Can Psychedelics Make People More Drawn to Conspiracy Theories?

psychedelics and conspiracy theories

It is widely known that psychedelics and cannabis are associated with non-conventional thinking. The way that these psychoactive substances change how people think – including cannabis, which can have mild and sometimes profound psychedelic effects – can be viewed with serious interest; psychedelics can, after all, alter people’s metaphysical beliefs, including those of psychologists and philosophers who have experimented with them. On the other hand, one stereotype (not completely unjustified) around psychedelic and cannabis users is that they can rave about ideas that are fluffy, woo-woo, and nonsensical. Even a user can look back at some grand theory they concocted while tripping and admit it was nonsense (others meanwhile will hold firmly onto it). 

Conspiratorial thinking is one form of unconventional thinking tied to the use of psychedelics and cannabis. But can psychedelics actually make people more likely to believe in conspiracy theories? This article aims to outline possible pathways from psychedelic use to conspiratorial thinking, yet I will also take into consideration some factors that show it is not so simple to think that these substances have an inherent risk of encouraging this way of viewing the world.

Paranoia and Conspiratorial Thinking

To begin with, let’s address the question: How might a psychedelic experience lead to conspiratorial thinking? The first key aspect of most conspiracy theories to note is that they are paranoid in nature. They tend to posit a grand, sinister plan or cover-up that has been devised and maintained by a shady elite (there may be a mastermind behind the plot, pulling the strings, or a network of villainous puppet masters). The aim of the secret plan may be world domination, mass control, mass deception, genocide, or the destruction of western civilisation. 

It is true that governments and industries have secretly carried out immoral activities (in the US, examples include the Gulf of Tonkin incident, Operation Northwoods, the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, and Project MK-ULTRA). But this does not mean the level of paranoia involved in popular conspiracy theories is justified. Theories like the New World Order that speak of a secretive, global cabal are of a different kind. There is a creative paranoia to them that goes beyond the rational suspicion that people have towards politicians and industry leaders who have interests that may conflict with those of the public.

Timothy Melley, the author of Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America (2000), argues that conspiracy beliefs arise when someone holds strong individualist values and he or she lacks a sense of control. When you combine a belief in the individual right to direct your life without interference from a larger system with a sense of powerlessness, Melley says the result is agency panic: “intense anxiety about an apparent loss of autonomy” to outside forces or regulators.

So how does all of this fit in with the idea that psychedelic users might be prone to conspiracy beliefs? Well, psychedelics (and cannabis) are known, in some circumstances and individuals, to produce heightened levels of paranoia. This can actually lead to conspiratorial-type thinking; in such a paranoid state, an individual might believe their friends are conspiring against them, trying to cause harm to them. This paranoia will typically resolve itself, either passing naturally as the experience progresses, when the trip ends, or with some helpful response from either the individual herself or those around her (i.e. trying to help the person recognise that they’re safe and the paranoia is from the drug and not based on reality). 

After a negative experience, however, there is a possibility of lingering negative effects, including paranoia. But these effects too, in general, will resolve over a short period of time; long-term cases of paranoid thinking – of being unjustifiably suspicious and mistrustful of others, or having delusions of persecution – may arise if psychedelics trigger or exacerbate a psychotic disorder. And this latter situation is rare. For example, the LSD researcher Sidney Cohen reported in 1960 that there was only one case of a psychotic reaction lasting more than 48 hours out of 1,200 experimental (non-patient) research participants, which is a rate of 0.9 per 1000. Moreover, this individual was an identical twin of a schizophrenic patient, thus putting them at an increased risk of such a reaction.

For this reason, the connection between psychedelic-induced paranoia and enduring paranoid conspiracy beliefs may be tenuous. It is possible that paranoid trips might increase the likelihood that an individual will take conspiracy theories seriously, but this would need to be verified. During a controlled trial, for instance, researchers could see if there was a correlation between psychedelic or cannabis-related paranoia and a propensity for conspiratorial thinking (using a measure like the generic conspiracist beliefs scale). 

You could also survey psychedelic users and see if those who had paranoid experiences or lingering paranoia were more likely to hold conspiracy beliefs, although there would be confounding factors in this kind of research: it may not be psychedelics per se that lead to or strengthen conspiratorial thinking but an individual’s general tendency towards a paranoid/conspiracy mentality, which psychedelics may just enhance. 

