I have a personal Facebook account, which I use to keep up with friends and family. Like many of you, I've also discovered that this gives me a peek inside the psyche of those friends and family — and one of the things that I saw was an interest (and sometimes belief in) conspiracy theories. It wasn't limited to the Right or the Left. And it definitely wasn't limited to people I love but consider a little "off", if you know what I'm saying.* Over and over, I saw perfectly rational, sane people, supporting and spreading ideas that, to me, seemed a little nuts.
And that made me curious: Where do conspiracy theories come from? The answer, according to psychologists and sociologists, is not "Glenn Beck's fevered imagination." In fact, the category "people who believe in conspiracy theories" can't even really be separated into The Other in a nice, neat way. If you look at the data, the people who believe in conspiracy theories are us. And those theories grow out of both historical context, our feelings about ourselves and the wider world, and the way that our brains respond to feelings of powerlessness and uncertainty. Here's a short excerpt from my most recent column for The New York Times Magazine:
While psychologists can’t know exactly what goes on inside our heads, they have, through surveys and laboratory studies, come up with a set of traits that correlate well with conspiracy belief. In 2010, Swami and a co-author summarized this research in The Psychologist, a scientific journal. They found, perhaps surprisingly, that believers are more likely to be cynical about the world in general and politics in particular. Conspiracy theories also seem to be more compelling to those with low self-worth, especially with regard to their sense of agency in the world at large. Conspiracy theories appear to be a way of reacting to uncertainty and powerlessness.
Economic recessions, terrorist attacks and natural disasters are massive, looming threats, but we have little power over when they occur or how or what happens afterward. In these moments of powerlessness and uncertainty, a part of the brain called the amygdala kicks into action. Paul Whalen, a scientist at Dartmouth College who studies the amygdala, says it doesn’t exactly do anything on its own. Instead, the amygdala jump-starts the rest of the brain into analytical overdrive — prompting repeated reassessments of information in an attempt to create a coherent and understandable narrative, to understand what just happened, what threats still exist and what should be done now. This may be a useful way to understand how, writ large, the brain’s capacity for generating new narratives after shocking events can contribute to so much paranoia in this country.
*This joke is totally going to get me into trouble. Dear friends and family: Trust me, you are not the one I'm referring to here.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.