Why People Believe in Conspiracy Theories

Here we go again: another  mainstream media article condemning all conspiracy theories due to some easy to mock dubious ones. This time by Scientific American:

Did NASA fake the moon landing? Is the government hiding Martians in Area 51? Is global warming a hoax? And what about the Boston Marathon bombing…an “inside job” perhaps?

World conspiracies pyramid

In the book “The Empire of Conspiracy,” Timothy Melley explains that conspiracy theories have traditionally been regarded by many social scientists as “the implausible visions of a lunatic fringe,” often inspired by what the late historian Richard Hofstadter described as “the paranoid style of American politics.” Influenced by this view, many scholars have come to think of conspiracy theories as paranoid and delusional, and for a long time psychologists have had little to contribute other than to affirm the psychopathological nature of conspiracy thinking, given that conspiricist delusions are commonly associated with (schizotype) paranoia.

Yet, such pathological explanations have proven to be widely insufficient because conspiracy theories are not just the implausible visions of a paranoid minority. For example, a national poll released just this month reports that 37 percent of Americans believe that global warming is a hoax, 21 percent think that the US government is covering up evidence of alien existence and 28 percent believe a secret elite power with a globalist agenda is conspiring to rule the world. Only hours after the recent Boston marathon bombing, numerous conspiracy theories were floated ranging from a possible ‘inside job’ to YouTube videos claiming that the entire event was a hoax…

[continues at Scientific American]


Majestic is gadfly emeritus.

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35 Comments on "Why People Believe in Conspiracy Theories"

  1. JoiquimCouteau | Apr 30, 2013 at 9:14 pm |

    Another one? I’m waiting for “Why People Write ‘Why People Believe in Conspiracy Theories’ Articles”.

  2. gustave courbet | Apr 30, 2013 at 9:21 pm |

    My interest in “conspiracy theories” is similar to my interest in optics, psychology or biology, in that, I become interested in a subject and suss out information on said subject. Articles like the above or by the likes of professional skeptic Michael Shermer often cause me to wonder if ANY of these folks have actually sat down and had a reasonable, evidence-based conversation about any number of subjects lumped into this field by critics with their proponents. It is easy to find schizophrenics and ignorant fools to represent fringe positions but I am constantly impressed my the highly intelligent and reputable people who espouse so called fringe beliefs. Information architects, Fortune 500 company employees, astronauts, generals are passed over while dimwitted and inarticulate people are drawn out of the woodwork to ‘prove’ certain viewpoints as idiotic.

    • Russell Targ’s latest book on ESP has a foreword written by a guy named Stephan Schwartz. In it, he recounts a televised debate he was having on the subject with renowned philosopher (and Michael Shermer-style “skeptic”) Daniel Dennett:

      “Along with Ed May, I once debated with Daniel Dennett, a prominent critic of ESP research, at an event produced by ABC News for station news staffs and station managers. We debated along for about thirty minutes, with Dennett making dismissive and disparaging remarks to anything Ed or I said, but always in generalities. Finally I said to him: ‘Let’s pick an experiment we both know, and you tell me what is wrong with it, and I will respond.’ Without a moment’s hesitation he shot back in the most deliberately condescending act I have ever witnessed, saying, ‘You don’t actually think I read this stuff, do you?’ There was a moment’s silence, the laughter began, first as giggles, then as chuckles, and finally, as guffaws. It suddenly dawned on Dennett what he had said. He blushed and sat down, and left as soon as he could.”

      Rupert Sheldrake discusses a similar encounter he had with Richard Dawkins here:

      The previous week I had sent Richard copies of some of my papers, published in peer-reviewed journals, so that he could look at the data.

      Richard seemed uneasy and said, “I don’t want to discuss evidence”. “Why not?” I asked. “There isn’t time. It’s too complicated. And that’s not what this programme is about.” The camera stopped.

      The Director, Russell Barnes, confirmed that he too was not interested in evidence. The film he was making was another Dawkins polemic.


      That seems pretty par for the course, to me.

  3. Articles which provide the false choice between believing every “official version”, no matter how implausible. or to be in need of mental health counseling are so much fun.

    Scientific American is supposed to be about science.

    • Lady of the Snows | Apr 30, 2013 at 10:01 pm |

      Sensible people will recognise degrees of ‘belief’ from casual interest to unhealthy obsession, and also that some conspiracies are obviously more probable than are others.