A 2018 study published in the Journal of Individual Differences found that people with certain personality traits and cognitive styles are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. “The strongest predictor of conspiracy belief was a constellation of personality characteristics collectively referred to as ‘schizotypy’,” stated Josh Hart, lead author of the study and associate professor of psychology at Union College. Schizotypy is not schizophrenia; it does not necessarily imply a clinical diagnosis, although it may raise someone’s vulnerability to schizophrenia. It refers to traits such as unusual and disorganised patterns of thinking. Schizotypy makes one more inclined to hold unusual beliefs, like a belief in telepathy, mind-control, spirit channelling, and hidden personal meanings in events.

Hart’s study also showed that conspiracists were more likely than non-believers to judge nonsensical statements as profound, a trait known as “BS receptivity” (which has its own scale, so that researchers can measure how receptive people are to bullshit). Conspiracists were more likely to say that nonhuman objects – triangle shapes moving around on a computer screen – were acting intentionally. “In other words, they inferred meaning and motive where others did not,” says Hart. He adds:

These people tend to be more suspicious, untrusting, eccentric, needing to feel special, with a tendency to regard the world as an inherently dangerous place. They are also more likely to detect meaningful patterns where they might not exist. People who are reluctant to believe in conspiracy theories tend to have the opposite qualities.

Perhaps psychedelics could magnify such ways of thinking in individuals who score high on schizotypy. Again, this is a claim that would need to be verified.

Apophenia: Seeing Patterns Where None Exist

As Hart rightly points out, conspiracists tend to spot patterns where none really exist. This tendency is known as apophenia (or patternicity, as the writer Michael Shermer calls it). We are all susceptible to apophenia, and for good evolutionary reasons: being primed to see patterns where none exist can offer selective advantages. An individual who always assumes a threatening figure lurks behind a bush will be more likely to survive and pass on their genes than the individual who makes this assumption less often.

It is well known among psychedelic users that these substances can enhance what is known as pareidolia: seeing familiar objects or patterns in otherwise random or unrelated objects or patterns; it is a form of apophenia, the latter of which is a general term for the human tendency to seek patterns in random information. An example of pareidolia would be seeing faces in trees or clouds, whereas conspiracy theories rely more on the mental ‘seeing’ of a pattern: connecting the dots to create an irrational story of conspiracy. 

The apophenic nature of conspiracy theories also relies on the human need for structure and narrative – and since these theories tend to present the more exciting, dramatic story, it is no wonder that people are naturally attracted to them. Furthermore, our negativity bias – our tendency to focus on negative information and threats, which makes sense evolutionarily – can further help explain why people seek out the story that clearly demarcates a highly threatening actor.

Psychedelics may magnify not just our pareidolic tendency (seeing faces in objects, for example) but also our apophenia. This could help explain the revelatory theories that people think up about their lives, human life in general, the world, and the universe when tripping. Sudden connections are made; meaningful patterns and purposes are perceived. Maybe in some instances, these theories – or this way of thinking – are carried over into sobriety, and certain conspiracy theories then become more attractive and are more likely to seem plausible. But could psychedelics really be responsible for heightened apophenia that endures when the experience is over? That is uncertain. 

What is curious is that many psychedelic users report an increased number of ‘synchronicities’ after a particular trip or after using psychedelics in general. Synchronicity here refers to the meaning the psychologist Carl Jung ascribed to it, which is the simultaneous occurrence of events that appear significantly or meaningfully related but which have no discernible causal connection. So, thinking of a particular word and seeing it on a sign may not be causally connected (the thought did not create the sign), but the experience is felt to be significant. Jung defined synchronicity as an “acausal connecting (togetherness) principle), “meaningful coincidence”, “acausal parallelism”, or “meaningful coincidence of two or more events where something other than the probability of chance is involved.”

However, it is not clear that a ‘synchronicity’ is anything more than ascribing personal meaning to coincidences – or simply noticing coincidences – that happen regularly throughout our lives. The belief in synchronicities, in other words, may be related to apophenia – our bias to see a meaningful pattern in unconnected events. Jung stresses that some events are connected in ways that cannot be explained by chance; but even the most unlikely of coincidences will still occur for some people. And since we are primed to perceive meaning, not to compute astronomical odds, it is unsurprising that some coincidences will be imbued with great personal import and meaning. 

