Why would someone believe the Earth is Flat? – The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories


Do you know that one friend, or maybe a crazy family member, who is constantly raving and ranting about Secret Societies, Chem Trails, and the End of the World.

Not to mention some of the more down right offensive conspiracy theories like “9/11 was an inside job” or “The Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax”. They might even passionately try to convince you that the Earth is flat.

You don’t have to be Neil Degrasse Tyson to disagree with them, with a basic 3rd grade education one will the learn that the Earth is a sphere and you can move on with life. That being said, Are they stupid? Or just susceptible to the highly compelling elements of conspiracy theories.

It’s not that all conspiracy theories aren’t true, it’s just that they are like candy for our cognitive biases. Wait hold on, I know what your thinking, what the hell is a cognitive bias?

A cognitive bias is a mistake in reasoning, evaluating, remembering, or other cognitive process, often occurring as a result of holding onto one’s preferences and beliefs regardless of contrary information. (courtesy of Chegg.com)

Luckily Cognitive Scientist, Jim Davies wrote a book that explains the seemingly irrational attractiveness of conspiracy theories. “Talking to Conspiracy Theorists can be like playing Table Tennis in a room with an oscillating fan” – Jim Davies

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Jim Davies is an American/Canadian cognitive scientist, playwright, artist, and author.[1] He received his bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the State University of New York at Oswego, his masters in psychology and his Ph.D. in computer science from the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is a full professor of Cognitive Science at the Institute of Cognitive Science and the School of Computer Science at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario where he is the director of the Science of Imagination Laboratory.[2][3] His research focuses on visual reasoning, analogy, and imagination.
Davies says that conspiracy theories appeal to our brains love for problem solving and fixing the incongruities in puzzles.

The same thing that makes people get obsessed with riveting crime/mystery series. You know, binge watching Dexter followed by Criminal Minds, topped off by a stubborn Sudoku Puzzle. Or maybe you just play Chess, in that case, respect.

Conspiracy theories provide a resolution or explanation for puzzling events. The conspiracy theorist gains a sense of superiority by having exclusive knowledge that society at large is unaware of. In a world with social media echo chambers like YouTube, its easy to readily exercise confirmation bias (the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses.) and reinforce, plus evangelize conspiracy theories despite all counter evidence.

Before you know it, you can end up shouting from the roof tops that the Moon Landing was fake.

Through this repeated evangelism of ideas related to the conspiracy theories get pounded in until they create an unshakable belief.

Unlike Charles Darwin who avidly looked for disconfirming evidence (while forming his theories on Evolution and Natural Selection), many theorists only look for information that supports their theory. (which is always, readily available in online communities)

Abducted by Aliens?

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In particular Alien Abduction appeals to people with a scientific worldview, where as they would be more likely to disregard religion, demons, spirits, etc. Hence the popularity of science fiction.

Aliens are also portrayed as human like which aligns with our love of anthropomorphism (Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities. It is considered to be an innate tendency of human psychology.) It’s probably some human ego that we assume an intelligent alien would look remotely like us.

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Theorists who believe in superstition, religion, and supernatural beliefs are said to rely more on intuition. These Conspiracy theories often get formulated in unpredictable environments as a means to explain things that are hard to understand.

People who believe in the paranormal are also said to have higher levels of dopamine (a compound present in the body as a neurotransmitter and a precursor of other substances including epinephrine.) which makes them more likely to see patterns and make connections that aren’t there. Mental Illness like Schizophrenia is characterized by an over production of dopamine.

One could theorize that those with mental illness (specifically Schizotypal) acted as early shamans and laid the groundwork for religions. This is expanded upon in Riveted. (But that’s a whole new conversation) On the contrary, skeptics have low dopamine levels. Skeptics are more likely to miss patterns that really are there, where believers are more likely to see the patterns that aren’t.

Religion is also flooded with elements of conspiracy theory.

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I’m not trying to bash religion but the Pope does look pretty evil in this picture.

Followers have a tendency to get caught up in confirmation bias and attribute every good event to god and bad events as a result of god’s punishment for sins. This becomes reinforcing evidence for belief.

(Divine Intervention) With a large society that makes it hard to regulate our neighbor’s behavior, God fills that void. God has intimate knowledge of human activity and acts accordingly as a moral arbiter when disasters strike. This is an example of someone trying to explain a random unfortunate event by seeing patterns which simply aren’t there. 

Repetition and patterns through the practice of rituals in religion makes it very appealing to the brain, giving a sense of control. The ritualistic aspects also appeal to people with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) and OCD like tendencies. 

Religion is often loaded with compelling, interesting narratives which resonate with the brain more than hard facts and logic. Many people argue that religion provides a moral compass that regulates civilized society, is this true?

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Dr. Jordan B Peterson, Ph.D (Professor, Author, and Clinical Psychologist) has an interesting interpretation of the ancient wisdom in religion (through the archetypal stories and characters, especially in the bible) and its relevance to find meaning in our lives.

(Neuroscientist Sam Harris also has some interesting thoughts on these topics) Or is religion an opiate of the masses like Karl Marx said. Who knows, probably a little of both but enough with this religion tangent. Back to conspiracy theories. 

Who Believes in Conspiracies?

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Davies says that people of lower social status are more inclined to believe in conspiracies.


Typically They Are…

Less educated in how power works in everyday life. This knowledge gap gets filled with explanations like superstitious reasoning. With all of life’s complexity, instead of weighing the countless factors that caused an event, it’s easier to craft a compelling narrative. This is called narrative fallacy, written about in “The Black Swan” by Nassim Taleb.

 Secret knowledge evident in conspiracy theories resonates as important because this information may help them advance up the social ladder. Davies says that conspiracy theorists are often disenfranchised (feeling angry, mistrustful, and out of control as if larger forces are controlling them). Also theorists see counter evidence as more support for their theory simply reasoning that this counter evidence is a cover up. (This information simply falls like a Tetris block into the crafted narrative)

Final Thoughts

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“When debating with a conspiracy theorist, don’t debate evidence; they will have an answer for everything. Debate their epistemology-try to show them that the way they have set up a way of thinking that is immune to any conceivable counter-evidence” – Jim Davies

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