Illustrations by Chrissie Abbott
My induction into conspiracy thinking came in the fall of my first year of high school, when my seventh-period journalism teacher devoted a lecture to the Illuminati. A nefarious group of global elites controlled our politics and our economy, he told us. They met in secret and communicated via symbols. Their members included U.S. presidents, CEOs, celebrities. They were everywhere.
He explained all this soberly, in the same way other teachers of mine had explained the International Monetary Fund, or certain laws of mathematics: as unshakable pieces of the universe’s infrastructure that any thinking person had to learn about eventually. I do not recall him using the term theory or otherwise indicating that this was a contested idea, though perhaps I should have been tipped off when he presented as evidence a clip from a then-recent film called The Matrix. At any rate, I was utterly captivated.
This was Berkeley, California, in the anxious time between September 11 and the start of the Iraq War. The world was full of unseen enemies and ulterior motives. Sidewalk graffiti implored anyone who looked at it to DEMAND THE TRUTH ABOUT 9/11 and STOP CHEMTRAILS. The local city council passed a resolution declaring the air overhead a “space-based weapons-free zone.” (This did not affect Pentagon planning, as far as we could tell). Radio DJs and my friends’ parents would talk vaguely but knowingly about Dick Cheney’s financial interests or the real reasons we were going to war. Long before filter bubbles had a name and a pathology, I lived in one: The government was lying; the elites were consolidating power; the game was rigged; the paranoia was warranted. I knew things were bad, and I knew they were bad in a way that was murky and still emerging. The idea that everything confusing or unfair or suspicious could be the result of an actual conspiracy, and not anything more abstract or complicated, felt appealing to me, and roughly as plausible as any number of extraordinary things I knew to be true. I walked home from school, ate a bowl of Goldfish crackers while watching Oprah, and casually informed my family about the New World Order over dinner.
When I called my parents recently to ask them about my awakening as a child conspiracy theorist, my mother recalled her reaction as something like “bemused tolerance”: “slightly mystified, but nonjudgmental.” It was 2002; parents of teenagers didn’t yet have the vocabulary of worry to be thinking about 4Chan or QAnon or the darker corners of Reddit. That’s because they didn’t exist yet—nor did Facebook, nor Twitter, nor any other fixture of the modern social web. I mostly used the internet to download Blink-182 songs and update my LiveJournal. “I wasn’t freaked out,” my mom told me over the phone. “I just thought, Wow. She’s learning that there are people in the world who believe all types of shit.”
It is a parent’s prerogative to overestimate her child. The truth is, at 14, I did not yet really understand that teachers could be wrong, or how to separate good information from bad. What my mom saw as a second-order lesson about the unknowable peculiarity of the human mind, I saw as a much more straightforward one about secret meetings and hidden triangles.
[Read: The lasting trauma of Alex Jones’s lies]
I was recently relieved to learn that this is all pretty typical, at least from a developmental perspective. “Kids can be very literal,” Valerie Reyna, an adolescent psychologist at Cornell, told me. Anyone who has tried to have a conversation with a 4-year-old knows this to be true of younger children, but the phenomenon extends further into adulthood than many people realize. By our teens, Reyna told me, we can parrot facts—sometimes even complex ones, sometimes even very articulately—but we don’t yet have the insight or the life experience to understand bottom-line meaning.
This is the difference between rote memorization and true comprehension. It’s also the difference between accepting at face value that the Illuminati exists, and understanding that for it to exist, a great many unbelievable things would also have to be true, chiefly that thousands or millions of people would have had to keep a gigantic secret over the course of centuries. “If you have an informed understanding about how the world works, your intuition can guide you,” Reyna said. For this reason, “adults—in general, on average—are more capable of knowing when something is implausible.” Even if my environment hadn’t already made me more open to conspiracy thinking, it seems, the faulty pool filter of my adolescent brain had done me no favors. “It’s not a coincidence,” Reyna said, “that cults try to recruit people when they’re young.”
As it turns out, being a conspiracy theorist is pretty fun. There’s a reason that, though very little substance from my high-school classes has stuck with me over the years, I remember Illuminati day with documentary clarity. It’s the same reason that conspiracism has thrived nearly as long as rationality has, and that, throughout history, people have proved consistently willing to upend their lives over it: Conspiracy thinking is incredibly compelling. It promises an answer to problems as small as expired lightbulbs and as big as our radical aloneness in the universe. It is self-sealing in its logic, and self-soothing in its effect: It posits a world where nothing happens by accident, where morality is plain, where every piece of information has divine meaning and every person has agency. It makes a puzzle out of the conspiracy, and a prestige-drama hero out of the conspiracist. “The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms,” the historian Richard Hofstadter wrote in his seminal 1964 essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” “He is always manning the barricades of civilization.” What Hofstadter declined to put a finger on is the intoxicating feeling of having insider knowledge about the fate of the world, or at least believing you do.
