Here’s what the conspiracy theorists don’t want you to know.
Wake up, sheeple.
Right now, there are networks of passionate and committed people across the world working to subvert some of our deepest-held beliefs and upend the established world order.
They’re called conspiracy theorists. They walk among us. They could be your friends, neighbors or loved ones. Who knows? You may even be one yourself.
There seems to be a conspiracy being “uncovered” all the time these days, and no matter how outlandish they may be they seem to have no trouble drawing in ardent believers.
Despite the prevalence and pervasiveness of conspiracy theories, the reasons people are drawn to them is a relatively new area of study for psychologists.
Jan-Willem van Prooijen, an associate professor at the Department of Social and Organizational Psychology at VU University Amsterdam, said research into the phenomenon has really only taken off in the last seven years.
According to University of Chicago political science professors Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood, in any given year roughly half of Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory. Their 2014 study found that 19% of Americans believed the U.S. government planned the 9/11 attacks to start a war in the Middle East, 24% believed former president Barack Obama was not born in the United States, and 25% believed Wall Street bankers conspired to cause the financial crisis that began in 2008. Those are high numbers considering there is zero evidence to support any of those theories.
And a whopping 61% said they do not believe the official conclusion of the Warren Commission that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in assassinating President John F. Kennedy, according to a 2013 Gallup poll. The number has not dropped below 50% since Gallup began polling on the subject just after the 1963 tragedy.
President Trump himself has expressed a belief in at least two of the above conspiracies at one time or another. He was the most vocal proponent of the baseless claim that Obama was not born in America, and during the 2016 Republican primary campaign, Trump implied Sen. Ted Cruz’s father was connected to Oswald and the Kennedy killing. Trump has also said climate change is a Chinese-manufactured hoax meant to hurt U.S. industry. His characterization of Russian election meddling as a “made-up story” designed to discredit his election victory was deemed 2017’s lie of the year by fact-checker Politifact last week.
Everyone’s a suspect
Conspiracy theorists can be conservative, liberal or any other political stripe — male or female, rich or poor, well educated or not.
To some extent, the human brain is wired to find conspiracy theories appealing. People are highly evolved when it comes to the ability to draw conclusions and predict consequences based on sensory data and observation. But sometimes those same processes can lead to oversimplifications and misperception through what psychologists refer to as “cognitive bias,” van Prooijen said.
Among the cognitive biases Van Prooijen and other psychologists believe contribute to the appeal of conspiracy theories are:
- Confirmation bias: People’s willingness to accept explanations that fit what they already believe.
- Proportionality bias: The inclination to believe that big events must have big causes.
- Illusory pattern perception: The tendency to see causal relations where there may not be any.
Yet there are factors that make some people more or less inclined to accept conspiracy theories.
People with greater knowledge of the news media are less likely to believe conspiracy theories, according to a new study, “News Media Literacy and Conspiracy Theory Endorsement,” in the current issue of Communication and the Public.
“It’s significant that knowledge about the news media — not beliefs about it, but knowledge of basic facts about structure, content and effects — is associated with less likelihood one will fall prey to a conspiracy theory, even a theory that is in line with one’s political ideology,” co-author Stephanie Craft, a University of Illinois journalism professor, told the Columbia Journalism Review.
Oliver believes the greatest predictor of people’s likelihood to accept conspiracy theories is the degree to which they rely on their intuition over analytical thinking.
“They go with their gut feelings. They’re very susceptible to symbols and metaphors,” he said.
Conspiracy theories as coping mechanism?
One reason for the pervasiveness of conspiracy theories is that they serve an important psychological function for people trying to cope with large, stressful events like a terrorist attack.
People “need to blame the anxiety that they feel on different groups and the result is frequently conspiracy theories,” van Prooijen said, defining the term as a belief that “a group of actors is colluding in secret in order to reach goals that are considered evil or malevolent.”
“People don’t like it when things are really random. Randomness is more threatening than having an enemy. You can prepare for an enemy, you can’t prepare for coincidences.”
Conspiracy theories also appeal to people’s need to feel special and unique because it gives them a sense of possessing secret knowledge, according to a study in the July 2017 edition of Social Psychology.
Of course, sometimes conspiracies turn out to be real.
