The Weird Psychology of Game of Thrones Fan Theories

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Photo: Courtesy of HBO

Surely you have heard the one about R+L=J. But what about A+J=T? A+L=J? Beyond the alphabetical arithmetic, there is the question of Stannis Baratheon’s Pink Letter, Dany’s secret and burgeoning villainry, the supposed trinity of dragon riders — and let us not forget Lady Stoneheart. The North remembers, after all, and so do her many fervent fans.

There is something, in other words, about the Seven Kingdoms and their many complicated inhabitants that seems to inspire just as many, and just as complicated, theories about what it all means, and where the series is potentially headed. A few months back, Vulture rounded up the 50 most popular fan theories about Game of Thrones (as in the HBO show) and A Song of Ice and Fire (as in the book series the show is based on), but there are of course countless more, catalogued and dissected by rabid fans on message-board threads and podcasts. If you have spent any time in these places (not that I have — but I hear things), you know that the craziest of the theories are typically called “tinfoil hat theories,” referencing pop-culture depictions of conspiracy theorists who believe that wearing aluminum foil atop their heads will protect their brains from telepathy and electromagnetic fields.

And that little nod to conspiracy theorists seems very appropriate to Rob Brotherton, a psychologist and the author of the 2015 book Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories, who tells Science of Us that there are indeed some parallels between conspiracy theories about the real world and wackadoodle fan theories about fictional worlds, such as Westeros.

For one, Brotherton explains, “the idea that all is not as it seems, that there’s a hidden layer to reality, is a core feature of all conspiracy theories.” There are those who will tell you, for instance, that our own Bran Stark — whom we have known from the very first episode and book — is more than meets the eye. He’s not just the second-youngest Stark boy; no, he is secretly every Bran Stark who has ever lived. Believers cite a passage from a Bran point-of-view chapter as proof:

Sometimes Nan would talk to him as if he were her Brandon, the baby she had nursed all those years ago, and sometimes she confused him with his uncle Brandon, who was killed by the Mad King before Bran was even born. She had lived so long, Mother had told him once, that all the Brandon Starks had become one person in her head.

For conspiracy theorists, the so-called “official” story is something to be rejected, “not merely as mistaken hypotheses, but as falsehoods engineered to deceive,” Brotherton said. “Accidents are never accidents, democracy is an illusion, the media peddles lies.” Conspiracy theorists think for themselves.

When it comes to fan theorizing, sometimes, the questioning and theorizing end up being more fun than the eventual, actual answers. As J.K. Rowling was still writing her Harry Potter series, there were some who theorized that Aunt Petunia — one half of the cruel Muggle couple who kept a young Harry in the cupboard under the stairs all those years — might secretly have some magic in her. (Her clean kitchen, after all, “had an oddly unreal glitter” to it.) Rowling, alas, later quashed this theory. Sometimes, a clean kitchen is just a clean kitchen. But this speaks to another key component of a conspiracy theory: the assumption “that things are all planned down to the smallest detail,” Brotherton said.

Another pop-culture phenomenon in recent memory that provoked massive amounts of fan theorizing was the mid-2000s TV show Lost, whose writers are still answering questions about whether or not the mysteries and plot twists were planned out ahead of time or improvised. For example, the Dharma Initiative, a writer for Lost revealed in an essay published last spring, was mostly just a hastily thrown together plot point, making the number of hours that I, for one, spent thinking and talking about it seem in retrospect what it always was: a colossal waste of time. “Obviously, shows like this are planned and scripted in advance, but as the Lost writer’s essay makes clear, there can be a lot of necessary winging it (for lack of a better term) along the way,” Brotherton said. The tin-foil-hatted among us would rather not hear this.

Last year, Brotherton and University of London psychologist Christopher French published a study in PLOS One identifying what they called an “intentionality bias” common among conspiracy theorists. People who buy into conspiracy theories are also more likely to reject the notion of accidents, or of chance, preferring instead to believe that things happen for a reason. “Conspiracism is a broad phenomenon. It can range from fun, harmless speculation about shows like this, to more serious allegations against governments or other suspected conspirators,” Brotherton explained.

To (greatly) simplify it, our minds prefer patterns to randomness, which means we sometimes see meaning that isn’t really there. It’s one reason why people see Jesus in their toast, or why some people believe “celebrity deaths come in threes.” “Obviously there will be different political motivations at play for different theories, and some are more plausible than others,” Brotherton added, “but our brains are always looking out for clues and connecting dots.” In the case of fan theories, though, let’s not discount the fact that it’s also just a ton of fun to take seemingly disparate puzzle pieces and squash them together until you’ve constructed something resembling a plausible plot line. Plus: It’s very fun when you turn out to be correct.

Because here’s the thing about conspiracy theories, both fictional and nonfictional: Sometimes, they’re true. Last year around this time, Game of Thrones fans were desperately seeking clues to prove that Jon Snow had not actually died — or, if he had, that he would not stay dead for long. Kit Harrington, the actor who plays Jon Snow, told us himself that his character was a goner. “Trust me, I’m sad, too. But all I know is that he’s dead,” he said last June. “When you gotta go, you gotta go.”

This, of course, turned out to be a lie. “Which goes to show,” Brotherton said, “that sometimes the conspiracy theorists get it right.”

The Weird Psychology of Game of Thrones Theories