Of course, it may be that particular coincidences are felt to be relevant to the individual’s life, and they become a source of meaning: connected events may provide some kind of insight, direction, and guidance. But this does not mean that such coincidences require the metaphysical explanation offered by Jung in which the physical world arranges itself to symbolically connote something, with a psychic layer of reality influencing the physical layer. Indeed, he claimed that synchronicities unfold according to archetypal patterns, which belong to the collective unconscious. Jung moreover suggested that synchronicity – this ‘acausal law’ – could be a fourth dimension added to space, time, and causality. In opposition to the notion of synchronicity, the British statistician David J. Hand states:

Synchronicity is an attempt to come up with an explanation for the occurrence of highly improbable coincidences between events where there is no causal link. It’s based on the premise that existing physics and mathematics cannot explain such things. This is wrong, however—standard science can explain them. That’s really the point of the improbability principle. What I have tried to do is pull out and make explicit how physics and mathematics, in the form of probability calculus does explain why such striking and apparently highly improbable events happen. There’s no need to conjure up other forces or ideas, and there’s no need to attribute mystical meaning or significance to their occurrence. In fact, we should expect them to happen, as they do, purely in the natural course of events.

After describing some examples of coincidences, Jung wrote: “When coincidences pile up in this way, one cannot help being impressed by them – for the greater the number of terms in such a series, or the more unusual its character, the more improbable it becomes.” And he believed that “Synchronicity is an ever-present reality for those who have eyes to see.” But again, I would argue that the perception of synchronicity, rather than natural improbability, may be more reflective of apophenia than a metaphysical principle that is directing us towards a specific goal or personal growth. 

Thus, when individuals experience more synchronicity after using psychedelics – the ‘piling up of coincidences’, as Jung puts it – this could be enhanced apophenia that persists. When Jung speaks on synchronicity being ever-present, so long as you are attuned to it, this again could come down to heightened levels of apophenia. We do not have to postulate the unnecessary assumption of coincidences being examples of hidden structures in the world. 

If psychedelics do create long-lasting increases in apophenia, it would be interesting to see what implications this has for an individual, such as whether their life feels much more meaningful, fulfilling, and purposeful than it did before. It would also be illuminating to find out why certain individuals experience this intensified feeling of synchronicity post-psychedelic use while others do not. In addition, some users report that the increase in synchronistic events can last weeks and months after use. We should ask: Why does the experience last for this long? Why do some individuals experience it for longer periods than others? And finally, why does the increased frequency eventually fade?

Psychedelics and Openness

Some of the most enduring changes that occur after psychedelic use, according to current research, are alterations to one’s metaphysical beliefs (moving away from physicalist positions to non-physicalist ones, like panpsychism), increases in nature-relatedness (the subjective sense of connection one has with the natural environment), belief in ultimate reality, higher power, God, or universal divinity after an encounter with a psychedelic entity, and – related to this discussion – significant increases in the personality trait openness, including in recreational users

(Other studies have found lasting changes in attitudes, depression, spirituality, anxiety, wellbeing, substance misuse, and mindfulness, with mystical experiences, connectedness, and emotional breakthrough related to such changes. In terms of mental health, clinical trials with psilocybin find that depression typically returns for participants after six months, although researchers behind a recent study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology observed that participants with depression still enjoyed substantial reductions in symptoms 12 months after receiving psilocybin-assisted therapy.)

The increase in openness or openness to experience following psychedelic use may shed some light on a possible psychedelic-conspiratorial connection. Openness is one of the Big Five personality traits; the others include extraversion (being outgoing and sociable), agreeableness (warmth and friendliness), conscientiousness (being careful and diligent), and neuroticism (the tendency to be in a negative or anxious state). A person with a high level of openness is imaginative, curious, and open-minded. They enjoy trying new things, have a general appreciation for unusual ideas, experience heightened aesthetic sensitivity, are attentive to inner feelings, prefer variety, and like to challenge authority.

