Why do we believe in Conspiracy Theories and fake news?

(note: this article is adapted from a 2017 text written in Portuguese by the author)

When I was a kid, I studied in a small school in my neighborhood. The back of the school border with an abandoned land and, since it was there for a long time, it was taken by nature, dirt and a lot of wild animals (and probably some wild people too). It was very easy for us, students, to jump from the back of the school to the land and this was a problem for the teachers. One day a big hole appear “out of nowhere” in the ground of that land. No one knew exactly what it was and what happened. Soon rumors began that weird things happen in and around the hole, like smoke from inside, some strange lights rounding the place and even sightings of a woman carrying a baby float through the school and spread quickly. Even the teachers confirm that they have seen some weird things there.

Things took such a proportion that students were really scared, so teachers finally told the truth: it was all a rumor invented by one of them to avoid kids to continuing to go to that land – which was dangerous because of all the wild animals. It was an innocent “white lie” that the teacher didn’t thought it would blow up so out of proportion. But the thing is no one believed the truth. All the students were convinced that teachers were just trying to cover up the “real” truth. One day, the hole was found closed. Just like that. Out of nowhere like it first appeared. Kids speculate what happen for a while but eventually almost everyone forgot it – and those who didn’t stop taking it too seriously. This is a true story that happen about 30 years ago.

Of course the teachers didn’t expect that a simple comment trying to keep the kids out of that abandoned land would take such absurd proportions. But this is a good example of what happens when people are so easily susceptible and have the tendency to believe in anything. But we talking about kids here, right? They eventually grow up and start to think more rationally. Right? Well, that’s the thing: we don’t.

This goes back to theories regarding how superstitions are created. it’s tied to experiments done by B.F. Skinner with pigeons in the 1930s. He put a pigeon inside a box and the pigeon, desperate and hungry, accidentally pecked a button and got food. Two more times doing the same and he started to “think” that, every time he pecked the button he would get food. But the interesting thing here is, even when he doesn’t get food, he still tried to peck the button. Sometimes harder, sometimes in different ways. This experiment gives us a good view of the superstitious thinking and helps us to understand a little about how our mind works. But what superstition has to do with conspiracy theories or fake news? When, everything, actually.

We, human beings, are used to see ourselves as different from other animals – we even think that we are superior in some way. Well, this helps with our ego, but it doesn’t add up with our actual scientific knowledge. Although we do have characteristics that other animals may not have we are, actually, ruled by the same biological instincts of any living creatures and our own society, complex as it is, still was made from those biological needs – although I know that is a little more complicated than that. The thing is most of our actions are the same, just adding complexity in the mix.

In the jungle, we don’t have time to analyze each particular situation like we can do in a modern society. To stop to think, in a scenario where you are constantly in danger of being attacked by a predator or, being yourself a predator, are constantly under threat of not finding a prey and die from starvation – it’s not just dangerous; it’s stupid.

To make sure we have speed of thought in a world where wasting time could be fatal, animals develop the ability to create patterns that allows them to easily spot a danger – or an opportunity. For example: something is moving in the bushes is always a danger – even if it isn’t, it’s better to think that is a danger when it’s not than to think there is no danger and it actually is; a light reflection that means water nearby, an opportunity. We survived and got here thanks to this. But, as all abilities brought to us by evolution, it has its flaws: a pattern created from a failure of judgment can lead an animal to get wrong about a threat or an opportunity and the thing that could help him stay alive could harm him – or even kill him. Of course the benefits of this ability surpasses potential errors, reason why it was selected by evolution and pass it along.

In our complex society1 this “pattern generator software” that we have in our brains can also either help us or harm us. What appears to be a shadow figure may be and intruder trying to rob our house… Or could be nothing.  It’s good if helps us be more careful, but it could be bad (especially for your pocket) if you decided that this shadowy figure is a ghost and pay someone to “exorcize” your house.

This kind of behavior - although it doesn’t look like it at first – is similar to the belief in conspiracy theories and how easily we believe in fake news. Behavioral scientists already know this kind of thing for a while now. We, human beings, have a deep – and evolutionary – obsession for give meaning to events. Our brains hate contradiction and everything that seems nonsense. Everything has to have a meaning. The problem is the reality is not that simple and, in a complex world that frequently doesn’t make sense superstition, conspiracy theories and false assumptions about things you take for granted arise as a way to simplify the world and make it easier to digest.

Of course, in a world dominated by technology and with information in real time, we receive news so quickly that we can’t afford to look it up if the information is solid. But "pattern generator software" along with our obsession for meaning keep strong in our brains and end up just switching the focus. Don’t be fooled: believing in fake news is pretty much believing in conspiracy theories, although without the same kind of life engagement that a whole conspiracy theory often demand.

But why believe in conspiracy theories in the first place? Why not any other thing? Well, there’s a lot of reasons for that, so I will talk about only a few. But first, it’s important to make some distinctions: conspiracy is a secret gather of individuals with intent to harm/take advantage of someone or many. Conspiracy is a real thing, and we have several examples in History to back it up. But then there’s conspiracy THEORY, which is the hypothesis about some allegedly conspiracy that may exist in the world. The term is often associated with UFOs and secret societies, but there’s all kinds of conspiracy theories, from allegations that dead celebrities didn’t actually die to the moon landing being a fake – I bet you know a bunch of those.