“I think you were really excited to think—and all of us are excited to think—that there’s some secret thing going on beneath the surface,” my mom recalled, that “there’s a truth out there that’s waiting to be discovered. And once you discover it everything makes sense.”
She was right about me, and about us. Conspiracism maps onto some of our most basic brain functions. “Our minds work in particular ways that make us all receptive to conspiracy thinking,” says Rob Brotherton, a psychologist and the author of Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories. “When something ambiguous happens in the world, we tend to think, Did somebody want that to happen? This tendency to think about intentions, or to see patterns, or confirmation bias—all of these influence not just the way we think about conspiracy theories, but the way we think about the world every day in a very mundane, very fundamental sense.” It’s tempting, he told me, to think of conspiracy theories as “a psychological aberration, some weird fringe thing, when in fact they’re an offshoot of how our minds work.”
Over the past decade or so, the field of conspiracy psychology has boomed alongside the general public’s interest in conspiracy theories. There’s still a lot we don’t know about how conspiracy thinking takes root in the mind, or why some people seem much more susceptible to it than others. But we know that, as Brotherton noted, just about everyone is susceptible to conspiracy thinking, regardless of age, gender, income, or political ideology. “It's not some weird small group of people in tinfoil hats,” he said. “Or, you know, more pointedly, it's not just the other side: the Republicans if you were a Democrat, or vice versa.”
Beyond that, certain personality traits—paranoia, binarism, dispositional distrust—can tip someone toward conspiracy thinking, as can one’s circumstances, both broad and narrow. “People are drawn to conspiracy theories when they want to satisfy particular psychological needs that are currently unmet,” says Karen Douglas, a professor of social psychology at the University of Kent. Douglas mentored Brotherton when he was an undergraduate, and has been studying conspiracy thinking for 12 years, which she estimates is “probably as long as any psychologist has been studying it.” Her research points to three main gaps that conspiracy thinking can fill. One of these is the need for knowledge and certainty—”an epistemic need,” she told me recently over Zoom. “You’re looking for answers. You want to understand what’s going on, and a conspiracy theory can help you get that knowledge and avoid the uncertainty.”
[Read: The normalization of conspiracy culture]
The second need is existential: the human need to feel safe, secure, and in control. Conspiracy theories are a kind of knowledge, however attenuated, and knowledge is power. When you believe in a conspiracy theory, Douglas said, ”you understand the predicament that you’re in.” In a series of small studies conducted on Northwestern University undergraduates in 2008, Adam Galinsky and Jennifer A. Whitson found that participants who’d been asked to remember a situation where they felt out of control were then more likely to perceive various types of “illusory patterns”—that is, to find coherent, meaningful relationships amid randomness: to see figures within scattered dots, to form correlations between unrelated phenomena, to create superstitions, to believe in conspiracies. A few years later, in 2013, a Polish study of 200 college students found that when they were in a state of high situational anxiety—waiting to take an exam—they were also more likely to agree with conspiratorial statements drawing on racist stereotypes about Jews, Germans, and Arabs.
The third need Douglas identified was social. “If you feel that you have knowledge that other people don't have, then you can feel a sense of superiority over those people,” she said. “It can boost your self-esteem to have this feeling that you're unique compared to other people.” This is why conspiracy theories tend to be organized by the principle of insiders versus outsiders: Conspiracism makes for a convenient way to blame other people for the ills of the world, and offers the added bonus of making the conspiracist feel smart.
When combined, all three of these needs—epistemic, existential, social—make for a perfect storm of conspiracy thinking. They also, incidentally, describe the base condition of adolescence. “Teenagers are particularly vulnerable” to finding patterns where none really exist, Galinsky said, “because there are so many things happening simultaneously—biologically and socially—that make them feel less in control.” They are inundated with stimuli and held captive by hormones. They’re navigating the painful process of transferring influence over their lives from parents to peers. They’re obsessed with social hierarchy, and they are achingly aware, at all times, of how much agency they covet and how little they have.
At 14, I was old enough to see the contours of what adulthood would be like, but I still had to get my parents’ permission to go on field trips, and plink quarters into a pay phone to get a ride home from the movies, which were always PG-13. I felt my feelings intensely and constantly, but I had absolutely no control over them. The University of Miami political scientist Joseph Uscinski is fond of saying that conspiracy theories are for losers—a way for the comparatively powerless to seize something from the comparatively powerful. I was an upper-middle-class white teenager living in a leafy college town; in the context of the universe I was far from disempowered. But I was also a 14-year-old girl. Context didn’t matter; whatever I was feeling at any given moment was big enough to blot out the sun.