Whether a person is low or high in openness before trying psychedelics, an increase in this trait after their experience(s) can make a person more open to new ideas, speculations, beliefs, and theories. Such an individual may, subsequently, also be open to conspiracy theories as a way of explaining events and the world around them. Furthermore, since conspiratorial thinking tends to involve an opposition to authority, which openness is linked to, this could make such thinking even more appealing to the open psychedelic user.

Low agreeableness (associated with suspicion and antagonism) and high openness to experience (associated with unusual and novel ideas) have been thought to be strong predictors of conspiracy beliefs. However, a meta-analysis published in Frontiers in Psychology underscored that these personality traits are not significantly correlated with conspiracy beliefs. The association between these traits and conspiratorial thinking remains unclear in the literature, with some studies supporting the relationship and others contradicting it. 

Openness could, on the one hand, facilitate the endorsement of conspiracy beliefs, for the reasons stated above, but it might also protect against such beliefs since people who are open, as well as being receptive to diverse ideas and arguments, also tend to think critically and are open to changing their mind in light of new evidence. There are different facets of openness, and it may be that if an individual is very open to unconventional ideas but less focused on – or adept at – critical thinking, then they could be especially susceptible to conspiracy beliefs. Therefore, psychedelic-induced increases in openness will not, in all cases, encourage beliefs in wild, paranoid theories, but for certain individuals, especially when other traits are present (e.g. high schizotypy, individualism, a sense of powerlessness), this change in thinking and worldview could occur.

The Need to Distinguish Between Correlation and Causation

A 2021 paper from Brian A. Pace and Neşe Devenot titled Right-Wing Psychedelia: Case Studies in Cultural Plasticity and Political Pluripotency, published in Frontiers in Psychology, highlights that all kinds of political positions, including conservative, hierarchy-based ideologies, are able to assimilate psychedelic experiences of interconnection. Interestingly, the authors also note how the conspiratorially minded can be avid psychedelic users:

Incitements from President Trump, Alex Jones, and the drip of Q-drops led to the storming of the US capitol building. Prominently included in their ranks was the self-described Q-Shaman (AKA Jake Angeli Chansley, Yellowstone Wolf) and William Watson, both individuals with deep and extensive ties to the psychedelic community (Evans, 2021; Pace, 2021a,b). Beyond multiple and clear intersections of the psychedelia with the cutting edge of right-wing activism, right-wing conspiracy seems more than able to spring from native psychedelic soil. The name and reputation of Timothy Leary’s Castalia Foundation was recently appropriated to praise President Trump and promote Q-reminiscent child exploitation conspiracies, complete with a classic anti-Semitic depiction of Rick Doblin [the founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies] (Castalia Foundation, 2020; Hausfeld, 2021).

The Psychedelic Renaissance blog has an insightful post on how Angeli embodies conspirituality: the overlapping of spiritual/New Age beliefs with conspiratorial thinking. This occurs, according to the philosopher Jules Evans, because those who follow New Age spirituality – who are “spiritual but not religious” – are likely to fit a personality type that makes them more prone to believing in conspiracy theories. As I have already touched on, he writes that these traits include “free thinking, distrust of authority and institutions, a tendency to unusual beliefs or experiences, a tendency to detect ‘hidden’ patterns and correspondences, and an attraction to alternative paradigms, particularly in alternative health”. Since psychedelic culture can intersect with New Age spirituality, some psychedelic users may share this kind of personality. This is how people like Angeli can emerge, someone who is a firm believer in the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory, who at the same time advocates for psychedelics and positions himself as a shaman.

Pace and Devenot go on to write in their paper:

Along with hyper-association and boundary dissolution, a core element of the subjective experience of psychedelics is meaning-enhancement (Hartogsohn, 2018). Combined with the influences of set and setting, a psychedelic experience can lead to shifts in worldviews—and even religious and political ideologies—but not in a consistent, directional manner.

Thus formulated, psychedelics have the potential to shift someone towards conspiracy beliefs due to the effects of meaning-enhancement and set and setting, as well as the increased suggestibility that these compounds can elicit. With respect to this latter effect, a 2015 study from Imperial College London found that “individuals with high trait conscientiousness are especially sensitive to the suggestibility-enhancing effects of LSD.”

