May 1, 2010

Why People Believe In Conspiracy Theories

Did NASA really land on the moon?

Did the government cover-up involvement in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks?

Is Elvis still alive and kicking? What about Michael Jackson?

Was John F. Kennedy assassinated at the hands of multiple shooters?

Do the Freemasons control the United States?

A small but fervent group of people believe there is more than was included in historical records about the aforementioned events. Conspiracies, they call them. And every generation has its own.

Some of them turn out to be true, after all: Pearl Harbor was a Japanese conspiracy and Nixon’s Watergate break-in was a coverup.

But with so few that turn out to be true, why do people believe in conspiracies? Here are four reasons:

1. Patternicity, or a tendency to find meaningful patterns in random places;

2. Agenticity, or the bent to believe the world is controlled by secret unknown agents with intentions;

3. Confirmation bias, or the seeking and finding of confirmatory evidence for what we already believe;

4. Hindsight bias, or tailoring after-the-fact explanations to what we already know happened.

A conspiracy theory takes flight when all of these are concocted into a heady mix of conviction. It’s called "conspiratorial cognition."

But research has been thin on precisely why some have a conspiratorial dispensation.

Back in 2007, Patrick Leman wrote in New Scientist that belief in conspiracy theories is on the rise thanks to the distribution power of the Internet.

Take the JFK conspiracy, for example: In 1968, two of every 10 Americans believed it to be true. In 1990, nine of 10 Americans believed it to be true.

Leman writes:

"Conspiracy theories can have a valuable role in society. We need people to think 'outside the box', even if there is usually more sense to be found inside the box.

Take the Iran-Contra affair, a massive political scandal of the late 1980s. When claims first surfaced that the US government had sold arms to its enemy Iran to raise funds for pro-American rebel forces in Nicaragua and to help secure the release of US hostages taken by Iran, it certainly sounded like yet another convoluted conspiracy theory. Several question marks remain over the affair, but President Ronald Reagan admitted that his administration had indeed sold arms to Iran."

On the other hand, distrust contributed to an inflation of the East-West fears during the Cold War, as well as continued belief by some that HIV (which causes AIDS) was created in a lab and distributed by the U.S. government to limit the growth of the African-American population.

Some points to ponder:

People who believe in one theory are more likely to believe in others.

There is a strong association between income and belief levels: the better-off are less likely to believe in conspiracy theories. (Perhaps this can be chalked up to education or at least the fact that they don't feel as victimized by society and angry about their situation in life.)

Instability makes most of us uncomfortable; people prefer to imagine living in a predictable, safe world. Some conspiracy theories offer accounts that feel “safe” or “predictable.”

Conspiracy theories often mutate over time in light of new or contradicting evidence.

To the paranoid, it seems everything that doesn't work the way they like it becomes a conspiracy. We must beware of extreme interpretations of events and over-speculation.

Conspiracies usually require a big newsworthy event on which to peg it.

But Michael Shermer drives the point home when he writes:

“The more elaborate a conspiracy theory is, and the more people that would need to be involved, the less likely it is true.”