Greg Morris

Designer, Pretend Photographer, Dad

Are We Addicted To Creating Conspiracy Theories?

In a broad sense of the word I understand the need for answers, but this need in modern times seems to be one of the most dangerous things around. In a world that contains a virus killing thousands of people every day, conspiracy theories are ravaging the planet and causing irreparable harm.

People have always created stories to try and explain away things that they do not understand. In older times attributing things to god or gods, but in more modern times these attributions have been replaced by arguably something more crazy. Everything from the pricing of furniture to the names of fast food restaurants seems to be a hint at an organisation pulling the strings of everything, and it’s getting a little ridiculous.

Unfortunately according to research, we just can’t help it. The human brain is hardwired to find patterns in everything, and as a reward when we find such a pattern our brain releases Dopamine. The same chemical released at more pleasurable times, and one that is easy to become addicted to.

The pleasurable feeling that our explanation is the right one—ranging from a modest sense of familiarity to the powerful and sublime “a-ha!”—is meted out by the same reward system in the brain integral to drug, alcohol, and gambling addictions. —

Robert Burton

Anthropologically it makes sense for us to be able to quickly and easily identify patterns to cut down the time we need to recognise things. Once you’ve noticed a dangerous animal, different parts of your brain will work together to process what you’re seeing and recognise it easier going forward. Our brain then leans into a false positive bias because it’s better for us to run from something that could have been a danger but isn’t, then spend time confirming it.

It’s uncomfortable for us to not understand what we are seeing or what is going on. Just as building and understanding a pattern leads us to a reward, the reverse is true, faulty patterns or confusion leads our brain to diminish that dopamine release we crave. When you look at conspiracy theories biologically, trying to explain away strange things happening, or building up a whole narrative to explain vague predictions, is completely natural.

Creating stories for ourselves and, now we have platforms to do so, sharing them with others is the “narrative equivalent of correlation” according to Robert Burton. “It is easy to understand why our brains seek out stories (patterns) whenever and wherever possible”.

Telling Our Stories To Our Community Helps

We feel compelled to tell stories, even incomplete ones, as if they are the truth — because we believe that they are. Too hungry for the dopamine hit that we not only get from creating the story but also the validation from others, we overlook contradictory information even in the face of opposing proof.

That social aspect of retelling these stories is also as dangerous due to our need for others to validate both our survival and our happiness. Validation from others for the stories we tell releases an important chemical in our brain for feeling safe and welcome. Paul J. Zak published research to suggest that Oxytocin, released when we are shown kindness and feel welcome, plays a key role in whom we believe we can trust. Some research also suggests that Oxytocin plays a role in gloating and bias against other groups.

Creating possibly the perfect storm for our brains. Not only do we receive reward for creating stories, we also have a tendency to disbelieve those that appose them and only trust those that validate us. In these modern times of curated feeds and group recommendations it’s not hard for us to find a welcoming community, one that strives to explain away the world to us. What possible reason is there to test our theories when they are validated for us from the people we trust?

Cult Like Behaviour Is Easy

Issues like these have existed forever. In-pre internet times the stories we had were explained to us by our family, or people in positions of power to keep us safe. In modern times it’s easy to find a connection and find some importance in the world. It’s even more exciting when the pattern you crave to understand is apparently being hidden from everyone, yet you’ve solved it!

What a movement such as QAnon has going for it, and why it will catch on like wildfire, is that it makes people feel connected to something important that other people don’t yet know about — Cult Expert Rachel Bernstein

In a time when there is more information available to the general population than ever before, we find ourselves with large portions of the population disbelieving proven facts and sharing stories that are false. With social platforms pretending they don’t understand the issues at play. Humans already have a tendency to stick together with people that trust and share common interests, and cult like behaviour is bred by those platforms seeking to increase engagement on their service without much care for consequences.

We are becoming increasingly aware of the effect that social platforms have on the spread of cult like behaviour, yet it starts clearly with natural processes. In large numbers we are often quick to dismiss those who believe something difference as lacking intelligence. When in fact creating or believing in conspiracy theories has no link to intelligence. In fact, those with a high recorded IQ can explain away information that disagrees with them more easily and rid themselves of the discomfort that comes from conflicting information.

“Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic, and he fails to see your point … Suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before.” — Stanley Schacter

A cognitive behaviour know as Motivated Reasoning is linked to how, in the face of often overwhelming evidence to the country, individuals can remain steadfast in their belief. Over the last few decades people have been convinced to leave everything behind and even kill their whole community by those telling compelling stories.

Stories we are addicted to discovering and reaping their dopamine reward. Stories that can lead us down paths never taken, and some that are now out of control.

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