By Connor Dore, JRN 111 Student
Have you ever wondered why these days it seems like everyone believes in at least one conspiracy? From theories about JFK’s assassination to the belief the world is flat, conspiracies seem to take on a life of their own.
And anxiety over the coronavirus pandemic, political upheaval and the economy may be creating conditions ripe for conspiracies to flourish.
According to an NPR/Ipsos poll in December, “A significant number of Americans believe disinformation about the coronavirus and about settled historical facts…[and] experts say disinformation is being spread on an unprecedented scale.”
But why do we try to find patterns in something with little to no evidence backing up the theory? That was the central question explored Thursday by Laura Lauzen-Collins, associate professor of psychology, in a virtual event entitled, “Getting sucked down the rabbit hole: Tribes, filter bubbles, identity fusion, and conspiracy theories.”
The event was cosponsored by the Moraine library and the college’s Democracy Commitment program.
“Conspiracy theories fulfill our evolution-driven needs,” Lauzen-Collins stated. “These are needs we are hard-wired with as humans…needs that have helped us survive as a species.”
She laid out four reasons we believe in conspiracies: the need to understand, the need to feel certainty and control, the need to feel good about ourselves, and the need to belong.
Humans are always trying to understand complicated situations, Lauzen-Collins explained. The issue is that we analyze situations either through someone else’s perspective or our own which could lead us to seeing patterns that are not necessarily there.
This need flourishes in complex, chaotic times like these, she said: “It’s very difficult to exist within chaos.”
Conspiracy theories fuel our evolution-driven needs.”Psychology professor Laura Lauzen-Collins
The need to understand goes hand-in-hand with the need to feel certainty and control, Lauzen-Collins said. “They both lead us to see intention that is not really there.”
The belief in conspiracies also involves the need to feel good about ourselves; we want to be “the good guy” and “on the right side of history.”
This need explains some of the divisiveness in today’s climate, as it causes us to see the other side more negatively so “we can create an enemy to blame,” Lauzen-Collins said.
Having some kind of inside information on an event also makes us feel unique in a way. This feeling clouds our judgement and causes us to want to believe in something that may not be true.
While some conspiracy theorists want to stand out, most only want to belong. Lauzen-Collins explained that while a lot of people believe a conspiracy theorist is just online alone posting on some message board, most conspiracy theorists create or join a community over a theory. A great example is the Flat Earth Society, which had a conference in 2019 just north of Dallas.
Avoid getting sucked down the rabbit hole
Being aware of these needs is step one in avoiding getting sucked down the rabbit hole. Lauzen-Collins delved further into the psychology by explaining how we humans are “cognitive misers”—our cognitive capacity is limited because we are being stimulated by an extreme amount of information. As a result, we can fall victim to confirmation bias. When our theory is disproven even with hard evidence, we can still try different experiments to get our theory proven.
Another influence is ingroup and outgroup bias. Your in-group (the people you surround yourself with) and your out-group (everyone else) both affect your cognition. “As we get connected to our in-group, we tend to limit our actions with the outgroup,” Lauzen-Collins stated. “We tend to be influenced by others, especially our in-group.”
So what other ways can we avoid going down the rabbit hole, besides just being more aware?
“Your reality is what you’ve been exposed to,” Lauzen-Collins said. “You need to make the conscious decision to seek out an opposing opinion and intentionally seek out the other side.”
She recommends always trying to prove yourself wrong. Try to find those opposing opinions and talk about them.
Library chair Troy Swanson, who moderated the talk, recommended the website Metabunk, which debunks or breaks down major conspiracy theories.
“Fall back on sites that are built with accuracy in mind,” Lauzen-Collins said. “There are a lot of sites out there with the intention of being biased. Seek out sources that are built to be unbiased.”