All conspiracy theories – as in mostly all fake news – there’s some common patterns. They usually start from a real thing - like, for example, the incident in Roswell – which helps build verisimilitude to the story. They also revolves around a sinister agenda – which frequently is associated to the future/destruction of humankind), which helps with the storytelling aspect and arouse interest – who doesn’t like a good story about secrets? And, last but not least, the story has plot holes that can quickly and easily filled and frequently cannot be verified – or demands knowledge in a specific area of expertise to debunk.

With this structure, a story can be extremely difficult to debunk – sometimes impossible – because the evidence to refute it can be ignored simply by saying that it’s “manipulated”, “fabricated” or “are part of the disinformation plan.” This actually is a more complex version of Skinner’s pigeon experiment that I talked about in the beginning: if another pigeon were put there and could ask why the first was pecking the button when is not always that food comes, he (or she) would probably give an explanation, an excuse sort to speak to maintain the superstition. Maybe he didn’t peck strong enough, or not pecked the right part of the button. Or maybe he need to peck and scratch at the same time. Explanations would arise to justify the behavior instead of the pigeon simply admit that it’s not a sure knowledge.

I know it sounds weird to say that conspiracy theories and fake news are about simplifying the world when a lot of those stories are intricately complex. But regardless of the complexity of the storytelling, they provide meaning to an event other than “it’s a random thing that happens to random people” – for humans it’s extremely difficult to deal with the randomness of life.

What’s emotionally easier to believe: that a virus are destroying humanity randomly and that has nothing to do with anyone or; that some shady government – that you were raised to hate in the first place – is responsible for creating a biological weapon to destroy the world? Or that the virus is an attempt from a divine being to wipe out true evil in the world?

For those who don’t believe in a specific conspiracy theory/fake news, it’s really hard to believe that people could…well, believe in those things. But it’s just that your mindset is not the same. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t have your own patterns regarding certain news or certain information. You have. Even if you are aware that your mind may be deceiving you, you still have those patterns. Generally, we call those patterns “biases”, but they are created the same way: A bunch of patterns – sometimes random, sometimes not – are registered in our brains as something meaningful. What happens after that is the tendency to believe everything that fit into those patterns.

Thinking from this perspective, it’s a little easier to understand why people believe in stories that, for others, clearly don’t make sense. The world is too random to have the meaning that we wanted and frequently too disappointing. It’s hard to accept a world where thousands die in a pandemic that doesn’t discriminate just from unjust, rich from poor, police from criminals. It’s complicated to admit that there’s no evil master plan or a test of a secret weapon; that it’s simply a tragedy: chaotic, random, and worst, inevitable2. Associating this things to conspiracy theories helps us not just to make sense but in a way to cope with a world that is many times too hard to handle.

I’m not saying that believing in conspiracy theories and fake News is a good thing. I’m just trying to explain why it’s so easy to fall into those traps and, specially, why this is more natural and that we think and will happen frequently. And that’s exactly the problem. Skepticism, although is not a thing from another world, is frequently counter-intuitive. It needs you to reject what your brain does naturally – and, therefore, will appear as you’re rejecting what is real. Because that’s what our brain does, make sure that all that we think seems right because the brain hates contradiction and randomness.

So, what can we do about it? Well, not much, unfortunately. But there are things that we can do to diminish the unintended effects of our “pattern generator software”. To search for available real data is always helpful. Being aware that any information that you’re receiving has the potential to be misleading just for your own biases alone. Read multiple sources of any information you receive. Understand that people who makes/gives those infos are also susceptible to the same problem and has their own biases – but don’t hold it against them. Being aware of the official information available about a subject. Try to fact checking important information; not just information that seems strange to you, but specially the information that seems right – you are most likely to be fooled by thing you already believe.

Perhaps you are thinking “but what’s the purpose of this ‘software’ if it only brings trouble?”. Well, here’s the thing. As I said earlier, this “pattern generator software” are really important when we have to make decisions on the spot. Besides that, there’s some unexpected yet beautiful side effects to this ability: any drawing is just a bunch of lines that our brain connects as a recognizable pattern. Without our pattern generator software, we wouldn’t have art. And even reading this would be impossible. So, easy on putting all the blame on our “pattern generator software”. It’s just a part of a more complex picture, but one that helps us to understand why it’s so easy to be fooled.

So the truth is that conspiracy theories and fake news aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. But we can learn how to live with it – and, most importantly, how to deal with it and search for the truth.

Rafael Algures is a Bachelor of Philosophy specialized in Neurosciences of Language. He is also a copywriter, content and science writer, and a comic book creator. His latest work, “Gutter of Horror: Transition”, a short horror comic about Philosophy and Artificial Intelligence are available at Amazon – digital and print.
1. I try not to call our society “advanced” because, let’s face it…
2. Of course, I’m talking about the pandemic as it is. This is not a commentary on how governments are dealing with this. I know deaths can be avoided with good pandemic policies, but that’s not what this article is about.