Why Conspiracy Theorists Believe

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“Out of these troubled times, our fifth objective—a new world order—can emerge. Today, that new world is struggling to be born, a world quite different from the one we have known.” —George H.W. Bush, September 11, 1990

In A Nutshell

Conspiracy theories: They’re all nuts, right? There’s a huge amount of people who believe in one conspiracy theory or another (or a whole bunch of them). While there’s been no concrete research that suggests gender or class has anything to do with our desire to believe in conspiracies, it has been found that believers share a few traits. They tend to be people who have a hard time trusting others and they have an overwhelming suspicion of the powers that be. They also may find it comforting to think that there’s someone out there manipulating the world behind the scenes. Perhaps it’s more reassuring that someone knows what the heck is going on in this world.

The Whole Bushel

Conspiracy theories are, at their heart, often insanely outlandish. You have ones like the complicated rats’ nest of theories around the shadowy, secret organization Propaganda Due (which ended up being full of very real conspiracies). Others include the belief that the auto industry was in danger of falling into the clutches of the world’s Jews or that Hurricane Sandy and the California droughts were engineered by the government. Plenty of people believe in them and take it as part of their life’s work to inform the rest of the world’s skeptical, in-the-dark population about the dangers lurking around every corner.

While most conspiracy theories haven’t hit mainstream acceptance yet, there’s been some fascinating work done to figure out just what makes people believe in conspiracy theories.

In general, those who believe in conspiracy theories have been found to hold one thing above all others—above scientific acts, the power of religion, or belief in the power of freedom. They believe in the ever-present and ever-powerful portion of society that makes up the upper class.

When psychologists at New Mexico State University took a look at college students and their tendency to believe in conspiracy theories, they found that a lack of trust was present across the board. Now on one hand, researchers might expect that people who don’t trust others might not be so willing to believe everything they’re told, but they found almost the opposite. Not trusting people made conspiracy theorists much more susceptible to buying into the truth behind conspiracy theories.

That study was done in 1999. Another study, done a decade later on the beliefs and conspiracy theories that swirled around 9/11, ended with similar findings. More than a distrust of people, conspiracy theorists in this study singularly held a deep-rooted and negative image of establishment.

Then, they went a little farther.

The people who supported conspiracy theories were largely also demonstrating a belief in organized actions and intentions, rather than things like coincidence. Once you think that everyone really is out to get you, it’s easier to accept that they might be doing it by using super-secret invisible rays designed to poison the rain and the snow.

A study done in Germany found that belief in one widely held conspiracy theory (like the idea that there was more than one person behind JFK’s assassination) made people more likely to believe in fake conspiracy theories the researchers made up (e.g., “Red Bull pays €10 million every year to silence the truth about the health risks associated with their drinks”).

And studies from the University of Winchester have found that belief in conspiracy theories can be a comforting thing to the believers. Perhaps it’s the idea that someone out there is in control of things. For some, that’s a better option than the idea that we’re all just drifting through the unpredictable sea of life on a wing and a prayer.

Show Me The Proof

Scientific American: Insights into the Personalities of Conspiracy Theorists
Slate: Conspiracy Theorists Aren’t Really Skeptics
Vice: The Psychology and Economy of Conspiracy Theories

  • Hillyard

    So the conspiracy nuts take comfort in believing that some secret organization is controlling everything. Good for them. They’re still a bag of nuts.

  • OldBoris

    There are a few observations that I would like to make.

    Firstly, I believe that the problem with most conspiracy theories is that they overestimate the power and competence of government officials. They believe that a state that can’t balance its own budgets can manipulate the entire world. They believe that a tiny nation in the Middle East, surrounded on all sides by hostile nations, is pulling the world’s strings.

    Personally, I believe that the frantic attempts of governments to gain more knowledge of and power over people’s communications are actually a sign of them trying to mask their own incompetence in an age where information is easy to come by. I know, for example, that in my country there are major criminal gangs that control the governments of some towns, and the police and port authorities are full of moles and corrupt officials who make millions by letting through drug and arms shipments. The world’s devolving into a more primal, international criminal network-dominated mode, but governments want to make it seem like we’re going in the other direction so they pick all the low-hanging fruit that there is.

    Secondly, I would say that conspiracy theorists are not entirely wrong. Separate from the visible institutional level – the policies, the remarks by heads of state and international organisations – there is a more influential level, one that ultimately decides what happens. But it’s not a level that’s above the visible level – it’s below that level. It’s a bit like plate tectonics – if we see an earthquake, it didn’t come out of nowhere. Policies are made to combat real or perceived problems, and ultimately demographical, economic and cultural changes are much more influential than deliberate policy decisions.

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    • Jon