Neuroscience and Conspiracy Theories

Joy Bose
8 min readMay 28, 2023

In this article, we discuss what neuroscience has to say about conspiracy theories and how they spread.

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What are conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories are defined as explanations of the causes of significant events as secret plots by groups of powerful people to usurp power and violate established rights. Such theories are often non-falsifiable and contradict the official accounts of the events they try to explain. They have been proposed for a wide variety of international events including Covid-19 origins and vaccines, truther theories about 9/11, birther theories about Barak Obama, theories about chemtrails and climate change.

People believing in such theories often do not change their belief even when presented with evidence opposing them. Neuroscience research can help to shed light on how such theories emerge and why they persist. The neuroscience explanations are closely tied with biological and psychosocial mechanisms of how beliefs are formed.

Factors that contribute to conspiracy theories

Neuroscience research has proposed multiple biological, psychological, and social factors that may contribute to the emergence and spread of conspiracy theorists. In this section, we analyze some of these factors in detail.

Neuroscience knowledge on how beliefs work in the brain, and connections between emotions and beliefs, can be used to understand beliefs in conspiracy theories.

Rider elephant analogy by Haidt (2012)

Haidt (2012) proposed the rider and elephant analogy to explain how cognitive processes work in our brains: the elephant represents the intuition phase, which happens first, and the rider represents the reasoning phase, which happens later and is used to justify the actions driven by the intuition. In case of conspiracy theories, the mind first develops an intuition to explain the events and later comes up with a justification.

Van Prooijen & Douglas (2018) showed that belief in conspiracy theories is often driven by emotions rather than rational considerations, and therefore biological factors such as the volume of the amygdala, part of the brain associated with threats, can be associated with people’s tendency to believe in such theories.

Similarly, analytical thinking, associated with activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) can predict people’s skepticism of such theories. Activation of the sympathetic nervous system, associated with stress, may also be associated with belief in conspiracies.

Moyer (2019) suggested that psychosocial factors in individuals such as uncontrolled life situations, feelings of anxiety about issues such as health and finances, a general sense of disenchantment with the current state of affairs, feelings of being alienated or unwanted, feeling that society is in jeopardy including disliking the party in power, can make people more prone to believing in conspiracies.

Conspiracy theories can help in identifying an easy scapegoat for problems, and thus may provide a sense of comfort. Other psychosocial factors that encourage the spread of such theories include cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, resistance to change long-held beliefs, needing to making sense of a complex world, and role of social media.

Social factors are another important reason for the belief and spread of conspiracy theories. Ren et al. (2023) performed a pilot study that showed that people may share such theories out of social engagement motives, i.e., to get likes, even if they do not believe in them.

Book by Tavris and Aronson: Mistakes were made but not by me, where they describe the analogy of the pyramid

The analogy of the pyramid (Tavris & Aronson, 2007) is another model that can explain how people can get trapped in a set of beliefs that are strengthened over time, starting from weak opinions and get progressively more polarized with stronger opinions. The model can be used to explain conspiracy theories as well. People with opposing views may start off with similar or close opinions, akin to the peak of the pyramid, but as time goes, they move down the pyramid and get trapped in a cycle of self-justification, resulting in their getting further and further apart and entrenched in their views.

Another contribution from neuroscience research explaining the spread of conspiracies is related to theories of memory formation. Duch (2021) proposed an interesting theory combining memetics and formation of memories, to show how memes formed out of distorted memory patterns can develop into conspiracy theories. He used simulations of neural networks with competitive Hebbian learning to demonstrate how such distorted memory states are formed and spread.

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Since delusions or false beliefs form part of the traits of psychosis and are also present in conspiracy theories, neuroscience can improve our understanding of conspiracies by relating it to theories of delusions and psychosis. Galbraith (2021) among others studied the similarities between psychosis and conspiracy theories. He first surveyed the research arguing that psychosis is a part of a continuum that is present in varying degrees in a significant part of the population, and then proposed that mechanisms of delusional beliefs may overlap between those with degrees of psychosis and those believing in conspiracy theories.

Additionally, since conspiracy theories share some characteristics with neuromyths, research on neuromyths can help to understand conspiracy theories. Neuromyths are commonly held erroneous beliefs about the brain and its functioning. Examples of neuromyths include the belief that we only ever use a maximum of 10% of our brains, and that difference in learning styles among individuals can be explained by differences between left-brained and right-brained people. Just like in neuromyths, conspiracy theories may have elements of truth when they are formed but which gets progressively distorted with time and as they spread, and are persistent despite evidence to the contrary.

Impact of conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories may have different kinds of impacts for individuals and for the wider society. Some of these theories may be relatively harmless, while others may not be so.

For some people, conspiracy theories may provide a sense of security and belonging, even though the theory may be incorrect. This may be considered a positive impact.

On the other hand, they may lead to some individuals becoming paranoid and anti-social. For society, they can have a negative impact by reducing trust in the government and other social structures, inspiring violent actions, and contributing to problems with law and order.

Health related conspiracy theories such as those related to Covid origins and vaccines can lead to people not using masks in public and not getting vaccinated, which can lead to further spread of the disease and endanger public health.

Therefore, it is important to have a neuroscience informed strategy to systematically combat the conspiracies that have potential for negative impact.

How to challenge conspiracy theories

The best tools to challenge conspiracy theories include education and tools for critical thinking. From neuroscience research, we know that some people with mental disorders and certain biopsychosocial characteristics may be more vulnerable to believing in such theories. Therefore, educational campaigns can be targeted at such vulnerable people. Similarly, by knowing that some of the conspiracy theories are harmful while others are not, we can focus on the harmful theories and thus contain their potential harm ahead of time.

Lazic & Zezelj (2021) studied interventions in the context of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories and formulated a few guidelines, such that conspiracy theories should be treated as narratives embedded in worldviews and interventions should also, therefore, provide an engaging narrative and take into account worldviews and values.

Another strategy to combat conspiracies is to foster effective communication about the issues. This can be done by moving away from fear-based messaging and instead move towards provoking agency, and connecting to everyday lived experiences of people, rather than using abstract terminology.

Other neuroscience informed strategies include boosting people’s well-being by addressing people’s psychological needs so that conspiracy theories become less tempting.

Conclusion

In this article, we have discussed the origins of conspiracy theories, focusing on the traits that are common to such theories and how neuroscience can explain their spread. We have also discussed about how they can be combated with a well-informed campaign involving education and critical thinking along with an awareness of well-being.

While all conspiracy theories are not harmful, some of them might result in misguided actions by individuals, especially those suffering from other mental disorders and therefore should be taken seriously and combated in their early stages.

References

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Duch, W. (2021). Memetics and neural models of conspiracy theories. Patterns, 2(11), 100353.

Galbraith, N. (2021). Delusions and pathologies of belief: Making sense of conspiracy beliefs via the psychosis continuum. Psychopathology and Philosophy of Mind, 117–144.

Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. Vintage.

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Moyer, M. W. (2019) People Drawn to Conspiracy Theories Share a Cluster of Psychological Features. Scientific American, March 2019

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Joy Bose

Working as a software developer in machine learning projects. Interested in the intersection between technology, machine learning, society and well being.