Research by psychologists at Goldsmiths, University of London suggests that belief in conspiracy theories is widespread because of an ‘intentionality bias’ built into our brains.
Conspiracies about mysterious events, from the disappearance of MH370 to the death of Princess Diana, become popular because many of us can’t help seeking intent behind ambiguous events, say researchers.
As a result, conspiracies appear more plausible than alternative explanations.
Professor Chris French, Head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, and Visiting Research Fellow Dr Rob Brotherton, asked study participants to read twelve short sentences, such as "The boy knocked over the sandcastle."
Each one could describe something done intentionally (for example, a bratty kid gleefully destroying his sister’s handiwork), or something that happened by accident (the boy wasn’t looking where he was going).
Participants wrote down whatever came to mind. The research team then counted up the number of accidental and intentional interpretations they came up with.
They found that people who generally believe ambiguous actions are intentional are more likely to endorse conspiracy theories.
"A small but reliable trend"
Dr Brotherton explains: “We found a small but reliable trend: the more sentences a person interpreted as intentional, they more they tended to endorse conspiratorial statements, like the idea that the world is ruled by some small secret society.
“Young children often think that the sun exists to warm us up, and that someone who sneezes must really enjoy sneezing. As we get older we learn that some things are unintended, and we can override our gut instinct. But even as adults, the intentionality bias lingers in the back of our minds.”
The study shows that conspiracy theories fit with this intuitive way of thinking. Theories about Princess Diana, for example, allege that her car crash was orchestrated deliberately, while the official story says it was nothing more than a tragic accident.
“We're all budding conspiracy theorists, because conspiracy theories resonate with how our minds work,” adds Dr Brotherton.
Belief in conspiracies has serious consequences
Professor French explains why belief in conspiracy theories can have serious consequences:
“Conspiracy theories by definition are unverified and implausible but despite this, belief in them is widespread. This can have serious consequences for believers and the wider community. Conspiracies about HIV/AIDS or vaccines, for example, will have a major negative impact on global health, while theories about government wrongdoing can lead to radicalisation and violence.”
“Conspiracism has, until recently, been neglected by psychologists, and it’s only recently that we’ve begun to understand how individual differences and cognitive factors are associated with endorsement of conspiracy theories.”
Intention seekers: Conspiracist ideation and biased attributions of intentionality was published in the journal PLOS ONE on Wednesday 13 May.
About the authors
Dr Rob Brotherton is a Visiting Research Fellow in the Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths. He is author of the forthcoming book Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories (Bloomsbury Sigma, November 19, 2015), and writes about the psychology of conspiracy theories at conspiracypsychology.com.
Professor Chris French is Head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit, Department of Psychology. He frequently appears on radio and television casting a sceptical eye over paranormal claims. Professor French writes for the Guardian and The Skeptic magazine. His most recent book is Anomalistic Psychology: Exploring Paranormal Belief and Experience.