I don’t remember how long I earnestly believed in the Illuminati, or exactly why I stopped. No one sat me down, intervention-style, and explained the error of my ways. (If they had, I doubt it would have worked: The Illuminati, like many conspiracies, bakes into its mythology the notion that sinister forces have a vested interest in denying its existence, and skeptics are thus not to be trusted.) But over time, the idea just seemed less and less believable, as did the fact that nobody except this one teacher would know about it. My stint as an Illuminati true believer ended in much the same way my Spice Girls superfandom had years earlier: Slowly, an obsession that had organized my life just slipped away, before I could notice it was leaving me.
But I did not abandon the Illuminati completely once I knew better. Instead, I turned it into a bit. I went East for college and found myself surrounded by people who read Žižek for pleasure and, at 19, already had a favorite soft cheese. I was insecure, homesick, and savagely unhappy; engaging in half-hearted conspiracism was my way of telegraphing how interesting I was to a group of people who were, along all meaningful psychographic vectors, exactly the same as me, but whom I was nonetheless debilitatingly intimidated by. It was a self-conscious performance of my regional identity the same way the Florida kids insisted on wearing shorts year-round, a clumsy attempt at being more entertaining than everyone else if I couldn’t be as smart or as worldly.
By then, we did have Reddit and YouTube and Facebook. The internet had been transformed from a smallish collection of primitive, static, mostly unliked pages to a place you could get lost in. It was easy—downright exciting, even—to spend an hour or two or six staring at a laptop screen, clicking from page to page on the message boards that now existed to serve any subculture or set of ideas you could imagine. I spent hours in rabbit holes about purported inconsistencies in the 9/11 report, or about Avril Lavigne having been replaced by a body double, or about how a race of shape-shifting, lizardlike aliens had wrested control over Earth by taking on humanoid forms.
[Read: Going online in the age of conspiracy theories]
At this point, conspiracism did not yet carry with it an established body count. These theories felt like harmless entertainment to me, and repeating them a victimless crime. And they comported with the identity I was assembling for myself. As I presided over dorm-room viewings of Loose Change and spouted message-board nonsense at parties, I felt less like I was evangelizing and more like I was telling a ghost story around a campfire, watching everyone’s eyeballs on me at once. Conspiracism was my party trick, my real-life troll, as seductive as it was wrong and in fact even more seductive for its wrongness. It was a proxy for attention: I’d seen for myself how it could command a room, and I loved holding that power in my hand.
I was an idiot, obviously. I was also, apparently, not even particularly original. “Conspiracy theories can have consequences, but a lot of times it’s just a teenager in their bedroom,” Brotherton said. “You know, somebody shitposting on Reddit or 4Chan just for laughs or to get a rise out of somebody.”
“It’s tempting, I think, to simplify and just say, you know, 4 percent of people think the United States is run by lizard people,” he continued. “But really do they? Or is there a percentage of people in there who are just fucking around with the survey, or who are saying this ’cause they think it’s funny or because they think all the people in charge are bad? They’re not necessarily, literally lizards. But you know, I’m going to say that I think this is true in a metaphorical sense. There are a lot of reasons for people entertaining conspiracy theories, not all of them because they literally believe it to be true,” Brotherton said. “One of the ideas is that it could be just signaling something like your broader worldview.”
Birtherism—the lie that Barack Obama wasn’t a natural-born U.S. citizen—was less about the merits of the case than it was about gesturing at the idea that a black man didn’t belong in the White House. The 9/11 Truth movement—for all its detailed discussion of the melting point of industrial steel—is really about conveying a deep distrust of the government. The insistence that mass shootings are false-flag operations fabricated by crisis actors is a twisted form of commentary about gun rights and media bias. This is why it doesn’t matter that so many of these theories, the existence of the Illuminati among them, fall apart under even the feeblest scrutiny: The worldview dictates the details, not the other way around.
By the later part of my teens, the Illuminati was a stand-in for something I understood to be true about the distribution of power and wealth in the world. I no longer believed in it literally, but I believed in—still believe in—the metaphor: rich and influential people secretly working together to enact unseen influence over the rest of us. I genuinely regret the moments when I repeated things I knew not to be true, but I don’t regret becoming obsessed with something that unlocked a deeper sort of thinking about systemic inequity. Why would I? I was right! It would be naive to suggest that the power always acts in transparency, generosity, and good faith. Sometimes, even demonstrably false conspiracy theories contain a little bit of truth. Other times, what seems like an absurd fabrication turns out to be real.
