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SYFY WIRE Conspiracy Theories

From the UFOs to the Illuminati, what really makes some of us believe in conspiracy theories more than others?

By Elizabeth Rayne
Gravity Falls

Is the dollar bill really just a cryptic message from the Illuminati, and do they also control the government, which runs a secret underground base where they make contact with extraterrestrials and carry out alien autopsies?

Unless you live in the universe of Gravity Falls (above and below), probably not. Whether or not you believe UFOs were invited here by a cult in purple robes, conspiracy theories are lurking everywhere. The question (besides whether the Illuminati exist) is, what makes some people more likely to believe rumors that sound like hallucinations to others? Psychologist Ana Stojanov tried to find out through a series of experiments that involved asking people how they would react to situations that made them feel as if they had more or less control. It might seem that the answer is obvious—but she found that it was anything but.

Conspiracy theories have long been thought to be conjured by the brain because of a perceived lack of control. While the idea that someone who felt they were losing their grip on life sounds like it would explain believing in a higher controlling force, to the point of being out of touch with reality, it gets much more complex than being convinced your life is being covertly run by aliens or underground cults.

“Conspiracy theory beliefs do not appear to be based in any straightforward way on control beliefs,” Stojanov, who led a study published recently in PLOS ONE, said. “We observed no effect of control manipulations on conspiracy theory beliefs, while replicating previously reported correlational evidence of their association. The results suggest that conspiracy beliefs are not suitable for compensating for threats to control.”

Those who don’t buy into conspiracy theories often believe they are totally irrational, and sometimes even fairy tales make more sense. At least Cinderella didn’t believe Prince Charming materialized from outer space. Stojanov found that most previous studies of conspiracy theory believers found that the feeling of losing control can drive someone to either think in a way that makes up for that control or believe in a preexisting theory which has control heavily emphasized. Her results from six experiments indicated that we are hard-wired to optimize control rather than maximize it, meaning that you would be more likely to use the control we already have to the best of our ability rather than compensate with more. Conspiracy theories may actually mess with that by introducing too much control.

Gravity Falls

It does seem like the dystopian sci-fi novel we live in now would give us a prime motive to believe that COVID-19 and political shenanigans connected to the upcoming election could have emerged from some sort of conspiracy. However, Stojanov also discovered that there are more ways to perceive control that don’t involve questionable theories, and that we are more likely to believe in them as a last resort than anything else.

“While control accounts do not require that sources of control or meaning be benevolent, people theoretically favor control systems that are both 'culturally accessible' and 'socially acceptable,'” she said. “In most—if not all—conspiracy theories, however, the alleged conspirators are malevolent, thus making them poor candidates for compensatory processes when numerous effective and socially sanctioned alternatives exist.”

Stojanov intended her first three studies to how much a perceived lack of control factors into conspiracy theory beliefs by studying conspiracy ideation, or the way of thinking that makes someone believe that while the truth is out there, what we are being fed by the media is an alternative truth. Powerful and often evil entities run the world in this type of thought process. The fourth study delved into how likely participants were to believe specific theories about who was controlling what. Finally, the fifth and sixth studies went into how much control is suggested by certain conspiracy theories and the effectiveness of other means of convincing yourself you have control. What happened was the opposite of what might have been expected.

Anyone asked to remember situations during which they felt they lost control was no more likely to believe in conspiracy theories than anyone else. The extent to which these beliefs can create the illusion of control also had no effect on the subjects, and neither did alternative control methods. Stojanov concluded that lack of control is highly unlikely to cause belief in conspiracy theories. While there are still many unknowns, especially because this was a study conducted online without in-person interviews that would allow psychologists to infer things that are impossible to see through a computer screen, the overwhelming negative results still have something to say.

“Although it is important to continue to examine the role of control threats in diverse samples and contexts, the current data, despite being collected online, nevertheless challenge the hypothesis that such threats account for conspiracy beliefs in any significant way,” said Stojanov.

If you want to see conspiracy theories and shady businesses (which often have conspiracy theories built around them) exposed, binge-watch iillumininaughtii on YouTube. The truth really is out there.