The Science Behind Belief In Conspiracy Theories

ConspiraciesDean Burnett questions how supposedly rational people get caught in the tangled webs of conspiracy theories, writing in the Guardian:

With constant revelations about government surveillance and possible impending war, this must be a fertile time for conspiracy theories.

You know when you put the bins out and you realise there’s a bag in the corner that you’d forgotten about and you pick it up but it’s so old it splits and you are suddenly surrounded by swarms of furious flies and you run indoors screaming and spend three hours in the shower, shuddering? I imagine it’s a bit like that.

I’m involved in several conspiracies (apparently). When Channel 5 aired a shockingly non-critical show about moon landing conspiracies, I responded by “confessing” it was true, and inventing other “true” conspiracies, to emphasise how ludicrous the notion was. I made up conspiracies so far-fetched that I thought nobody could possibly believe them, revealing my naiveté about what people are able/willing to take at face value. But of course, it was pointed out often that I wrote this because I am a pawn of those behind the moon landing conspiracy.

Also, when I wrote a piece about Julie Burchill’s attack on Transsexuals, I was told I did this because I was part of at least two conspiracies, one run by trans* people, and one dedicated to attacking trans* people. Hopefully it was separate people who were accusing me of these mutually exclusive things, but then you never know with this sort of stuff.

What is it that compels people to cry conspiracy in response to even relatively minor events? (eg me writing a forgettable blog). It would be pointless to critique all that is known here; it would change nothing, and I probably won’t live long enough to finish. But there are numerous possible reasons why people get caught up in conspiracies, and how they end up being as complex and enduring as they are.

It’s important to not just dismiss conspiracy theorists as “cranks”, “nutters” or any other term that allows you to laughingly dismiss them. Admittedly, an extreme conspiracy theorist may have some disorder driving their actions, such as anxiety disorderparanoiapsychosis or others. Maybe the condition isn’t severe enough to warrant medical intervention, or maybe involvement with conspiracy theories is how some sufferers keep their symptoms in check, meaning it’s a form of self-medicating. Or of course it could be that psychiatry itself is a conspiracy

[continues in the Guardian]


Majestic is gadfly emeritus.

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20 Comments on "The Science Behind Belief In Conspiracy Theories"

  1. jasonpaulhayes | Sep 5, 2013 at 11:00 am |

    Psychiatry is an imperfect science… not to lend credibility to Tom Cruises all out attack on it. More importantly, me having Schizophrenia doesn’t place subliminal messaging into advertising and media for me to point out to others or project my thought into my friends and families minds so that they would also see UFO’s.

  2. Hocketeer | Sep 5, 2013 at 11:14 am |

    That’s one way to kill a harmless conversation.

    Is it really that important to take oneself so seriously?

  3. Ted Heistman | Sep 5, 2013 at 11:30 am |

    Some conspiracy theories are rational. For example you might be an elderly man with a lot of money and a young trophy wife, who is cheating on you and you theorize that she and her young lover are trying to kill you and take your money. That’s rational.

    If you are a poor wage slave and have a theory that your employer is deliberately shorting you on your pay hoping you won’t notice, that is rational too.

    What make me take a closer look at the sickness and paranoia inherent in some circles are the outright delusions that people in power are basically demigods which control absolutely everything in a tightly orchestrated way which renders us completely powerless.

    That’s whats irrational.

    • marshall | Sep 5, 2013 at 6:40 pm |

      I agree with you. However, there are oligarchs in the world and they are quite clever. I have no evidence to back this up, but I believe that certain families are so sociopathic, they literally train their progeny how to control and manipulate our modern world. I often refer back to the question posed in the Stone classic JFK: If the government (or substitute any group or organization for generalization’s sake) is so unorganized, how can so many people be on the same page to obviously lie, cover up and skew evidence in the most notorious crime in American history?

      • Ted Heistman | Sep 6, 2013 at 8:54 am |

        Russia was ruled by Oligarchs after the fall of the Soviet Union. Then Putin got rid of them, killing some, putting some in Prison driving the rest away. So yeah, There are oligarchs, and they have enemies often each other.

