What Is It Like to See Conspiracies in Everything?

02 December 2022

This week we’re asking what it’s like to think like a conspiracy theorist. We might first ask why anyone would want to think like a conspiracy theorist. After all, conspiracy thinking is riddled with errors: ignoring contrary evidence that doesn't fit with what you already believe, thinking you're an expert on things that you know nothing about, and projecting malicious intent onto events that have a perfectly innocent explanation.

Then again, we all make mistakes in our thinking. Psychologists tell us that everybody is susceptible to cognitive biases. And if you think you’re immune, then that makes you even more susceptible. So maybe there’s no difference between you and me, and the person in a tinfoil hat making endless internet posts about how the Earth is flat and we’re secretly ruled by lizard people.

Not all conspiracy theories are even particularly farfetched. A lot of them are a matter of historical record. Government health organizations deliberately infected poor rural black men in Tuskegee with syphilis as part of a medical experiment, and the NSA paid internet companies tens of billions of dollars to spy on ordinary Americans. If you tried to talk about any of this at the time, your friends would have handed you a tinfoil hat—but it was all true.

And yet there is an important difference between these well-documented conspiracies and something like the New World Order. It's one thing to notice that governments and corporations lie; it's quite another thing to think that there’s one global conspiracy that explains everything from scientific predictions about climate change to the economy to the war in Ukraine. Some conspiracy theories are supported by the evidence; some are not.

Maybe you can't blame people for failing to appreciate and weigh the evidence. The internet is a firehose of bad information, all of which sounds plausible, and there’s just too much for ordinary people to audit everything. But at some point, everyone has to take personal responsibility for their beliefs with some basic critical thinking and checking for obvious mistakes.

Of course, critical thinking can be extremely hard when you’re surrounded by companies competing for your attention and trying to make you click on things out of fear and outrage. It’s like trying to stay on the wagon when all of your friends are big drinkers. And how do you tell which of your news sources are reputable? It seems like you’d need some independent way of knowing whether they’re lying to you—but they’re your source of information about the news.  No amount of legitimacy is enough to guarantee that someone is trustworthy—especially someone with enough power to be shaping the news in the first place. The world is run by oligarchs and we’re lied to all the time. Disinformation is the fifth horseman of the apocalypse.

If this is starting to sound like conspiracy thinking, maybe it's because all of us can be conspiracy theorists under the right circumstances. Even if we're really careful, even if we follow the evidence where it leads—under circumstances of chaos, oppression, deceptive authorities, and bad evidence, we all might question whether what we’re being told by journalists or scientists is really the truth.

I don't think we should give in to conspiracy thinking just yet; our circumstances aren't quite that dire. But how do we know when we've given in? The problem with conspiracy thinking is that it is very easy to detect in our political opponents but almost impossible to detect in ourselves or our ingroups. So can we really be so sure? That's one of the questions we'll put to our guest, Christopher French from the University of London, co-author of Anomalistic Psychology: Exploring Paranormal Belief and Experience.