President Nixon tried to cover up the Watergate break-in; the Reagan administration sold arms to Iran to illegally fund the Contra rebels in Nicaragua, and the CIA really did test LSD on unwitting U.S. citizens.
Of course, one thing those conspiracies have in common is that they all came to light. And that is almost certain to be the case with any large plot like those imagined by conspiracy theorists.
Yes, conspiracies exist, but the real ones usually don’t fit the Hollywood mold of films like The Parallax View, The Manchurian Candidate or Oliver Stone’s JFK.
They imagine “a secret government employing hundreds of people that operate with supreme efficiency, everybody having the capability of James Bond and never making an error,” said Gerald Posner, author of Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK. Posner began the book a believer that the mafia was behind the assassination, but his research led him to conclude that the Warren Commission was right and Oswald acted alone.
“After 54 years, you say, ‘Where’s the deathbed confession?'” Posner said of the Kennedy assassination. “Where’s the guilty person with a guilty conscience who comes out? Where’s the diary that’s been left by somebody that has now been unearthed?
“Are there some out there that we never found out about? I’m sure,” Posner said. “But at the level of assassinating the president of the United States, with the level of complexity and the number of people that would have had to have been involved, for that to have worked? No.”
The long-awaited release this year of nearly 2,900 previously classified records related to the Kennedy assassination also failed to produce any evidence of a conspiracy to kill the president. But a few documents remain classified, which is more than enough mystery to keep the conspiracy theories around the assassination alive.
An act of faith
The absence of evidence never got in the way of a good conspiracy theory. No matter how unlikely a given imagined conspiracy, and no matter how many facts are produced to disprove it, the true believers never budge.
For example, even when Obama released his birth certificate many “birthers” were still certain he was not a natural-born American citizen. The fact that multitudes of horrified people witnessed the planes fly into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, hasn’t stopped conspiracy theorists from insisting the towers collapsed because of a controlled demolition.
And what do you say to the people who still aren’t convinced we went to the moon or that the Earth is flat?
“I’ve learned that is there no such thing as evidence that persuades a conspiracy theorist,” Posner said. “It’s sort of a psycho-religious belief, in part. They just know it’s true even if they can’t quite prove it.”
Van Prooijen also called conspiracy theories a “form of belief.”
“It doesn’t matter how much evidence to the contrary you raise, these hardcore conspiracy theories will discredit the source of the evidence,” van Prooijen said. “It’s very easy to dismiss evidence as being part of the conspiracy, being part of the coverup. So it’s very hard to disprove a conspiracy theory.”
Is social media making it worse?
Social media is often the scapegoat for many of contemporary civilization’s ills, but surprisingly there is not yet evidence it is increasing the number of conspiracy theory adherents.
“I’m not yet persuaded that the number of people who actually believe in them has increased due to social media,” said van Prooijen, adding that people believed in conspiracies in huge numbers long before the arrival of Facebook and Twitter.
But van Prooijen and Oliver think those sites, as well as anonymous platforms like 4Chan, have increased the number of conspiracy theories out there and allowed them to spread more quickly.
“It was harder to get conspiracy theories to your doorstep 50 years ago than it is now,” said Oliver.
A person who might have been handing out fliers on a street corner to get their ideas out in the past might have 200,000 followers on social media today, Oliver said.
So, what’s the harm?
Irrational conspiracy theories can lead people to not vaccinate their children, to deny the scientific evidence of climate change or to dismiss mass shootings like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary as “false flag” operations meant to spur gun control.
A wildly irrational conspiracy theory that presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was connected to a child-sex ring that was being run out of a Washington pizza shop even led to a man opening fire in the restaurant with a semi-automatic rifle. Fortunately, he shot at the ceiling and not the patrons.
Van Prooijen believes such conspiratorial thinking can undermine democracy because it sews distrust and leads to groups perceiving each other as enemies.
Oliver does not believe conspiracy theories have a major impact on politics as much as they are symptomatic of problems with the political system.
“It’s less about the conspiracy theories themselves and it’s more about kind of the flight from reason in political discourse,” he said. “American democracy is a product of the Enlightenment, it’s a very explicitly rationalist enterprise.”
And if people reject rationality to embrace what they believe over what they can prove, that Democratic enterprise could begin to unravel.