing out that the flapping was caused by Neil Armstrong attempting to wiggle the pole into the lunar soil, and, crucially, below the flag is the Moon, as seen from the actual Moon.
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However, there is evidence that exposure to health experts can reduce belief in conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19, and a link between consumption of traditional media (certain television channels and newspapers as opposed to news through Facebook, YouTube, etc).
When is best?
The best time to dispel conspiracy theories is, uh, before people have read them. In a 2017 study, participants were presented with anti-conspiracy theory arguments before or after reading arguments in favor of conspiracy theories regarding vaccines and then asked whether they would vaccinate a fictional child.
They found that the anti-conspiracy theory arguments were effective in increasing intent to vaccinate, but only if presented to the participants before the conspiracy theories. On top of this, prior belief in anti-vaccine conspiracy theories was also a mitigating factor, making it less likely that they would choose to vaccinate the imaginary child, even after seeing the counterevidence.
"These findings suggest that people can be inoculated against the potentially harmful effects of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories," the team wrote in the study, "but that once they are established, the conspiracy theories may be difficult to correct."
Ignore the topic entirely
If belief in conspiracy theories was down to evidence vs counterevidence, the flat-Earth conspiracy theory would have vanished the second an image of our big bally Earth was beamed back from space.
As mentioned above, belief in conspiracy theories is much more to do with feelings of anxiety, depression, and lack of control by individuals. Just as people take solace in conspiracy theories to explain why the world is against them when they feel out of control, giving people a sense of control may help to lower belief in conspiracy theories too. Researchers found simply asking participants to recall a situation in which they were in control made them less likely to believe a conspiracy theory they were presented with. Asking them to recall situations where they felt out of control produced the opposite effect.
Helping a relative or friend to move away from conspiracy theories may be a case of treating the cause — feelings of being out of control — rather than the symptom. The belief that Big Bird died and was replaced by a second Big Bird with nefarious intent is probably masking a deeper issue.
Unfortunately, making people feel in control may not be so easy during a timeline consumed by the climate crisis and the world's current favorite game: whack-a-mole of global infectious diseases. Be patient.
CURIOUS magazine is a new digital magazine from IFLScience featuring interviews, experts, deep dives, fun facts, news, book excerpts, and much more. Issue 3 is out now.