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Beliefs In Conspiracies Are About Feelings, Not Just Facts

Why are widespread conspiracies flourishing right now? Of all times! This article was written as a quick guide on helping you understand how human minds deal with uncertainty, which I hope will help you feel more grounded.
Beliefs In Conspiracies Are About Feelings, Not Just Facts
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“It's Bill Gates!”

“I know for a fact it’s a Chinese bioweapon!”

“It’s definitely a political hoax!”

By this point, we’ve all heard our fair share of conspiracy theories surrounding the pandemic.

As for me, I’ve seen misinformation being shared and promulgated by both random connections on social media and intelligent and educated people I trust and respect.

There’s no question that moments of uncertainty in the world are difficult to cope with. However, they become borderline unbearable when people around you either don’t know or refuse to draw the line between fact and fiction.

The question is, why are widespread conspiracies flourishing right now? Of all times!

This article was written as a quick guide on helping you understand how human minds deal with uncertainty, which I hope will help you feel more grounded.

Separating Fact from Fiction

Despite the way things have been going, factual data is not hard to come by. In fact, a lot of credible information has been independently corroborated by the world's top scientists, journalists, fact-checkers, and other highly qualified sources.

After all, one does not secure a spot on the COVID-19 Manhattan Project or win a Pulitzer Prize by accident. So, rest assured, if you're getting your information from reputable, centrist news sources, you can bet that information is credible.  (Your biases may already be kicking in as you read this, so please bear with me).  

Here are a few facts the vast majority of experts agree on:

  • COVID-19 is not man-made, nor was it spread as a biological weapon; it's a zoonotic virus that was transmitted from animals to humans.
  • The virus mortality rate is much higher than the flu (2% vs .01%).
  • There is no powerful cabal infecting a segment of the population on purpose.
  • There are no miracle cures (herbal or synthetic), or household concoctions that can stop the virus.
  • 5G towers have no correlation to the virus.
  • Bill Gates is dedicated to eradicating, not proliferating, the virus.
  • Dr. Fauci is not a secret agent.
  • COVID-19 is now one of the leading causes of death in the world, whereas it used to be nonexistent. In some countries, the daily death rate is 50% higher than normal because of the virus.

It's more important now than ever that you are sourcing your information from reputable, unbiased sources.

One of the first steps in doing this is remembering that it isn’t as much about finding a source you agree with as it is about getting accurate information. If you're looking for accuracy from partisan sources and political pundits, you're setting yourself up for misinformation.

Let’s now extend the conversation to understand how we as humans subconsciously seek out info we agree with and that supports the preexisting views we hold.

The Human Mind: Certainty and Order

Did you know that one of the most powerful drivers of human behavior is the desire for safety?

When we think we can predict the future, we feel safe. Therefore, when we perceive things as being chaotic, our brain attempts to make sense of the world by clinging to whatever order it can assimilate.

At present, society is in a difficult bind: businesses are closing, the economy is tanking, and people are dying—and all of this is happening on a daily basis.

So, as a response to the chaos, we are feeling anxious and looking for answers anywhere and everywhere. This type of response is normal and OK.

However, there’s another side to the conversation that deals with panic and uncertainty. Unfortunately, the more panic and uncertainty you feel, the more desperately you will cling to unsubstantiated answers and misinformation. The worst part about this is that you may not realize that you’re feeling this way because these emotions have become a normal thing!

The reality is when you're stressed, it's much more difficult to think critically, creatively, and rationally. This is because, under panic, the more advanced parts of the brain become hijacked by the more primitive parts, and otherwise smart individuals behave like frightened animals.

Think break: Can you think of a time you settled for a simple, unsubstantiated explanation because you were freaking out?

Your Mind Sees What It Wants to See

There's a well-known psychological phenomenon called confirmation bias, which is one of many cognitive biases we are all burdened with.

What confirmation bias is, is a tendency to prioritize information (“evidence”) that supports one’s beliefs, while simultaneously discounting information that challenges or refutes those beliefs.

For example, let's say you believe left-handed people are more creative than right-handed people. When you meet a creative left-handed person, you'll check off the evidence box. But you might ignore the evidence when meeting a non-creative left-handed person, or a highly creative right-handed person.

The more rigid your belief, the more you gravitate to information or situations that serve as   "proof," no matter how outlandish they may be.

This behavior is so powerful that for thousands of years humans have killed and died for their beliefs rather than admit they were wrong!

Fortunately, somewhere along the way, we came up with what is known today as the scientific method, a multi-step process for exploring observations and answering questions. When a scientific consensus exists, it means something is predictable and repeatable no matter what arguments are presented.

Gravity, for example, is real and has an impact on you whether you believe in it or not. The same goes for evolution and climate change.

As it relates to our current world, COVID-19 is real and dangerous regardless of if a person believes this to be true; hence, we have scientific consensus.

Think break: Are you thinking about all the supposed exceptions to the rule? Do you believe the exception is the rule? How strong is your confirmation bias right now?

We Think We’re Pretty Smart

It’s a fact that humans don't know what they don't know. It’s also been proven that, despite not knowing, we think we do know. This is called meta-ignorance, and it refers to the unknown unknowns.  

And when you factor in the fact that we're terrible at self-evaluating and at accepting that we're wrong, the concept becomes even more complicated.

The reason we’re wired like this is because we crave safety. It feels good to believe we understand things around us, even if we have no idea. And when our notions are challenged, it makes us feel uncomfortable, threatened, and as if we’re no longer in control.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias that convinces us we know more than we do and are better at what we do than we really are. The idea is that the lower a person’s competence, the more likely he or she is to overlook their own mistakes and instead embrace their perceived superiority.

When it comes to the extremely complex science of virology and epidemiology, the majority of people don't know a damn thing—and that’s just the bottom line.