“There are real, even seemingly outlandish, shady, prototypically crazy-sounding conspiracy theories,” Brotherton said. “There are real historical precedents for that.” In the same high school where I learned about the Illuminati, I also learned about Watergate, MK-Ultra, Iran-Contra, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. I wrote my senior thesis about COINTELPRO, a wide-ranging government surveillance effort that would sound like pure paranoia had the FBI itself not admitted to it after the fact. About 75 miles north of my parents’ house sits Bohemian Grove, where the global elite gather in secret every July, and where friends of friends reported finding summer work as NDA-bound cater waiters. So many contemporary political phenomena—dark money, gerrymandering, government ignorance, government malevolence—that once seemed like shadowy plots are now just established fact.
“If we could just prevent everybody from believing any conspiracy theory, we would be losing something important,” Brotherton said. To want to interrogate power, make sense of suffering, root out sources of exploitation and deception: None of these are fundamentally bad impulses. They’re understandable, in the context of an opaque and often unresponsive government, a world-historic consolidation of wealth and influence, and a broken informational environment. Though their relationship to the truth is very different, conspiracism and critical thinking are two points on the same spectrum.
One of my favorite thinkers on this point is Uscinski, the political scientist who developed the idea that conspiracy theories are for losers. “Conspiracy theorists can be likened to lots of things—gadflies, watchdogs, tripwires,” he writes in a 2017 paper. “But they are most similar to defense lawyers. They are opposing counsel in the war of political ideas, where the establishment is the prosecution.” At their worst, conspiracy theories advance paranoia, racism, violence, and a distinctly cynical and individualistic worldview. But at their best, they are a reminder to both those with power and those without it that someone is watching. They’re a nudge toward more transparency, more communication, more equity. They’re an overly sensitive smoke detector: Noisy and not often right, but when they are, we are grateful something was making such a racket.
On a recent Sunday, I called up my friend Jake, who sat a few feet away from me in that ninth-grade journalism class. I wanted to mend the holes of my memory, but I also wanted to know what he thought about the larger questions on my mind. In the 15 years since high school, the stakes of conspiracy thinking had increased considerably. People had died. Families had been ripped apart. Great institutions had come under threat. A conspiracy theorist had killed 77 people on a summer day in Norway in order to draw attention to a purported globalist-Arab plot to Islamize Europe. Another had carried a rifle into a family pizza joint. Yet another had been arrested after taunting the parents of murdered schoolchildren. I wanted to know if Jake was mad that we’d learned about the Illuminati in school, and whether I should be madder. Was this whole episode just another artifact of quirky Berkeley—dumb but fundamentally harmless, like shorts in November—or did it represent something more sinister, something more like the poisoning of young minds at the hands of an authority figure?
It wasn’t sinister, he didn’t think. Nor was it exactly harmless. Jake’s a lawyer now, but before that he was a high-school teacher, in a chaotic urban public school not dissimilar from the one we attended. “What puzzles me,” he said, “is that when I was a teacher, I was desperate for more time to go over the material with my students. Looking back, I can’t believe we wasted even one class talking about that stuff.”
It’s tempting, and common, to see conspiracism as an information problem, a thinking problem, an affliction for people who simply don’t know any better. But if that were the case, we would have eradicated it a long time ago. Also, devoted conspiracism requires a great deal of brainpower: Collecting and narrativizing evidence, however incorrectly, is “a complex integration of data that is cognitively effortful,” as Whitson and Galinsky’s paper puts it. Also, I knew better.
The tragedy of conspiracism isn’t that it is the absence of thinking, but the misapplication of it. It’s a squandered lesson, and we all only have so much time in the classroom. I’m glad I began to think critically about power and wealth at a relatively young age, but I sure wish I’d taken a less circuitous route there. When I think of my misspent youth as a conspiracist, it’s the spending part that gets me: all those minutes being taught about the Illuminati when I could have been being taught about journalism, all those hours talking about jet fuel and steel beams when I could have been learning about something equally as interesting but real. All those people all around the world, connecting dots and searching for patterns where none exists. All the noise, all the never-ending rabbit holes, all the misdirected interrogation. All that wasted imagination.
In 1971, the economist and computer scientist Herbert Simon published a paper on the subject of “Designing Organizations for an Information-Rich World.” It was a prescient piece of writing, and not only because our world has gotten unimaginably information-richer in the half century since he produced it. Simon’s work long predated the internet message board and the endless Twitter thread, but it identified a phenomenon that will feel familiar to anyone who has spent time looking for answers in either. “The wealth of information,” Simon wrote, “means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes.” Information, he wrote, “consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.” Attention is the great scarce resource of our intellectual economy, and the most important thing any of us have to give away. And conspiracy, as I learned young, is an attention monster.