Belief in conspiracies ‘caused by evolution’

Ridiculous: Anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists depict Bill Gates as Batman's Joker.

Could the popularity of conspiracy theories be caused by evolution, not ignorance? Recent research suggests that a belief in false stories descends from prehistoric self-preservation.

He is an unlikely choice to play the Joker.

Yet a picture of Microsoft founder Bill Gates shows him donning the powdery make-up, slime-green hair and lurid purple suit of Batman’s nemesis. Grinning maniacally, the Gates-Joker squirts a needle containing a sinister liquid: part of his evil plan to depopulate the world using a poison vaccine.

This image is ridiculous and completely false. But it has been circulated around Arabic-language Facebook by anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists on groups with a combined 2.4 million followers.

The Covid-19 pandemic has unleashed dozens of false stories worldwide. Some claim that the 5G wireless network spreads the virus, others that vaccines contain location-sensing microchips.

We are living in what psychologist Karen Douglas calls “an age of conspiracy”. A 2017 survey claimed that over 50% of Americans believed at least one conspiracy. Another found that 15% of registered US voters — almost 50 million people — believe in the Illuminati, while a still-enormous 12 million think alien lizards control the world.

Some have even died for their conspiracies. Mike Hughes, an American amateur aeronaut, perished in a homemade rocket crash last February. He intended to prove that the Earth was flat.

This January, the QAnon conspiracy theory, which claims Donald Trump is engaged in battle with an evil cabal of billionaires and Democrats, inspired followers to storm the US Capitol. The unprecedented riot claimed five lives. An earlier poll found that 56% of Republican voters believed at least some aspects of the theory.

Conspiracy theories have a long, bloody history stretching at least as far back as Ancient Rome. Many Medieval Europeans believed that Jewish people conducted kidnapping and ritual murders, lies that repeatedly led to anti-Semitic violence.

It is often assumed that belief in conspiracy theories is driven by ignorance. Some thinkers believe education to be the best remedy – that once people know the truth, they will abandon false claptrap.

But there is evidence of a more complicated picture. Some behavioural psychologists – including the Nobel Prize-winning Richard Thaler – have found that being presented with the truth can actually harden conspiracy theorists’ false views.

Recent research by the Swedish sociologist Mikael Klintman goes further. In a 2019 article, he argues that a tendency to believe in conspiracy theories flows through our DNA. Humans, says Klintman, “often prioritisese fitting in over pursuing the most valid knowledge.”

This behaviour dates back to prehistoric times, where membership of a tribe was crucial to survival. Through banding together into groups with shared beliefs, modern conspiracists follow an evolutionary drive to avoid being excluded.

Could the popularity of conspiracy theories be caused by evolution?

Going viral

Maybe, say some. If ignorance is the seed of conspiracy theories, why have they bloomed in an era with an unprecedented amount of available information? A mere lack of knowledge can hardly be blamed for belief in secret cabals and reptilian overlords. Klintman’s evolutionary take explains why conspiracy theories have continued to take hold despite enormous changes in human life and societies.

Not likely, say others. From religion to conspiracies, ignorance has often driven belief. There is abundant evidence that a lack of knowledge increases a person’s likelihood of following conspiracy theories, including studies that link these beliefs to lower levels of education. Besides, if we have an evolutionary disposition towards conspiracy theories, why do many people not believe in them?

You Decide

  1. Can conspiracy theories ever have a positive effect on society?
  2. Is a person culpable for a crime they were genetically predisposed to commit?

Activities

  1. Design a billboard warning people about — and debunking — a present-day conspiracy theory.
  2. In pairs, concoct a conspiracy theory. Present your theory to the class, taking questions on its details. At the end of the lesson, rank each conspiracy in order of plausibility.

Some People Say...

“Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.”

George Bernard Shaw (1856 — 1950), Irish playwright and polemicist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Thinkers widely agree that conspiracy theories have numerous harmful consequences for societies. They have inspired many atrocities, including the Holocaust and the witch hunts of the 17th Century. They have damaged public health, fuelling famine and disease by spreading scepticism about legitimate treatments. And they have been directly linked to extremist behaviour and terrorism, including the 2011 Norway attack, the 2019 New Zealand shootings and the 2020 storming of the US Capitol.
What do we not know?
There remains much debate on the psychological motives behind a belief in conspiracy theory. Sociologists often ground it in a sense of powerlessness. Some psychologists ascribe it to a search for meaning. The historian Richard Hofstadter thought that conspiracy theorists projected their own anxieties on their targets, while the philosopher Karl Popper argued that they stemmed from a tendency to see every event as intentional, underestimating the influence of chance and unintended consequences.

Word Watch

Lurid
Unpleasantly bright in colour.
Maniacally
To be maniacal is to be affected with or suggestive of madness.
Depopulate
Gates mentioned the possibility of a deadly virus in 2015. Conspiracy theorists used the quote to claim that Gates supports the depopulation of the Earth.
Conspiracy theorists
People who believe that something occurs as a result of a conspiracy, often between covert, shadowy groups.
The Illuminati
A secret society that controls the world. Although it is named after a real group of 18th-Century German intellectuals, the modern-day conspiracy theory was invented as a joke in the 1960s. The authors were astonished to find that people started to believe it.
Cabal
A group united to pursue an agenda.
Ancient Rome
The historian Livy exposed a 200-year old conspiracy theory, widely believed in Rome, about a circle of aristocratic poisoners.
Ignorance
An unawareness of important knowledge or information.
Claptrap
Nonsense.
Behavioural psychologists
Members of a discipline that believes human behaviour to be shaped by its environment.
Richard Thaler
One of Thaler’s ideas is that humans can be “nudged”, or tricked, into activities that contradict their beliefs. Many governments now have a “Nudge Unit”.

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