It's far easier to believe a conspiracy theory that delivers a simple explanation about the origins of the virus than it is to get a Ph.D. in infectious diseases, wouldn’t you agree?

Unfortunately, an uneducated person is more likely to believe they understand the virus—despite having no formal education or training in a scientific field—than a highly trained scientist.

Now that you know more about meta-ignorance and the Dunning-Kruger effect, what would you say might be some of your unknown unknowns?

We Think We’re Both Special and Not Special at The Same Time

We all know at least one person who litters and thinks nothing of it. It's just a piece of gum, right?  While that may be true, that doesn’t make it OK and, truth be told, it's never just one person littering.

On one hand, everyone thinks they are special and important and that their actions won't make a big impact in the overall scheme of things. Can you say more cognitive distortions?

On a small scale, believing in a false concept seems like no big deal. But when more and more people begin to believe that same false concept, it can lead to riots and mass destruction of infrastructure. One example is the way more and more people are accepting the idea that 5G cell towers are the cause of the virus at the center of this current pandemic.

Think break: In what way do you believe you are special and an exception to the rule? And in what way do you believe your small actions are no big deal?

Negativity Is Our Default

As illogical as it may sound, we have negative thinking to thank for our survival as a species.

You see, the brain quickly notices when something is awry, so when it picks up on a perceived threat, it tells the body to react and what that reaction should be. And when we're in defense mode, we don't think calmly and creatively; instead, we focus all of our attention on the situation signaling our fear response and either fight, flee, or freeze to ensure survival.

Such a response may be appropriate if you're being stalked by a tiger. However, it could prove costly—costing you time, patience, sanity, etc.— if the threat at hand is abstract.

When a conspiracy theory shows up, the brain is instantly captivated. This is because the information presented is processed by the brain as being an unexpected threat, one that implies a terrible fate if a person doesn’t pay close attention. And then guess what? The brain has a hard time accepting what may happen if the information is ignored. That explains why you begin to feel as though you’re obligated to click on the next video, or watch the next news segment, or read the next comment.

To survive the coronavirus threat, we need to override our default tendencies. Stressing ourselves out and losing sleep over the situation is the exact opposite of what will get us through this pandemic.  

What we should be doing instead is training our minds to be adaptive, poised, and competent enough to identify and embrace new solutions.

Think break: When was the last time your negativity bias distorted your view of reality?

It's Cool to Fit In, Right?

Another thing about humans is that we are programmed to seek acceptance in a group.

Since about the beginning of time, humans lived in small communities, and without those communities, people were unlikely to survive.

In other words, being ostracized was a death sentence.

And perhaps the most beautiful part about all of this is that despite all our amazing modern developments, our brains haven't changed in this regard. We still want to be a part of a group and will do whatever it takes to remain in the good graces of every group we belong to.

Let’s consider the following example to help drive this point home:

If the group you identify with is a political party, it's likely you will accept its version of reality. Because of confirmation bias, you will pay close attention to what leaders say primarily when it serves your beliefs. And the information that doesn’t align with your beliefs? You overlook it.

Separating your group from the ‘others’ often requires a wholesale rejection of opposing claims. It's easier to understand your identity when a line is drawn. After all, it takes more creative, conscientious thinking to incorporate nuances into our sense of self.

Mistrust and Uncertainty Often Go Hand-In-Hand

During a time of uncertainty, nobody will have all the right answers. Think about it like this: if there was order, things wouldn't be chaotic; and if we had all the answers, there wouldn't be uncertainty.

But because the brain wants answers (and it wants them immediately), we turn to whatever makes us feel safe.

If the belief that makes people feel safe includes a story about an evil 5G tower, a conniving billionaire, or a group of global elite controlling the world through secret, ritualistic practices, then people will accept whatever consequences they need to maintain that safety feeling—even if it means jeopardizing their own safety, unfortunately.

Populist politicians throughout history have taken full advantage of this to create a collective "us versus them" mentality and enlist millions of willing participants in violent causes.

Think break: Have you ever held an "us vs them" mentality? If so, how accurate was it?

The Internet Makes Things Worse

Social media algorithms are perhaps some of the most pronounced expressions of confirmation bias. Rather than challenge us to think differently and build bridges to opposing ideas, they exist to show us more of what we already believe and desire.

If you click on an advertisement for wedding photography, you’ll start seeing a ton of wedding-related advertisements. Once you engage with a conspiracy theory video, not only are several related videos promoted to you, but people who agree with those same ideas are recommended as connections.

Social media makes it easy to end up in a self-serving bubble without even knowing it. The world around you starts to look exactly how you want it to because you are only trusting the ideas and information that support your preconceived vision of it.

If the digital world you spend hours on every day confirms over and over that sars-CoV-2 is a Chinese weapon developed along with Verizon, The Jews, and Bill Gates, then you'll probably believe it.

Think break: What groups has the internet placed you in? And what beliefs have you developed that coincide with the beliefs of those groups?

Trust Those Who Deserve It

There are experts who are working around the clock to help us get out of this coronavirus crisis—our job is to trust them and continue giving them the authority and power to do what they do best.

When we believe we know more than we actually do—and cling to false beliefs to pacify our erratic emotions—we jeopardize our future.

Sure, it’s uncomfortable to feel anxious, worried, afraid, uncertain, and isolated. But it’s even worse to feel as though we are losing our minds and working against our own interests.

On a final note, what actions are you taking to think creatively and adaptively?

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About the author

Danny Ghitis, ACC, CAPP, is an ICF-certified coach, positive psychology practitioner, and trainer. He works with successful people who don't necessarily feel successful to overcome burnout, build healthier habits, and feel more excited about their future. In his past life he was a photojournalist and frequent contributor to The New York Times. Learn more on his website at: fullframecoaching.com

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