      • Ted Heistman | Sep 6, 2013 at 9:07 am |

        One good thing to study is how influence actually works. A case in point is Harvard University. Its has a really good reputation, obviously as an ivy league school. Its hard to get into. So do they “make” people? Is it true that once you make it into Harvard you are set for life?

        Actually they recruit bright people who were very likely going to be a success anyway. A lot of influential organizations do the same thing. A lot of conspiracy theorists believe that if you can connect a person to a secretive organization like the CIA, that the link in and of itself “proves” that the person is basically a mind controlled slave walking in lockstep with a pre-planned agenda like an actor memorizing a script.

        But really its more a case of influential people moving in the same circles.

        • marshall | Sep 6, 2013 at 4:45 pm |

          Of course, they are all zionist reptiles from space. I hear you, its just too bad more people in power don’t have integrity, or at least, a vision of the future that doesn’t involve their immense personal gain.

  4. BuzzCoastin | Sep 5, 2013 at 11:51 am |

    now that the conspiracy of the oligarchs
    to manipulate and exploit the herd has become patently obvious
    there are a host of explanations to why conspiracy theories exist
    which always dismiss the obvious conspiracy of the oligarchs
    as the factual explanation

    the emperors have no clothes
    except spin

  5. mole_face | Sep 5, 2013 at 12:35 pm |

    Nope, no conspiracy behind psychiatry – deliberately skewing FDA drug trial results, drugging millions of children with amphetamine derivatives for social control purposes, coming up with euphemistic terms for psych drug withdrawal like “discontinuation syndrome”, marketing brain-damaging antipsychotic tranquilizers to millions of non-psychotic patients via Abilify, etc – all totally on the level. And anyone who thinks otherwise must be part of the Hollywood UFO cult.

    • marshall | Sep 5, 2013 at 6:39 pm |

      I have first hand contact with a whole generation (the one after mine) crippled with psychiatric drugs, and it is dismal and depressing.

  6. jasonpaulhayes | Sep 5, 2013 at 12:54 pm |

    No Comment, apparently … where do my comments keep going?

  7. You’re part of the pro-anti-conspiracy conspiracy lobby

    • Ha…I knew it!
      YOU are clearly an anti-pro-conspiracy disinformation Zionist Illuminati double-agent working for Mossad, Monsanto, and the Bilderberg Group with covert underground ties to Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Skull & Bones.

      Don’t try to deny it either….because, if you do, that’ll only doubly prove me right.

      You can’t fool me…no sir-e.

  8. Guy’s an imbecile. No journalist ever got into trouble sucking off the powers that be and demonizing their enemies.

    CIA Document 1035-960

    His dishonesty is profound, as any fair assessment of conspiracy “theories” would include reference to conspiracy facts.

  9. Conspiracy Theories are very interesting.
    I’m 30 now…but in my early 20’s, I was heavily into all sorts of conspiracies. However, I consider myself a rather rational person. I don’t buy into religion and I’m not allied to any political party. But even with my critical faculties working on full-steam, a few Conspiracy Theories slipped into my mind at various times in my youth…much to my embarrassment and amusement now.

    The big one was 9/11. Now, there are still quite a few mysteries surrounding that day…and there MIGHT be a legit case that aspects of the federal government were at least aware of the impending attacks and let them happen in order to advance future policies. There’s reasons to believe that might be the case.
    But….some people literally believe there WERE NO PLANES that day. There’s all sorts of wildly imaginative theories to explain it.

    I was also into chem-trails for a while…until I really studied both sides in an unbiased manner. I actually believe the moon landing was a hoax…which still blows my mind that I was THAT gullible.

    However, there are still a FEW genuine conspiracies that make me wonder. JFK is a big one. Operation Northwoods didn’t happen…but the mere planning of it is enough to give one ample reason to suspect the government on things like 9/11.

    It really makes you realize that, utilizing cherry-picked evidence, it’s possible to lie by omission in service to a much larger argument that, in any other context, would be palpably absurd. David Icke’s bat-shit crazy hollow-moon theory is one such example. I was never dumb enough to buy into that. He basically cherry picks entirely true facts and genuine mysteries and combines it all into the most ridiculous theory imaginable. He fails to mention that every single “mystery” he brings up has entirely rational empirical natural explanations.

