Image credit: The Atlantic

Conspiracy Theory: Is it a Republican gene?

Are we immune from this mutation?

Are we being controlled by the “deep state”? Are there lizard people behind the scenes of politics? I am 100% sure that you have heard many conspiracies from your parents, friends, partner, or even your professors. You may have even believed in a conspiracy or two at some point in your life. I, a younger me, used to believe that the Illuminati was ruling the world with their satanic plots. Most of us grew up believing that Santa exists and that is the biggest conspiracy theory ever told. Probably your parents had good intentions and wanted you to be a “good kid” around the year. They then made you think that someone is watching you at all times. There seems to be a vulnerability when it comes to conspiracy thinking among Homo Sapiens. Herein, I want to investigate the scientific reasonings as well as the political motivations behind this behavior. There are instances in the past that conspiracy theories have helped our species while today there are conspiracies that jeopardize our democracy and intelligence.

Polling in 2013 surveyed Americans about their belief in lizard people, shape-shifting reptilians that govern America and the world, and you would be surprised that 4% of Americans said that they believed in the lizard people while 7% were unsure. This survey was conducted from “1,247 registered American voters.” However, according to Philip Bump, if you apply this statistic to the population of the United States, this translates into 12.5 million Americans with a margin of error of 2.8. The claim is absurd and straight out of an under budget sci-fi movie, but not crazy enough for millions of people. The lizard people controlling the politic was the least believed conspiracy among others that they have asked. You might think that it’s just a joke and it would not cause any harm, but in the same polling, 20% of people believed that autism was linked to vaccination. There are consequences in believing such conspiracies as we are witnessing the rise in anti-vaccine movements where they are rejecting the COVID19 vaccine even before its development.

Who is the mastermind of conspiracy theories?

It is crucial to understand that conspiracy theory is not a modern phenomenon as the home page of shadowland reads:

“America owes its existence, at least in part, to conspiracy thinking. In the colonies, a theory was born that King George III was plotting the enslavement of all Americans. Even without evidence, this theory helped tip the scales toward revolution.”

Conspiracy thinking may surge when many events are occurring within a short time span and creates uncertainty. There are instances in our history that were difficult to digest which made us vulnerable to extraordinary explanations and deeper meanings. For instance, “ NewYork Times (1992) showed that only 10% of Americans believed the officials account that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in assassinating President John F. Kennedy,” and we can detect similar trends among people today. Our brain is a fascinating organ and the main cause of our rational and irrational behaviors. Proportionality bias, “our innate tendency to assume that big events have big causes, may also explain our tendency to accept conspiracies.” In the instance of John F. Kennedy, our cognitive biases seek a bigger cause to accommodate the big loss because it is difficult to accept that even the most powerful person in the world is so vulnerable to ordinary incidents. The feeling of uncertainty that a government cannot protect its leader can be coped through beliefs of secretively.

“Every four years America experiences collective loss,” Cara says referring to the presidential election.

“The real dark mastermind behind conspiracy theory thinking is … US.” Shocking, right. The conspiracy theory may also surge when we encounter a big loss in our lives and our brain cannot make sense of it. Humans do not like to lose in something that they have invested time and energy in. It is a traumatic experience for us to lose, especially publicly and how we cope with that is to blame others. People tend to start conspiracy thinking after they have experienced disappointment. It’s again another way that our cognition and our mind are creating an illusion to seek purpose for what has not happened as planned, there must be magic or a deity involved. In my own experience, it was the challenging experience of moving across the world that made me vulnerable to the Illuminati conspiracy.

Are Republicans more prone to conspiracy theories?

Joseph Parent and Joseph Uscinski conducted a study to look at the patterns of conspiracy thinking between the two parties, as Cara Santa Maria puts it “before an election both parties tend to be equally paranoid about a conspiracy to rig the boat. After the election one side is more convinced that it was rigged, the losing side.” It is the extreme polarization of parties that feeds into such strong feelings, and viewing the other party as your enemy is not helping society to cope and have a healthy competition. As Prudy Gourguenchon explains that “if you’re on the side that loses you have less control or no control in our current society where there is this extreme polarization. The side that is in control is SO different from you.” So, I guess the answer is that falling into the conspiracy theory trap is bi-partisan and in fact universal because the ultimate source of it is our brain.

“The influence of nonsense, when unchecked by science, by direct observation, by a shared epistemological reality, can be profoundly damaging.” -Jeffrey Goldberg

But what about Trump… Wait… Not so fast…

The power of conspiracy thinking is undeniable. It creates a state of paranoia and constant fear. For this reason, many people have tried using conspiracy theories as a ladder to their authoritative positions. In our time, this is happening under our noses and many of our friends and families are falling into the trap while you find yourself helpless trying to converse with them. “Trump does not defend our democracy from the ruinous consequences of conspiracy thinking. Instead, he embraces such thinking.” We are battling with a once in a decade pandemic on one hand, and a wide range of protesters demanding justice on the other hand and the cherry on top is the presidential election. We need a leader to lead us to a brighter future, a leader who can cancel background noises rather than amplifying ridiculous behaviors to undermine society’s sense of democracy. Instead, we see that bizarre claims such that “the threat of the “deep state” with the ferocity of a QAnon disciple,” are being supported by the most powerful man in the world.

