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Why Rational People Buy Into Conspiracy Theories Illustrated
Mon May 27, 2013 05:24

Why Rational People Buy Into Conspiracy Theories - Illustration by Matt Dorfman
By MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER - Published: May 21, 2013 432 Comments -

In the days following the bombings at the Boston Marathon, speculation online regarding the identity and motive of the unknown perpetrator or perpetrators was rampant. And once the Tsarnaev brothers were identified and the manhunt came to a close, the speculation didn’t cease. It took a new form. A sampling: Maybe the brothers Tsarnaev were just patsies, fall guys set up to take the heat for a mysterious Saudi with high-level connections; or maybe they were innocent, but instead of the Saudis, the actual bomber had acted on behalf of a rogue branch of our own government; or what if the Tsarnaevs were behind the attacks, but were secretly working for a larger organization?
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Crazy as these theories are, those propagating them are not — they’re quite normal, in fact. But recent scientific research tells us this much: if you think one of the theories above is plausible, you probably feel the same way about the others, even though they contradict one another. And it’s very likely that this isn’t the only news story that makes you feel as if shadowy forces are behind major world events.

“The best predictor of belief in a conspiracy theory is belief in other conspiracy theories,” says Viren Swami, a psychology professor who studies conspiracy belief at the University of Westminster in England. Psychologists say that’s because a conspiracy theory isn’t so much a response to a single event as it is an expression of an overarching worldview.

As Richard Hofstadter wrote in his seminal 1965 book, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” conspiracy theories, especially those involving meddlesome foreigners, are a favorite pastime in this nation. Americans have always had the sneaking suspicion that somebody was out to get us — be it Freemasons, Catholics or communists. But in recent years, it seems as if every tragedy comes with a round of yarn-spinning, as the Web fills with stories about “false flag” attacks and “crisis actors” — not mere theorizing but arguments for the existence of a completely alternate version of reality.

Since Hofstadter’s book was published, our access to information has vastly improved, which you would think would have helped minimize such wild speculation. But according to recent scientific research on the matter, it most likely only serves to make theories more convincing to the public. What’s even more surprising is that this sort of theorizing isn’t limited to those on the margins. Perfectly sane minds possess an incredible capacity for developing narratives, and even some of the wildest conspiracy theories can be grounded in rational thinking, which makes them that much more pernicious. Consider this: 63 percent of registered American voters believe in at least one political conspiracy theory, according to a recent poll conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University.

While psychologists can’t know exactly what goes on inside our heads, they have, through surveys and laboratory studies, come up with a set of traits that correlate well with conspiracy belief. In 2010, Swami and a co-author summarized this research in The Psychologist, a scientific journal. They found, perhaps surprisingly, that believers are more likely to be cynical about the world in general and politics in particular. Conspiracy theories also seem to be more compelling to those with low self-worth, especially with regard to their sense of agency in the world at large. Conspiracy theories appear to be a way of reacting to uncertainty and powerlessness.

Economic recessions, terrorist attacks and natural disasters are massive, looming threats, but we have little power over when they occur or how or what happens afterward. In these moments of powerlessness and uncertainty, a part of the brain called the amygdala kicks into action. Paul Whalen, a scientist at Dartmouth College who studies the amygdala, says it doesn’t exactly do anything on its own. Instead, the amygdala jump-starts the rest of the brain into analytical overdrive — prompting repeated reassessments of information in an attempt to create a coherent and understandable narrative, to understand what just happened, what threats still exist and what should be done now. This may be a useful way to understand how, writ large, the brain’s capacity for generating new narratives after shocking events can contribute to so much paranoia in this country.

Maggie Koerth-Baker is science editor at and author of “Before the Lights Go Out,” on the future of energy production and consumption.
A version of this article appeared in print on May 26, 2013, on page MM15 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: Sure You Saw a Flying Saucer.

Part of the conspiracy cohort is made up of those of us who grew up during Watergate; the lies told about the number of enemy deaths during the Viet Nam war; the actions of major corporations in places like Chile in the 70's and 80's.

Some of us stood in public spaces in the heart of our universities with the guns of the National Guard trained on us.