      Pop sci isn’t necessarily aimed at sensible people however, only people who think they’re more sensible. Looking down one’s own snout at the supposed irrationality of others is a big turn on to some people, so pieces such as this possess emotional appeal for people with certain personality types.

  4. Daniel Gill | Apr 30, 2013 at 9:56 pm |

    Harlan Ellison’s,

    “I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream”

    is the purest expression of real conspiracy.

    an industrial machine out of control enslaves and destroy all humanity

    Whether its the economy, pharmaceutical companies, or the military

    industrial complex is everywhere
    no one is in control

    This is why I support mediumship. If you want the world to regain control, then commune. It is a lack of spiritual purpose destroying our world

    • Matt Staggs | May 1, 2013 at 11:49 am |

      My buddy Duncan Trussell has been speaking with me a lot about the importance of a “spiritual community” in supporting the growth of the individual. Maybe there’s something to it.

      • Daniel Gill | May 3, 2013 at 2:20 pm |

        I was just reading Araby in class its a short story by James Joyce .

        “North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ School set the boys free. An uninhabited house of two storeys stood at the blind end, detached from its neighbours in a square ground. The other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces.”

  5. BuzzCoastin | Apr 30, 2013 at 10:07 pm |

    I think the reason that people believe in conspiracy theories
    is because there’s more than a little evidence
    that monied interests are working together in secret
    for the benefit of monied interests
    to the detriment of wee the sheeple
    the “banking crisis” being one of hundreds such examples

    they need Scientific American
    (a privately held German Media corporation)
    to tell its Outer Party readers
    that to regard the obvious corporate collusion as a conspiracy
    is unscientific paranoia
    despite the empirical evidence to the contrary
    and this stuff isn’t aimed at the Proles
    this is aimed at the Outer Party house servant class

  6. Bluebird_of_Fastidiousness | Apr 30, 2013 at 10:59 pm |

    The Medieval Catholic church had heretics. Modern conventional discourse has conspiracy theorists. Divergent thought generates unpleasant cognitive dissonance among the culturally invested. The myths of our times give comfort and stability. Those who question the foundational ideas of those myths threaten our very sense of security. Burning at the stake has become taboo, but we can symbolically cast these “Others” out. The cathedral can once again resound with the harmonious chorus of convenient thoughts, while the quarrelsome philosophies of the malcontents clash their symbols in the desert.

    • Noah_Nine | May 19, 2013 at 3:47 am |

      I’ve often wondered if Galileo was his era’s equivalent of a conspiracy theorist…

  7. Bluebird_of_Fastidiousness | Apr 30, 2013 at 11:19 pm |

    My bookmaker’s coworker makes a lot of money working odd jobs. He’s been laid off for a few weeks but this month, he’s gonna make rent after he finds you.

  8. Oh, FFS another one. It’s pretty obvious that people believe in conspiracy theories because, and I repeat, WE ARE DROWNING IN A TSUNAMI OF FUCKING BULLSHIT. Simple.
    Also, conspiracy is how the world runs. Monied intersts, rich people, the elite, whatever you wanna call them, collude to scam the rest of humanity. They’ve been doiing it for thousands of years. Divide and conquer, yadda, yadda, yadda . . .
    It seems to me that these types of articles are published because the powers that be start to get a bit nervous if enough of the mindless hordes begin to question the dominant narrative. Perhaps they’re getting nervous so they publish these types of pieces to quell dissent, to misdirect, to sooth the masses. It’s the classic “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” shtick.
    That this appeard in Scientific American means that in this instance, their target demographic was not the usual mouth breather, but rather a literate, educated and professional segment of the population. Maybe it’s a good sign that they’ve decided they need to target this group with this kind of propaganda.

  9. Perhaps people believe in conspiracies for the same reason we made/make up things that go bump in the night.

  10. It’s because people who want to question reality are justified in doing so, and conspiracy theories are generally the first and most compelling alternative explanations for the way the world is.

    What you find, however, as you actually grow as an adult, is that things are not so black and white. You come to understand that most of the world is some shade of grey, and that there is truth in all things – but the measure of truth is what is important rather than the notion that any one thing is entirely under the control of any single entity at any point in life.

    Nobody runs this world, but there are always people who try. Half of the battle is won by them fooling you into thinking they do.

    Read the Illuminatus! Trilogy. Absurdity has a way of offering up the truth.