“Nonsense is nonsense, except when it kills. And conspiracy thinking, especially when advanced by the president of the United States, is an existential threat.”

-Jeffrey Goldberg

What happens inside our heads to make us so vulnerable?

We are pattern-seeking creatures and understanding patterns has saved us throughout history. Pattern perception, “an assumption about how people and events are causally connected.” Meaning, events that happen consecutively have been caused by each other. This is the essence of the behavior that is speculated to have kept our ancestors alive in the wild. Imagine yourself walking down the street at night in a place that is not familiar to you and you see a mysterious shadow. Your brain’s first reaction is “it’s a predator and you are in danger.” This is an evolutionary trait that has kept our ancestors safe from danger. This pattern processing has become sophisticated by the development of the prefrontal, visual, and temporal cortex (as shown below). There is a suggestion that conspiracy thinking emerges from our highly intellectual brain because “conspiracy theories contain several key components, such as pattern recognition, agency detection, and threat management.” This pattern recognition can be distorted or become an illusion if not based on the evidence of reality. In the example where you are walking down the street at night, if we end up seeing that it was just a cat then we are relieved, but if we don’t see the source or if we are unable to connect the dots correctly we can stay in the illusion that someone is trying to harm us.

Image credit: Mark P. Mattson

We have not learned from history!

Our lives are on the line …

I mean it literally. Conspiracy theory is nothing new nor unique to politics. As discussed above it’s the inside job of our cognition. Distrust toward professionals and experts have always been with us like a bad gene. There are still people, 37% according to a 2013 poll, in the United States who believe that climate change is a hoax and that it is not caused by humans, regardless of the warnings from scientists and experts that have urged people and government to take action and create policies to defeat this crisis. Anti-vaxxers are growing thanks to the internet and jeopardizing public health without any evidence to support their ridiculous claims.

In the case of vaccination, history has been the proof of the power of vaccines. In 1774 Benjamin Jesty, an English farmer and cattle breeder, who vaccinated his family against smallpox with cowpox virus or vaccinia (a viral skin infection of cows). Later, Edward Jenner confirmed the effectiveness of vaccination against smallpox with vaccinia by conducting the first clinical trials. And led to the beginning of vaccination against smallpox in the late 18th century. Concurrently, English people rose against the 1853 Vaccination Act, which mandated vaccination against smallpox for children, and created the first anti-vaccine movement. This movement found its way to America and infected the society ever since. This movement has been believed to even inspire anti-vaccine ideology within India while they were struggling with smallpox in the early 20th Century.

The denial of truth solely based on conspiracy thinking has been very damaging throughout history. We are two centuries passed since the anti-vaccine movement and way more technological advancements. The information at the tip of our fingers yet we are far from learning our lessons. This decision makings based on paranoia and fear is ruining the health of us and our politics. We have to start taking actions to inform ourselves first and start making “viral” approaches to spread the truth instead of burning telephone polls in fear of 5G.

As discussed in my previous article, being surrounded by like minded people who always agree with you can be damaging and the example is evident in our current state. As our political parties becoming more polarized, the more like minded people will share their positions without a conflict behind closed doors. This polarized politic is making decisions for you and I and our future. This polarization is one of the leading cause of our today’s problem in the politics where conspiracy theorist and QAnon follower, Laura Loomer who has been blocked from major apps, is being endorsed by Trump. The democracy of this nation is being jeopardized and our enlightenment is being crushed.

What can we do?

Changing the way we are comfortable to think and make decisions is the first step…

The antidote for various types of irrationality or extraordinary thinking is to elicit analytical thinking, especially when encountering uncertainties. There are studies conducted that show the effectiveness of analytical and critical thinking to reduce conspiracy and paranormal beliefs. A group of researchers in the UK acknowledged the “evidence that exposure to conspiracy theories reduces intention to engage in politics, to reduce one’s carbon footprint, to vaccinate and to engage in positive health behaviors.” They conducted several studies to show that by promoting analytical thinking, subjects would significantly reduce their belief in the conspiracy. Promoting analytical thinking can be a great adaptational behavior to overcome this evolutionary by-product of our brain. We have evolved with our intuitions and they helped us as with the rise of the revolution against King George III to challenge the “dominant ideological structures.” However, these paranormal belief is putting our health, and environment at risk and being in the constant state of panic may increase the chance of authoritative society. It is a good practice to push our brains to think critically instead of relying on our intuitions and gut feelings as Trump would suggest.

Communication Communication…

Another great step to take is to have effective communication skills and be able to speak with unsure individuals humanly. We need to recognize that we all are susceptible to paranormal thinking and having empathy toward others would help us improve our influence. As Yasmin Tayag states in her article, the viral “[m]isinformation-filled videos like “Plandemic” have the potential to fracture trust, but they also provide opportunities to have facts-based conversations about science with people who may feel scared and confused.”




Future Best-Selling Author | Future Forbes Under 30 | Storytelling: Personal Growth-Science-Politics-Tech-Cognition| Nanovaccine Researcher | Foodie 🍣🍝🍕🍫

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Zahra Mesrizadeh

Zahra Mesrizadeh

Future Best-Selling Author | Future Forbes Under 30 | Storytelling: Personal Growth-Science-Politics-Tech-Cognition| Nanovaccine Researcher | Foodie 🍣🍝🍕🍫

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