If your mindset and peer group are already inclined towards conspiratorial thinking, and a psychedelic experience helps to enhance the meaning of the worldview underlying conspiracy beliefs, then it is possible for these substances to motivate people to adopt such beliefs. Psychedelics are, according to the LSD researcher Stan Grof, non-specific amplifiers: they can amplify whatever psychological material already exists – and for some individuals that could be a pre-existing penchant or proclivity for conspiratorial thinking (in either a left or right-wing fashion). What’s more, for a conspiracy theorist, psychedelics can be seen as a way to overcome the mental programming created by the shadowy elite and ‘wake up’ to the truth.

When discussing possible connections between psychedelic use and conspiracy beliefs, we do need to distinguish between correlation and causation. Correlation does not imply causation, as the maxim goes. I hope I have so far underlined why there is no simple and direct link from using psychedelics to becoming a conspiracy theorist. Even if psychedelic use is somewhat correlated with conspiracy beliefs, it could be that there are factors that make some people attracted to both psychedelics and conspiracy beliefs, rather than one tending to lead to the other.

For example, while psychedelics increase openness, it makes sense that people who are already open to new experiences would want to try psychedelics and would enjoy their effects, while they may also be predisposed to a conspiracy mentality, especially if other specific traits are present. People who are drawn to mystery and who disagree with or question mainstream perspectives could likewise find themselves more likely to use psychedelics and believe in conspiracy theories. There is also research indicating that schizotypy (which strongly predicts conspiracy beliefs) increases risk-taking behaviour, which might include using psychedelics (as well as frequently and in high doses).

Psychedelic use may be stereotypically associated with zealous attachment to crackpot ideas, but this only occurs when mind expansion lacks the safeguard of critical thinking. Here it is worth heeding the words of Professor Walter Kotschnig who, during a speech at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, told students to keep their minds open – “but not so open that your brains fall out.”

4 Comments

  1. Michelangelo Iaffaldano
    February 9, 2022 / 7:17 pm

    Interesting! I guess this intersects with the whole conspirituality phenomenon. For what such anecdotes are worth, there is a conspiracy peddler here in Canada who credits ayahuasca with guarding him against what he might call the lies of the globalist cabal—a plot that includes ufos and vaccines as vector for mind-control nanotechnology. “My carrier as a full-time researcher began after a life-changing trip to Peru in late 2013 […] Our group trekked the Amazon for a week, then attended a retreat center near Iquitos where we had the opportunity to consume the shamanic visionary brew ayahuasca over the course of three nighttime ceremonies.
    So much was revealed to me those three nights, my paradigm shifted so greatly, that I left my corporate writing and editing job within a year, and became a full-time researcher and investigator, focusing on the intertwining themes of higher consciousness and spiritual liberation, and their opposites: corporate and government corruption, colonialism and imperialism, and the underlying philosophical support mechanism for those: scientific materialism or “scientism” (which is a religion of sorts).”

    • Sam Woolfe
      Author
      February 9, 2022 / 7:24 pm

      Thanks for your comment! I think it does intersect with the conspirituality phenomenon in some ways. Like with the example of the conspiracy peddler you mention, it seems that psychedelics can be seen as a way to ‘deprogram’ yourself and ‘wake up’ from the mind control/deception created by this cabal/globalist elite. Of course, psychedelics can have an important ‘deprogramming’ effect of sorts, but I can imagine that being assimilated into a conspiratorial worldview as well.

  2. James Penner
    February 10, 2022 / 5:23 pm

    Excellent piece!, Sam. The issue of whether psychedelics enhances gullibility is really interesting. For me, they don’t, but there are clearly some people who go down the rabbit hole of gullibility and never reemerge.

    • Sam Woolfe
      Author
      February 10, 2022 / 6:54 pm

      Thanks, James. It does seem some people are more prone to the potential of suggestibility than others. The 2015 study from Imperial I linked to concluded by saying, “The results also imply that individuals with high trait conscientiousness are especially sensitive to the suggestibility-enhancing effects of LSD.” So those individuals could be more susceptible to both the positive (therapeutic) and negative (cultish, conspiratorial) effects that come from being in a highly suggestible state.

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