Why do people believe conspiracy theories or become extreme thinkers?

Belief in conspiracy theories and extreme beliefs is rooted in neuroscience and how the brain thinks. 

The brain does not like chaos and seeks to find answers and control. This goes back to what psychologists call the fear network, involving the amygdala, hippocampus, and frontal lobe. See previous post about this at:  https://www.rosetherapycenter.com/anxiety/

We naturally seek an explanation for events. These “answers” typically comfort us or fit into our worldview.

During times of uncertainty, our brain tends to seek explanations that match the intensity of our feelings. When thinking about the coronavirus, the idea that the world came to a screeching halt because a virus jumped from a bat to another animal to a human seems too insignificant an explanation. But a conspiracy theory that has thousands of people in cahoots seems more proportional. Does that make it true? NO, but does the conspiracy theory match the intense feelings we have? Yes!

How do people become susceptible to believing false information? Below is a simplified explanation:

  • Confirmation bias: Confirmation bias refers to our tendency to become attached to our beliefs and to search for or interpret information in ways that confirm our preconceptions. Once we settle in on a conviction, we will search for, remember, and accept only evidence that supports it, while ignoring disconfirming evidence. Here is a generic example, If I have a belief that Sally is a jerk, I then look for information to confirm my thought (Sally interrupted me on purpose, she rolled her eyes when I walked in the room, etc.). Cognitive Behavior Theory works directly to question and reframe thoughts. This is done by focusing on the FACTS! In this case, I don’t know (or have proof) why Sally acted the way she did. Therefore, I cannot hold the belief that her behavior was directly intended for me.
  • Fundamental attribution error: This is our tendency to prefer dispositional explanations (assigning the cause of behavior to an internal characteristic of a person) to situational ones. When we observe an event, we are much more likely to attribute it to some intentional, internal motive than to circumstance or happenstance. Conspiracy theories are naturally dispositional, “Someone planned this for a purpose.”
  • Pattern recognition: This goes back to the fear network. Our brains developed and evolved in a dangerous environment. For survival, the brain developed the ability to “fill in the blanks” rather quickly which led to survival advantages. If you can make out the hidden predator in the bushes, you were more likely to survive. The brain is able to specialize in meaning making and pattern finding. However, without an identifiable pattern, the brain will INVENT one and impose it on the world. The brain seeks order, understanding of cause and effect, and intentionality. Unfortunately, life is filled with unpredictability, chaos, and chance. We, naturally, become stressed during these times. To reduce stress, the brain finds comfort in stories that fit its demands rather than ones that are based on facts.
  • Feeling uniquely knowledgeable: We have all heard the saying, “knowledge is power.” Humans prefer to feel powerful rather than powerless. Having knowledge is satisfying for us because it provides a sense of certainty which makes life feel less overwhelming. When thinking about conspiracy theories or extreme beliefs…having unique knowledge which conspiracy theories provide, makes people feel knowledge and powerful. Unfortunately, this hinders their ability to fact check.  

Why is this important when children are involved?

Remember the cliché saying, “If your friend jumped off a bridge, would you?” What is being implied? The implication is that as parents, we want our children to be leaders, be able to discern information and make a decision on their own (preferably a “smart” one). This idea should also be applied to other areas of their lives such as political and social views, not just peer pressure.

For instance, we know that children often accept the same beliefs as their parents. We see this all the time, especially now with the presidential election and pandemic. However, we also want our children to learn to use critical thinking skills to make an informed decision or belief…so they don’t jump off that bridge.

How are we, the parents, facilitating this?

Are you encouraging your child/children to question information…perhaps even your own personal views? It is perfectly okay to show children uncertainty, “I don’t know if that is true.” Or “I don’t know why that happened.” Are you talking and demonstrating flexibility in thinking (being able to see both the pros and cons of a situation)? These habits help children develop critical thinking skills so that they can make the “smart or right” decisions in adolescence and ultimately adulthood.

What is critical thinking?

Thinking critically is more than just thinking clearly or rationally; it is about thinking independently. It means formulating your own opinions and drawing your conclusions regardless of outside influence. It is about the discipline of analysis and seeing the connections between ideas. It is being wide open to other viewpoints and opinions.

How to teach critical thinking skills (Dewar, 2009):

  • Young children might not be ready for lessons in formal logic. However, they can be taught to give reasons for their conclusions. Children can evaluate the reasons given by others. Start early by giving examples of cause and effect (using science experiments, etc.)
  • Avoid pushing dogma. When we tell kids to do things in a certain way, we should give reasons.
  • Encourage children to challenge assumptions. An assumption is something that you accept as true without question or proof.
    • Encourage kids to ask questions. Parents should foster curiosity in children. If a rationale doesn’t make sense to a child, he/she should be encouraged to voice their objection or difficulty. This doesn’t mean we allow negotiations…bedtime is still bedtime…and there is good data as to why kids need sleep; a lot of it!
    • Teach kids to fact check. Is there proof for their thought or assumption. If the answer is “no”, then they must consider alternate information (thoughts, information, beliefs, etc.).
    • Ask kids to consider alternative explanations and solutions. It is nice to get the right answer, but many problems yield themselves to more than one solution. When kids consider multiple solutions, they become more flexible thinkers.
  • Get kids to clarify meaning. Kids should practice putting things in their own words (while keeping the meaning intact). Kids should be encouraged to make meaningful distinctions.
  • Talk about biases. Even grade school students can understand how emotions and motives can influence our judgments. 
  • Don’t confine critical thinking to purely factual or academic matters. Encourage kids to reason about ethical, moral, and public policy issues.
  • Get kids to write. As many teachers know, the process of writing helps students clarify their explanations and sharpen their arguments.

Dewar, Gwen. 2009. Teaching critical thinking: An evidence-based guide. https://www.parentingscience.com/teaching-critical-thinking.html

Shpancer, Noam. 2020. Why we love a good cabal: Conspiracy theories are byproducts of how the brain thinks.