Why Rational People Buy Into Conspiracy Theories

ManWearingTinFoilHatMaggie Koerth-Baker, science editor at BoingBoing, ponders why so many “normal” people believe in what she deems “crazy” conspiracy theories, for the New York Times:

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?

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…

[continues in the New York Times]


Majestic is gadfly emeritus.

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43 Comments on "Why Rational People Buy Into Conspiracy Theories"

  1. Archie Dux | May 21, 2013 at 5:48 pm |

    More mass-media hand wringing. “Gosh, why aren’t they buying our crap like they used to? Just because we’re hand-in-glove with the same people who are stripping them of their rights, siphoning their wealth, sending them off to war on false pretexts, poisioning their environment, and making them all diabetic by stuffing everything they eat with high fructose corn syrup is no reason to distrust us. And just because we have been caught time and again misleading, withholding information, lying, and getting stuff wrong from sheer incompetence is no reason not to believe us. They must be crazy. We’ll ridicule them, but really it’s for their own good.”

  2. nozodurendozuuo | May 21, 2013 at 6:26 pm |

    Remember when boingboing wasn’t strictly and exclusively nerd-porn and fodder for pseudo-skeptical science-enthusiasts and their children?

    and isn’t it interesting how the nerds at boingboing co-opt Robert Anton Wilsson’s persona and then throw out his very sane perspectives on conspiracy-theories?

    Take for instance the UFO/ET issue. They will post stories about all manner of hucktersters, kitsch and “news of the werid” but when it comes to real stories they fall silent?

    ugh. boringboring.

  3. Bluebird_of_Fastidiousness | May 21, 2013 at 6:26 pm |

    Another one!

  4. From my perspective, those that go out of their way to be “normal” are just people who are really good at hiding or afraid of showing their weird. As for another article on conspiracy theories, yawn.

  5. thanks for bringing this garden-variety conventional bullshit to our attention

  6. Fusionism | May 21, 2013 at 6:57 pm |

    In other news esteemed scientist Dr Swami Freikybaby is investigating why more people don’t see through the thin veil of ‘western democracy’ and see it for what it actually is.
    “It is amazing,” he said. “The evidence of plutocratic domination has been obvious for so long, how can so many people actually believe anything their governments tell them? It is a mystery that we hope to crack one day when perhaps we can find a team of researchers who are not also in the back pocket of the richest, most powerful and wholly unelected few.”

    Stay tuned for more from Dr Freikybaby.

  7. BuzzCoastin | May 21, 2013 at 7:01 pm |

    where was this published?
    yes Ma, it’s was the CIA front, the NYT
    well then
    should I read this as NEWS or merely some helpful info
    from our Elite UberTrolls?

  8. Tuna Ghost | May 21, 2013 at 7:38 pm |

    Jesus Christ I WROTE one these “why people believe in conspiracy theories” articles and even I’m sick to death of seeing them

  9. Infowarrior 223 | May 21, 2013 at 8:43 pm |

    I can answer this NY Times article with another NY Times article


    Maybe Ms Koerth-Baker should pay better attention to her colleagues and the world around her. What a dummy.

  10. Another one. Fuck, I got nothing I haven’t already said.
    Also, Archie Dux totally NAILED IT.

  11. bobbiethejean | May 21, 2013 at 9:50 pm |

    A great deal of conspiracy theories are BS like the moonlanding hoax and the idiots who think 99% of the world’s biologists are conspiring to teach children the Satantic ways of EVILution. Those kinds of conspiracy theories attract idiots because they are idiotic. Now there are actually conspiracy theories out there that make some kind of sense and while they may not have any proof, they are more believable and maybe even probable.

    For example, while I’m not typically one for conspiracy theories myself, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised to find out there was more to Kennedy’s assassination than what the government fed us. I don’t necessarily believe that but I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out to be true. I’m also fairly certain we don’t know the whole truth about what happened behind 9/11. I’m DEFINITELY not a truther but I don’t necessarily blindly believe the government’s take on it either. They’ve already established a strong precedent for lying.

    Now, one conspiracy theory I actually do subscribe to wholesale, unabashedly, is the notion that Monsanto is a real-life Saturday morning cartoon villain entity and the only way to stop them is to unite the five forces of Earth, Fire, Wind, Water, and Heart to summon Captain Planet.

    • Craig Bickford | May 21, 2013 at 10:23 pm |

      Most of the conspiracies I advocate are happening right now are like the ones that the Dept. of Justice investigates every day, of the criminal kind. But even some of those are too much for people to handle. Tell people that Al Qaeda is probably an off shoot or part and parcel to a Gladio operation, then explain how it all works and they look at you like you asked them to lick Satan’s taint and shoot a puppy.

    • Well, that’s interesting that you should mention it. It only requires a little bit of reading and you’ll find documented evidence that clearly illustrates that the JFK murder was not what we’ve been told. And this is what’s sad and disturbing. The evidence is there for anyone to see, but no one bothers.
      Hell, A US court found in favor of Coretta Scott King that her husband was killed by a conspiracy, and the HSCA concluded JFK was murdered by a conspiracy, but no one, and I mean NO ONE seems to recall any of this. Shloop! Right down the memory hole. As if these things never happened.