  11. “For example, while it has been known
    for some time that people who believe in one conspiracy theory are also
    likely to believe in other conspiracy theories, we would expect
    contradictory conspiracy theories to be negatively correlated. Yet, this
    is not what psychologists Micheal Wood, Karen Douglas and Robbie Suton
    found in a recent study.
    Instead, the research team, based at the University of Kent in England,
    found that many participants believed in contradictory conspiracy
    theories. For example, the conspiracy-belief that Osama Bin Laden is
    still alive was positively correlated with the conspiracy-belief that he
    was already dead before the military raid took place. This makes little
    sense, logically: Bin Laden cannot be both dead and alive at the same
    time. An important conclusion that the authors draw from their analysis
    is that people don’t tend to believe in a conspiracy theory because of
    the specifics, but rather because of higher-order beliefs that support
    conspiracy-like thinking more generally. A popular example of such
    higher-order beliefs is a severe “distrust of authority.” The authors go
    on to suggest that conspiracism is therefore not just about belief in
    an individual theory, but rather an ideological lens through which we
    view the world.”

    • gustave courbet | May 5, 2013 at 1:09 am |

      Professional skeptics generally rely on psychological findings about peoples’ tendencies toward bias. We filter information selectively, we see patterns where there is only noise, we generalize based on specific past experiences. These are are accurate and relevant observations. If we are interested in approaching some objective reality, we should always endeavor to seek out our blind spots. However, real and well documented political conspiracies occur and go under reported in the mainstream, for a variety of reasons. It undercuts the credibility of skeptics when they refuse to look at evidence of real conspiracies. As one example on the margins of the main stream, Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi has done numerous well documented articles on pervasive and massive financial conspiracies. That doesn’t excuse the thought distortions, leaps in logic, and lazy scholarship that often accompany conspiracy theorist media, but it should lead people interested in reality towards a skeptical view of mainstream media and an understanding that deep events do take place outside the spotlight of popular discourse.

  12. Aipeed Teaitchse | May 1, 2013 at 1:40 pm |

    Interesting article to ring in Ingolstadt, by German publisher Holtzbrinck no less.
    And isn’t it an interesting when people blur the line between facts and THEORIES, even writers who are researching the science of behavioral change at Yale?
    The suggestion that there are basically two camps – essentially one that trusts the government and one that distrusts the government – that people who don’t buy the official story of 9/11 or the Kennedy assassination also believe every other conspiracy that’s ever been theorized – is patently absurd.
    Why not take this same approach at a religious level and suggest that anyone who is involved in any religious organization shares the mindset of every other person who is involved in a religious organization? Muslims believe in Vishnu, Mormons love L. Ron Hubbard, Jews are all about Jesus, and of course within the individual sects there is basically no difference of opinion. Well an atheist wrote a book on it and there’s a lot of scientific jargon to back these claims up as well as psychobabble to suggest any such belief is indicative of a textbook schizoid. You don’t have a severe distrust of authority now do you? (There are German psychologists that can help you know.)

    There’s also a denial that the TSA is expanding beyond airports and there may be an elite-minded group with a globalist agenda. Keep in mind there was a time when people questioning the official story of Gulf of Tonkin or talking about MK-ULTRA, COINTELPRO, or Gladio were regarded as conspiracy theorists (i.e. Dis-regarded as whackos). Notice this is at least the 5th attack on Alex Jones via nationally syndicated media in less than 2 weeks.
    But don’t worry because Everything Is Under Control.

  13. Operation Gladio
    Operation Northwoods
    Operation Mockingbird

    That’s why I believe in them.

  14. Archie Dux | May 2, 2013 at 10:10 am |

    This is an interesting time to be alive. Science has become the New Inquisition.

  15. ParanoidCoast | May 2, 2013 at 12:28 pm |

    Appearing soon in the next DSM: Conspiracy theorists will be labeled as “suffering” from a psychiatric disorder. For further information, see Michel Foucault:

    “The theme that underlies all Foucault’s work is the relationship
    between power and knowledge, and how the former is used to control and
    define the latter. What authorities claim as ‘scientific knowledge’ are
    really just means of social control. Foucault shows how, for instance,
    in the eighteenth century ‘madness’ was used to categorize and
    stigmatise not just the mentally ill but the poor, the sick, the
    homeless and, indeed, anyone whose expressions of individuality were

    Philip Stokes, Philosophy: 100 Essential Thinkers, 2004.[198]

    My apologies for the cut and paste.

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