The Brains Of Conspiracy Theorists Really Are Different – Here’s How

The Brains Of Conspiracy Theorists Really Are Different – Here’s How

From the good old-fashioned Flat Earth movement, to QAnon “truthers” and anti-vaccine zealots, you don’t have to look very far in our hyperconnected world to find someone spreading conspiracy theories. Often, a slide down the rabbit hole into the murky world of conspiracies comes as a shock to someone’s friends and family – how does a previously rational person get sucked into believing that dinosaurs aren’t real? Well, psychology might just have an answer.

Seeing patterns

Understanding what drives people into conspiracist thinking has inspired a number of scientific investigations. There’s one feature of the human brain that appears to bear quite a lot of the responsibility – the problem is, it’s also something we couldn’t manage without.

The brain is primed to look for patterns. As humans have evolved, this has proven extremely useful. It’s handy, for example, to learn that the color red often equals “danger”. It’s less handy to take the leap from, “Hmm, we appeared to have misplaced some ships,” to, “It must be an eldritch triangle of ocean gobbling up vessels like there’s no tomorrow!”

“Our brain is constantly trying to make sense of the outside world. One way the brain accomplishes this goal is by detecting and learning patterns, which are essentially statistical regularities in the environment, because these patterns help the brain decide how to react or behave in order to survive,” Dr Jess Taubert, an associate professor in the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland, previously told IFLScience

The issues start to arise when this pattern-recognizing power goes into overdrive, joining dots in random data and adding two and two to make five. This concept is called illusory perception.

A 2017 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology explored this further. The scientists took groups of up to 401 people through five experiments designed to test the relationship between conspiracist thinking and illusory pattern perception.

One thing that came out of the study was a link between belief in some common conspiracies – including ones around climate change, the moon landing, and the assassination of JFK –  and seeing a pattern in a series of random coin tosses. Those inclined towards a more conspiratorial way of thinking were also more likely to find patterns in chaotic artwork, like Jackson Pollock’s splatter paintings. 

The researchers also explored a common observation in conspiracy spaces, that belief in one irrational theory is often indicative of belief in other, unrelated theories. If you can accept the idea that Barack Obama is a lizard in a human suit, it’s really just a short hop and a skip to believing that the US government had advance notice of 9/11.

“[A]cceptance of a conspiracy theory implies an increase in the extent to which people perceive patterns in world events, as reflected in the belief that instead of being a coincidence, many events that happen in the world are somehow causally related,” the authors posited.

To test this, they asked participants to read either a pro-conspiracy or anti-conspiracy article, before asking questions to assess their perception of a pattern in world events, finding that a correlation was present in those who’d been exposed to the conspiracy theory.

To summarize the findings of the study, the authors wrote, “We conclude that illusory pattern perception is a central cognitive ingredient of beliefs in conspiracy theories and supernatural phenomena.”

In the wake of conspiracy theories around the COVID-19 pandemic, this research became all the more timely, and subsequent studies have built on the ideas explored here.

One from the height of the pandemic in 2020 supported the importance of illusory perception and also touched on the idea of confirmation bias.

“[Conspiracy theory] believers may find it hard to believe that a virus could originate randomly from the natural world because it does not fit with their preconceived view that events have a reason and usually a human or government influence behind it,” the authors explained.

The role of personality

Another key factor that has come to the fore in psychology studies of conspiracy beliefs is the role of personality.

Narcissism – the belief in one’s own superiority over others – has been found to be among the best psychological indicators of a predisposition toward believing in conspiracies. A 2022 study outlined three features of narcissistic personalities that seem to underpin this: agentic extraversion (which covers traits like assertiveness, self-confidence, and reward-seeking); antagonism; and neuroticism. 

In a nutshell, narcissistic people will more readily believe that others are “out to get them”, meaning that conspiracies about sinister government plots or shady cabals controlling the media narrative fit right into their way of thinking.

Narcissists are also driven by a need to feel unique and special, something that research has also identified as a predictor of conspiratorial thinking. 

Others may be drawn to conspiracies out of a desire to “watch the world burn” – basically, some people simply thrive on chaos

Brisbane, Australia - November 20, 2021: protestors with signs at an anti vax mandate rally.

For as long as there have been vaccines, there have been antivax conspiracists.

Image credit: GillianVann/

Still, more research has suggested a link between increased anger and belief in conspiracies, though it was not possible to say whether anger was a cause or consequence of believing irrational things. 

And some people may be initially drawn to conspiracies because they find them fun. I mean, there’s no denying that there’s a certain amount of entertainment to be derived from discussing the most outlandish of beliefs about our world, whether or not you actually see truth in them. You did click on this article, after all…

What we know, and what we still don’t

A systematic review published in 2022 aimed to collect together what we know so far about conspiracy beliefs as they apply to COVID-19, with lessons that could be applicable more broadly.

Narcissism came up again, along with the three other personality traits that, with it, collectively form the so-called Dark Tetrad (Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and sadism). Another factor that was mentioned was poorer psychological wellbeing, such as feelings of anxiety, depression, or uncertainty – something we probably all remember well from the early months of 2020. 

What’s still tricky to pin down is which of the factors are causes and which are effects. Perhaps some people’s brains and personalities do make them more prone to belief in conspiracies, but it takes a particular set of external circumstances to tip them over the edge and into the rabbit hole.

The authors of the review called for more research to address these open questions, with more varied samples. Above all, understanding the drivers that push people towards conspiracy theories – and remembering that these beliefs can have real-life consequences – is vital if we want to tackle future waves of disinformation head-on.

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