These were all factual happenings, many uncovered and reported on by this very paper. Our childhood was built upon the illusion that America was mostly just a large Mayberry. These revelations shook our basic beliefs right to the ground,

It's hard to step back from that cliff once you've been pushed to the edge of it.
May 21, 2013 at 6:39 a.m.
Dean Charles Marshall
NYT Pick

All well and good, so now psychologists have cobbled together a theory for the "bogeyman hiding under our beds" syndrome. So what? Personally I don't think it's conspiracy as much as it is lack of faith and trust in the "powers that be". For example, take the presidency of George W. Bush. The majority of Americans know he "stole" the election in 2000. A majority of Americans believe 9/11 could have been prevented if our military, our intelligence community, or our elected officials has been even halfway competent. Most Americans now know we went to to war in Iraq based on lies told to us by our president and his cabinet about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction when they did not. Every American knows the Great Depression II-the Sequel was orchestrated by the greed and chicanery of Wall Street in conjunction with the malfeasance of our elected officials. These are not parts of some "grand" conspiracy theory, but the simultaneoulsy occuring "facts of decline" being perptuated in our country through political corruption, professional inepitude and military and economic impotence. Unfortunately too many Americans are in denial and fraught with fear to acknowlege that we're no longer free citizens of a democracy as much as we are the indentured servants or serfs of corporate feudalism. Conspiracy or not, "truth, justice and the American way" is sure ringing a lot hollower now than ever before.
May 21, 2013 at 6:45 a.m.

I find that the credibly of an average conspiracy theory is on par with most TV news.
Conspiracies are usually a worst case scenario interpretation, I think in some cases they can create questions that should be asked. It's important to remain somewhat objective to the official version of events. Without being a nutcase.
May 21, 2013 at 6:46 a.m.

You have to be careful about lopping all conspiracy theories into the same bucket.

Some conspiracy theories are born of fear and ignorance, and others come from well founded hypotheses based on strong circumstantial evidence.

Is there incontrovertible proof that people run for office to obtain power and money? No, but we know that at some point many politicians are corrupted by their lust for power and money, so there is likely some premeditation. We'd be remiss not to connect those dots.

Maybe framing this phenomenon in the context of "conspiracy theory" isn't necessarily the most accurate structure. For example, Swami says, "It feels good to be the wise old goat in a flock of sheep."

In my experience, most people are indeed sheep and often willing to go along to get along, because it avoids confrontation, which is generally frowned upon in polite society. We are inculcated as children to quietly respect and support the status quo, and it is often the wise old goat that stimulates change and progress.

When I go to the bank and there are 10 people in line for the teller, I am typically the only one who will ask a manager to open another teller. Is there a conscious "conspiracy" to provide poor service? No. Is there a lack of attention by multiple people that leads to poor service? Yes.

When the German people passively chose not to acknowledge death camps in their midst, was that a conspiracy? Perhaps not, but then we need to find a term for willful group ignorance.
May 21, 2013 at 6:50 a.m.

You're lumping oranges and hand grenades together. As far as the WTC goes, all you have to do is explore Building 7 to realize that we were handed a bunch of lies. I don't know exactly what the truth is, but the official version is definitely not it. Right wing conspiracy theorists use their theories to alter (read destroy) democracy. Left wing conspiracy theorists embrace their theories to protect democracy. Some are deluded. All are not. If you still think a hijacker who could barely pass his pilot's license could fly an airliner into the Pentagon from 10 feet off the ground, maybe you better look again at the one tape they couldn't keep from us and ask yourself, isn't that a little far-fetched? If you think three giant buildings could all fall neatly into their own footprint on the same day, something that only happens during demolitions, especially when one of them had not been hit, then you've been suckered. The pointing and laughing about conspiracy theories held by the left is simply a device to keep the rest of us from the truth. Why? Money and power. Pure and simple. Thermite in WTC wreckage? Excellent point. Look it up and start questioning like an intelligent being instead of accepting nonsensical explanations like a good sheep, psychologists named Swami aside.
In reply to slartibartfast
May 21, 2013 at 7:49 a.m.

Of course there is a conspiracy.

They can find Bin Laden but they cannot find Bigfoot!

