The street I live on has a chat group, which I usually avoid. But last year I was alerted to one exchange. Someone was moving in from another province, and asked about the quality of the tap water here, i.e. whether she should use a filter. Which prompted one of my neighbours to go on a tirade on the platform about how additives in the water supply have been responsible for an increase in the LGBT population.

Conspiracy theories are everywhere.

Did you know that Taylor Swift is part of a covert government psy-op (psychological operation) to swing the 2024 U.S. presidential election? Almost 20% of people surveyed believe that premise.

Or that “lizard people” – a group of reptilian humanoids with shape-shifting powers – live among us and have bloodlines that include many the world’s modern leaders? In one survey, 4% of people bought that.

Such “beliefs” would be laughable except that conspiracy theorists now loom large in public discourse. The far-right QAnon and the slew of bizarre claims emerging from COVID are just a few examples. And conspiracy theories are moving beyond the fringe, cutting across large swaths of the population and all ages.

In England, a survey of teachers revealed that 40% have encountered students who support conspiracy theories. Almost one-quarter of those young people believe the moon landing was fake, and 29% feel COVID vaccines were a ruse to inject us with microchips.

In Canada, 34% of those surveyed by Leger think scientists have found a cure for cancer but the government is withholding it. That survey asked respondents about their views on 15 common conspiracy theories; 79% of Canadians believe at least one.

Another Canadian survey by Abacus found that 44% believe that big events (like wars, recessions and elections) are “controlled by small groups of people working in secret against us”. And 41% agree that “much of our lives are being controlled by plots hatched in secret places”.

Those 41% may be on to something. Not because of what they believe but why they believe it – that there’s some sort of hidden hand guiding what happens to us.

That’s faulty logic, but it results from an essential human trait. We love stories.

People have a narrative bias

I recently read two books that each touch on our narrative bias – our propensity to seek patterns and unravel information as being part of a bigger story.

One book is called Fluke, by Brian Klaas, a social scientist and professor of global politics at University College London. “We have all been living a comforting lie,” he writes, “from the stories we tell about ourselves to the myths we use to explain history and social change.”

Why did Klaas write the book? “I began to wonder whether the history of humanity is just an endless, but futile, struggle to impose order, certainty and rationality onto a world defined by disorder, chance and chaos.”

He argues that much of what happens around and to us are just chance occurrences. They’re not, he says, “neat and tidy connections”.

We may perceive such connections when we look back, tying loose threads together.

We may be comforted by the notion that everything happen for a reason.

Or we may be alarmed by the forces that are out there collaborating to “get us”.

But as Klaas says, big events don’t necessarily have big, straightforward causes. Just small, accidental ones.

In a chapter titled “The Storytelling Animal”, he writes that we often think of ourselves as making choices based on a structured, internal flowchart of risks and rewards. Instead, we act according to our beliefs, which are influenced by what he calls the arbitrary, accidental and random.

Moreover, Klaas says “our beliefs are most easily swayed when ideas are put into a story.”

That’s what makes ideas understandable, transmittable and enforceable. “Our brains are so attuned to narrative that we will connect the dots into a story even when the dots aren’t connected,” he writes.

In essence, conspiracy theories are elaborate if misguided narratives, which help some people “make sense” of the changes in their world.

“Conspiracy theories take on a bewildering series of seemingly unconnected data points and them into a coherent story,” Klaas writes. “It’s usually one hell of a good story too, complete with cover-ups and shadowy cabals. Fact-checkers and debunkers have an impossible task. Their job is to tell you – the storytelling animal – that there is no story. It’s a battle that’s already lost.”

Stop the magical overthinking

Maybe you don’t buy into the idea that, say, water fluoridation is a government plot, or that mass shootings are staged by “crisis actors”. But have you ever looked at a rainbow or and believed it was a personal sign to you?

Some people think a rainbow is a link between the earthly and celestial, like the cosmos is sending you a direct message of hope. Others see it as just refraction, i.e. light from the sun scattered by water droplets.

Odds are that you’re susceptible to all sorts of everyday conspiratorial reasoning. That’s what writer and linguist Amanda Montell suggests in her book The Age of Magical Overthinking: Notes on Modern Irrationality.

She defines magical thinking as a belief that your internal thoughts can affect unrelated events in the external world. In today’s information age, Montell says our brains are overloaded and irrationality is dialed up.

That can manifest itself in ways big and small.

For instance, she says we can craft narratives to explain dumb luck. Like the reason you found a $20 bill this afternoon is that you let someone merge in front of you during rush hour this morning. It was a karmic payback.

That’s a minor example. But, Montell writes, “In virtually every context, we cannot seem to rest until we find some intentional force either to fault for our misery or credit for our success.”

To be sure, actual conspiracies are rampant.

Organized crime is a conspiracy. Institutional cover-ups of major misdeeds and malfeasance are conspiracies. So is collusion like price fixing and sharing insider information. Much of the climate change denial movement (which followed the big tobacco playbook) is rooted in corporate conspiracies.

Yet conspiracies and conspiracy theories are two different things.

“What is a conspiracy theory, other than the intuition that some powerful force is out there plotting to sabotage you or save you?” writes Montell.

There’s more than enough genuine and harmful conspiracies out there, along with propaganda and disinformation, without being consumed by “theories”. The reality is that the universe isn’t conspiring for you or against you. It’s indifferent to you.

No matter what stories you tell yourself.

Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Connect with me here on LinkedIn, check me out at foxmancommunications.com or follow me on X (formerly Twitter) @StuartFoxman where I share these blogs too. More original posts coming regularly about communications, information, motivation, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, learning, etc.

June 12, 2024

 

Share This