A tin foil hat surrounded by COVID-19 symbols.


The Brain Science Behind Conspiracy Theories

It might not be a lack of intelligence that leads many to believe wild—and wildly inaccurate—information, but instead our mind's way of protecting us from feelings of isolation and despair.

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Have you heard? Covid-19 is a bioweapon “gift” of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Right. And the U.S. military designed Covid-19 with genetic data from the Iranian population. Uh-huh. And, by the way, the pandemic was predicted in a 1993 episode of The Simpsons, so it’s been a long time in the making. Okay.

Do people really believe things like this? According to a representative, national study conducted by two University of Chicago scientists, the majority of Americans do. When presented with seven conspiracy theories related to the political scene of several years ago, 55 percent of those tested said they believed at least one of them. Examples: Jewish billionaire George Soros is a Dr. Evil who is trying to take over the world. The U.S. government developed compact fluorescent light bulbs because they make Americans easier to control.

Sure, placing faith in sheer codswallop may reflect a general, intellectual disability. But new research from Hong Kong suggests that it may have less to do with brainpower than with the feeling of being a social outcast. When we feel insecure and isolated, our brains are more likely to buy into popular opinion, even if it’s wrong.

Looking back at history, we see that social isolation was used as a form of social control—and it worked. In ancient Athens, ostracism wasn’t mere social shunning. It was a civic procedure through which even a powerful person could be expelled from the city. Once a year during an ekklesia (assembly), the male citizens of Athens voted on whether they wanted to hold an ostrakophoria (ostracism). If they did, two months later they gathered in the forum. Each man had a scribe write on a piece of broken pottery—they were called ostraka—the name of the person the citizen wanted ostracized. Later, officials counted the shards. With no judicial process and without right of appeal, the “winner” of the ostracism was banished from Athens for ten years. (During the later period of the democracy, banishment lasted only five years.) The punishment for returning early to the city was death.

Kai-Tak Poon studies ostracism as a research psychologist at the Education University of Hong Kong. Over the past several years Poon has shown that being ostracized increases both feelings of aggression and thoughts of suicide. Just this January the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin published a new bit of Poon’s research. Working with a total of 643 test participants, he and his team conducted four separate studies.

For the first, the researchers recruited 211 American men and women through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing tool. They gave each participant a tried-and-true, standard psychological assessment of their experiences with being ostracized, and then they gave them another assessment of feelings of vulnerability. Finally, they asked participants to rate the degree to which they agreed with any one of a set of conspiracy theories. Participants who’d ranked high on the ostracism scale also had high scores on feelings of vulnerability and were more likely than others to endorse one or more of the given conspiracy theories.

In the second study, researchers used a different way to create feelings of ostracism. Working this time with 124 American men and women recruited through the Mechanical Turk, they asked participants to really immerse themselves in memories of a time when they felt ostracized. Doing so created fresh feelings of vulnerability and, as expected, ramped up participants’ endorsement of conspiracy theories.

In the third study, researchers created in-the-moment experiences of ostracism. They asked 132 American men to set up an avatar and profile in order to collaborate over the Internet on a task with a group of eleven other people. They could click a “like” button underneath the profile of any group member — and they could see how many “likes” their own profiles got. Of course, there was no group of eleven other collaborators. Researchers randomly assigned “likes” to participants’ profiles. After counting their own “likes” participants were asked about feelings of ostracism and vulnerability. Not surprisingly, those with few likes reported feeling excluded and vulnerable, and they were more likely to endorse one or more items in a set of conspiracy theories.

In plain language, the results of Studies 1, 2, and 3 suggest that feeling ostracized helps people believe bunk. Speculating about his results, Poon explained, “Social acceptance is associated with various resources like food, protection, and information. These are critical to survival. Because access to such resources are blocked for ostracized people, they may feel vulnerable. Theoretically at least, the more intensely they feel the need to quickly identify potential risks and dangers, the more likely they may be to endorse conspiracy theories.”

In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, Poon’s findings seem to present America with a dilemma. Current public health guidelines that ask Americans to self-isolate may increase the desperation of people who already feel ostracized. And this may cause them to endorse quack policies and re-elect politicians who showboat knowledge that they don’t have.

Though there is one ray of hope. It’s Study 4. In it, Poon’s team asked 174 undergraduates at a Hong Kong university to immerse themselves in memories of social rejection. Then they asked them to name their core values and to describe why those values are important to them. Finally, the researchers asked the participants to rate the extent to which they endorse any one of a set of conspiracy theories. Once the participants who’d recalled feeling ostracized thought deeply about their core values, they endorsed conspiracy theories no more often than other test participants.

What’s the lesson here? Poon suggests that, in general, “The conspiracy beliefs of ostracized people could be reduced if they have a chance to reaffirm core values.” So, should we help those spreading rumors feel more supported and remember what’s important to them? Would that help someone like Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who has suggested in public remarks that Covid-19 was developed in a laboratory in China? Who knows. But we can at least start with ourselves.

On March 23, The Washington Post reported that even the Republican-controlled national government is now concerned about the extent to which conspiracy theories are clouding people’s judgment about Covid-19. “U.S. Combats Martial Law Conspiracy Theories as the National Guard Assists in Coronavirus Response” was the story’s headline. The story noted that “the government has created a new website titled “Coronavirus Rumor Control.”

In the coming weeks, Americans may check rumor control sites like that one with increasing urgency. Meanwhile, tens or even hundreds of thousands of people may also stream the 1993 “Marge in Chains” episode of The Simpsons. It’s the one that supposedly predicts the Covid-19 pandemic. Spoiler alert: In it, an Asian assembly line worker coughs into a box. The germs survive for eight days while being shipped to Homer. They sicken him and many of the citizens of Springfield. Will watching Homer cough convince socially rejected viewers that malevolent organizations and actors are behind our current public health disaster?

In his own defense, Bill Oakley, the episode’s co-author, told The Los Angeles Times that the germ box was meant to be comically preposterous, not preposterously prophetic.

Oh. Right. And he expects us to believe that?

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