      And Monsant is NOT a conspiracy. It’s out in thw wide open for all to see. Those who don’t are guilty of willful ignorance. As in IGNORE-ance.

  12. “normal” people believe in “crazy” conspiracy theories for the same reason “normal” people believe they can explain why “normal” people believe in “crazy” conspiracy theories.

  13. Craig Bickford | May 21, 2013 at 10:20 pm |

    I can’t believe the Boston bombing were invoked in this article. Anyone with eye sight and a brain can see that the older brother is wearing the same color and style of clothing, hat and backpack that the Craft contractors were wearing on scene, with the exception that his coat was unzipped (a sign to mark the point man or the pharmakos?). So that’s is clearly just an innocent coincidence…

  14. The more the powers that be lie to us, and the more apparent that becomes, and the more the government and media are controlled by the same corporate fascists, the harder it is to sort truth from lies in the news, and the more plausible crazy conspiracy theories seem. Some (chemtrails) are just so clearly devoid of logic as to be laughable, but others (false flags) are not, when we look corporate fascist propaganda and even at historically verified accounts of government officials lying to us to get what they want (“Remember the Maine!”, “WMD in Iraq!”, etc.).

    • Chemtrails laughable? Have you ever seen a crop duster? They leave trails that look just like the thick milky “clouds” that planes seem to leave behind only when flying over populated areas. Real contrails are phenomenon that dissipate quickly and don’t leave behind trails that last for miles and don’t go away after several hours. The government and NOAA have actually admitted to all kinds of intentional chemical spraying in the upper atmosphere for all sorts of reasons. How is it “devoid of logic” to believe in the idea that chemicals are being sprayed by airplanes for any number of potential reasons? It presents huge opportunities for those in power to alter the climate, alter the biosphere, and affect the mood and health of people. Anyone in a position of authority who understands the effects of this intentional pollution could use this knowledge to consolidate and centralize power, the same way a leader can use the general public’s reaction to a false flag like 9-11 to consolidate and centralize power.

      Powerful men could make mountains of wealth with this sort of technology at their disposal: it could spread illness and sickness to weaken the general public in mind, body, and spirit; allowing them to be easily controlled and forcing them to depend on the corporate medical system to maintain their health. They could alter the climate to force farmers to have to grow patent-protected weather-resistant GMO crops to further poison us. The massive expansion of the medical and biotech industry and the federal government practically nationalizing these industries with acts like Obamacare and the “monsanto protection act” makes this position even more plausible.

      Without the mass poisoning of the environment with slowly sickening chemicals like aluminum the medical industry could not have 1/4 of the population on hugely expensive prescription drugs. The corporate globalists are interested in “full-spectrum dominance” where NOBODY will be able to survive without submitting to their industries and using their products. They won’t be satisfied until every single person on the planet is forced into taking their drugs and eating their patented food.

      Why wouldn’t these people want to poison us and exterminate all non-GMO life on earth? The natural world represents a competitor to the corporate-globalist power structure as anybody can acquire food and wealth from it without being forced into using a corporate product.

      • You argument lacks logic, because those whom you accuse of being motivated to intentionally poison us all with chemicals have to breathe the same air as the rest of us.

  15. Matthew Lipscomb | May 22, 2013 at 11:53 am |

    Hey fuck you for this article. There are tons of tough questions about the Boston bombings not to mention the fact that most so called terror cells in the us have had direct government involvement and baiting. The government hasn’t answered any pertinent questions about 911 and countless other atrocities. The government has lied it’s way into countless wars and you wonder why people don’t believe a single fucking thing they say. Fuck you asshole.

  16. half the people in the country deny evolution is a fact. if people believe in dog then they can believe anything.

  17. festernaecus | May 22, 2013 at 1:21 pm |

    Sometimes it’s not a “conspiracy theory.” Sometimes it’s just a conspiracy. Anytime three or more people put their heads together to do something illegal, it is *by definition* a conspiracy. Rebranding this term has become a nice, convenient way to discredit someone in one step. It’s bullshit, it’s intellectually lazy, it’s dishonest, and it always works.

    • astrofrog | May 22, 2013 at 2:16 pm |

      I dunno. I think it worked, past tense. The recent flood of hand-wringing a la the crap we’re commenting on here would suggest that the efficacy of this particular line is declining.

  18. festernaecus | May 22, 2013 at 1:32 pm |

    The rubes who belive this would probably believe any craaazy kooky conspiracy theory. Like the totally off-the-wall tinfoil-hat fantasy that the US funded, trained, and armed Al-Qaeda during the war between Russia and Afghanistan. Or that ridiculous pie-in-the-sky myth about the Iran-Contra affair. Or the fairytale of Tuskegee. Yup, anything some hack journalist calls a “conspiracy theory” can and should be dismissed immediately.

    • Mark Wheeler | Jun 2, 2013 at 5:35 pm |

      Oh and all that dope coming from Vietnam…and now Afghanistan.. Just “conspiracy theories” though who believes that bullshit.. Heh

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