Since the advent of camera phones, dash cams in Russia, there have been no new videos of UFOs but lots of videos of police beatings.

Either they are hiding the UFOs better or people who take pictures of UFOs get the snot beat out of them by police. Who knew?

The list goes on.

Rational Liberal.

Now now children, there's nothing to worry about and be afraid of.. Pay no attention to that man or those men (and women) behind the curtain. Bad things happen to good people just as good things happen to bad.

Even when catastrophic world events occur, it's only "natural" to want to understand how such an event could and did happen. The mathematical and scientific evidence (which never lies, right?) can explain it rationally and logically, who says there's no need to question any further? Rational plausibility? Sure, there may well be other motives, means, and a larger picture help by someone, or some group or some political idealism, or some corporations, or or or, well, you get the idea. Acceptable losses,collateral damage, and my favourite, `"Greed is good, and it's legal."

If Steven Stills is right about paranoia starting when you're always afraid. It must be remembered that fear isn't real, but danger is. And evidence shows we live in rather dangerous times. So articles like this seem to want to divert our perspective and confuse our senses away from what we inherently know as, " something's not right."
May 21, 2013 at 8:00 a.m.

Belief in conspiracies is predictable when people consistently are fed lies and distortions and when simple facts are declared state secrets. The person who never entertains the possibility of conspiracies simply isn't paying attention to the routine nature of false information and official secrets.

Information is withheld, distorted and simply made up by those in power. Only silly people will never entertain the possibility of conspiracies. In the COINTEL program in the 1960s the FBI routinely smeared the reputations of dissidents. Why should one think that this is not happening today? From the Pentagon Papers to Wikileaks we see massive lies and distortions over several decades. Why should we think such lies and secrets are not still routine? The School of the Americas taught client states about violent repression including murder. Why should we think such activities have ended? Birthday cakes were sent to Iran in exchange for weapons sent to the contras in Nicaragua. What neurotic could make up such a wild conspiracy?

Only a head buried in the sand could refuse to entertain that our bankers, corporate leaders, and government officials are conspiring to manipulate market bench marks to steal massive amounts of money. Are we really sufficiently naive to think that our economy is always on the up and up? And why should we believe that dissidents are not suppressed?

Do we need to await a NY Times editorial before thinking that something is rotten?
May 21, 2013 at 8:00 a.m.

Completely rational thinking is an illusion and any attempt at it inhibits our ability to experience a full life. Falling in love is irrational. So is having children, in a personal sense (huge risks with no clear payoff). A conspiracy theory is just the negative flip side of spiritual optimism. Do you believe that the 90 percent of good people will win out over the 10 percent bad? God and Satan, angels and demons. "He must be cheating." "He has a gift from God." It's the stuff of literature and movies.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen."
May 21, 2013 at 8:04 a.m.

If the mere possibility that "the Tsarnaevs were behind the attacks, but were secretly working for a larger organization" is considered "crazy", despite the fact that the U.S. is itself investigating that theory, in what light does the author regard actual historical events which are far less plausible, but happen to true?

For example, an American administration illegally sells missiles to an avowed enemy country in order to fund a terrorist army killing civilians in another avowed enemy country? And denies both claims for years?

Or a government whose spy agency tests hallucinogens on unsuspecting citizens?

Or a government which claims to promote freedom and democracy but routinely overthrows democracies abroad and refuses to recognize election results it doesn't like?

Or a government which monitors tens of millions of private communications every day, and then claims no citizen has standing to challenge that policy because the policy is secret?

Or business associations which effectively buy politicians and write laws in their own favor?

Or very rich people who conspire to get their marginal tax rates lower than that applied to the taxable income of the lowest paid worker in the land?

Is it the author's view that anyone who believes such things is a "nut"? In that case, how do we describe those who deny these historical facts?
May 21, 2013 at 8:06 a.m.

LIBOR. ISDAfix. Platts. Secretive TransPacific Partnership negotiations which include some 600 of the world's most powerful corporations but exclude everybody else. Invitation-only World Economic Forum meetings where bigwigs pay big bucks to attend inter-sanctum global strategy sessions. Tax regimes which privilege the wealthy and transf

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