Put on your tin-foil hat, cover your webcam with a piece of tape, and wait for the imminent arrival of the lizard people because it’s time for some conspiracy theories. Over half of American adults believe in at least one wacky theory, but why are these absurd and complex ideas are so appealing?
Many conspiracy theories appeal to the basic ways we process information. We are, for example, hard-wired to believe in intentional causality. That means that when you’re camping and you hear a rustling bush, you probably assume there’s a dangerous animal lurking around. You know it’s probably just the wind, but still, it feels safer to assume the source is a threat. That same paranoia pops up all the time when you don’t quite understand the cause of something.
And then there’s pattern recognition, one of the fundamental traits of how we see the world and communicate with each other. Our brains are constantly searching for patterns but sometimes find them where there are none. Coupled with the fear we feel when we’re not in control of a situation and other psychological principles like confirmation bias, our brains are practically primed to search for outlandish explanations.