    Then, when THAT happens…when science steps in and shows a rational natural explanation….they always go to the idea that scientists themselves are part of some global cabal. The global warming and evolution deniers both do this. They literally think 99% of scientists have agreed(without ANY evidence) to simultaneously skew the evidence toward a predetermined conclusion. What’s ironic is that Creationists, for instance, do EXACTLY THAT. They do the very thing they accuse scientists of. Hypocrites…

    The worst thing about conspiracy theories is that they distract us from the largest and most genuine conspiracy of all, which is this: Wealthy powerful people desire more wealth and power and will do just about anything, no matter how immoral or illegal, to make it happen. And they have a vested interest in keeping 99% of people docile, apathetic, and ignorant….otherwise people would catch on and fight back.

    THAT conspiracy is 100% genuine. It’s the way the whole world works. And I bet people in that infamous 1% are more than happy to have us waste out time chasing imaginary conspiracy theories. It’s just another distraction. Let the serfs have their TV, fast food, beer, illusion of freedom, and conspiracy theories…as long as they don’t think or inquire too deeply.

    Now that I’m a bit older and wiser(at least I hope), a big hero of mine on the subject of truth in reality is Anton Wilson. He advanced the idea of existential agnosticism….that is, one should be agnostic about EVERYTHING. Don’t assume anything. If someone asks you a yes or no question, answer them with…”maybe.” Don’t put your foot too firmly in any camp. Basically, it’s the idea that you should be open minded, but not so much that your brain falls out.

    Once you take Anton Wilson’s approach, conspiracy theories start to look pretty clumsy and juvenile. Also…taking his same approach…one can start to deconstruct the normal every-day elements of our society and hold them under the light of critical apprehension. Go ahead and take a look at some normal, average, every-day, taken-for-granted element of society…or your own life. Look at it closely and with fresh eyes…as if you’re seeing it for the first time. What do you think?

    If you do that, your jaw will start to drop at the realization that SO much of what we take for granted and assume is normal status-quo is actually nothing but insanity running on momentum. That’s how the most toxic, addictive, overdose-prone, and lethal drugs on earth(alcohol and cigarettes) can be 100% legal, while a safe, non-toxic, non-addictive, overdose-free, entirely non-lethal drug that increases creativity, sensitivity, empathy, joy, spiritual connection, and reverence for nature and life…can be 100% illegal.

    In fact, if a primate hominid wears long black fabric and hits a wooden hammer on a desk…society has decided that such a primate is allowed to make other primates live in a cage, surrounded by violent sociopathic primates. All for touching a plant that makes life better. However, the primates have also decided that it’s OK to ingest liquid that is toxic, poisonous, and potentially lethal to their bodies and minds.

    Gah….rant over. I guess what I mean to say is….conspiracy theories distract us from the genuine conspiracies that make up the utterly absurd fabric of our very society.

  10. Rhoid Rager | Sep 5, 2013 at 9:59 pm |

    The issuance of money–the primary means of economic exchange (and thus, the primary means of out-sourced survival in our nature-alienated social world)–should be the baseline variable in judging whether or not there is a conspiracy of the few to *roughly* control the actions of the many. Should the issuance of money be deemed to be transparent, simple enough to understand by all, open to alternative types of currency, and controlled through a public mechanism in which anyone can have a say, then all derivative conspiracy theories are bogus and don’t deserve our intellectual energy. If the opposite….well…then, we’ve got some work to do.

  11. gustave courbet | Sep 6, 2013 at 6:56 pm |

    I suspects Matt includes these articles so that people can fume at their mischaracterizations. But I’ll toss in my two sense: The author of this article is ignorant to or purposely obtuse to the process of information control by self-interested elites to clandestinely shape events to their benefit. This is a well documented if underreported historical fact. Instead, the author waxes about the human tendencies toward paranoia and delusion and conflates ‘conspiracies’ with these admittedly common mental states. Yes people are crazy and yes conspiracies are part of the socio-political landscape.

    • Matt Staggs | Sep 7, 2013 at 1:47 pm |

      While I didn’t pull the trigger on this particular article, you are right: I love to chuck stuff onto the site and watch our readers tear into them like so many hungry, well-informed piranha. Our readers generally suffer no fools!

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