The reasons why people believe in secret, controlling elites are rooted in basic human nature. We are constantly on the lookout for both patterns and agency. Pattern-seeking is essential for our survival, and the penalties for seeing patterns where none exist are lighter than those for missing patterns that really are there. If our ancestors had failed to notice that crops left to dry tended to die, they too would have expired through starvation. But if they thought they had noticed that sacrificing a goat increased the likelihood of rain, then at worst they wasted the odd bit of meat.

The assumption of agency is also extremely helpful. We cannot begin to understand the actions of others unless we attribute motives to their actions. But adopting what the US philosopher Daniel Dennett calls the “intentional stance” can be helpful even when we know that there is no conscious intention at all. Thinking of plants as “wanting” sunlight or “trying” to flower, for example, is an easy way of understanding their behaviour.