The Fascinating Psychology of Conspiracy Theories

The state of the universe.
Nov. 19 2013 12:57 PM

Conspiracy Theorists Aren’t Really Skeptics

The fascinating psychology of people who know the real truth about JFK, UFOs, and 9/11.

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The more you see the world this way—full of malice and planning instead of circumstance and coincidence—the more likely you are to accept conspiracy theories of all kinds. Once you buy into the first theory, with its premises of coordination, efficacy, and secrecy, the next seems that much more plausible.

Many studies and surveys have documented this pattern. Several months ago, Public Policy Polling asked 1,200 registered U.S. voters about various popular theories. Fifty-one percent said a larger conspiracy was behind President Kennedy’s assassination; only 25 percent said Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Compared with respondents who said Oswald acted alone, those who believed in a larger conspiracy were more likely to embrace other conspiracy theories tested in the poll. They were twice as likely to say that a UFO had crashed in Roswell, N.M., in 1947 (32 to 16 percent) and that the CIA had deliberately spread crack cocaine in U.S. cities (22 to 9 percent). Conversely, compared with respondents who didn’t believe in the Roswell incident, those who did were far more likely to say that a conspiracy had killed JFK (74 to 41 percent), that the CIA had distributed crack (27 to 10 percent), that the government “knowingly allowed” the 9/11 attacks (23 to 7 percent), and that the government adds fluoride to our water for sinister reasons (23 to 2 percent).

The appeal of these theories—the simplification of complex events to human agency and evil—overrides not just their cumulative implausibility (which, perversely, becomes cumulative plausibility as you buy into the premise) but also, in many cases, their incompatibility. Consider the 2003 survey in which Gallup asked 471 Americans about JFK’s death. Thirty-seven percent said the Mafia was involved, 34 percent said the CIA was involved, 18 percent blamed Vice President Johnson, 15 percent blamed the Soviets, and 15 percent blamed the Cubans. If you’re doing the math, you’ve figured out by now that many respondents named more than one culprit. In fact, 21 percent blamed two conspiring groups or individuals, and 12 percent blamed three. The CIA, the Mafia, the Cubans—somehow, they were all in on the plot.

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Two years ago, psychologists at the University of Kent led by Michael Wood (who blogs at a delightful website on conspiracy psychology), escalated the challenge. They offered U.K. college students five conspiracy theories about Princess Diana: four in which she was deliberately killed, and one in which she faked her death. In a second experiment, they brought up two more theories: that Osama Bin Laden was still alive (contrary to reports of his death in a U.S. raid earlier that year) and that, alternatively, he was already dead before the raid. Sure enough, “The more participants believed that Princess Diana faked her own death, the more they believed that she was murdered.” And “the more participants believed that Osama Bin Laden was already dead when U.S. special forces raided his compound in Pakistan, the more they believed he is still alive.”

Another research group, led by Swami, fabricated conspiracy theories about Red Bull, the energy drink, and showed them to 281 Austrian and German adults. One statement said that a 23-year-old man had died of cerebral hemorrhage caused by the product. Another said the drink’s inventor “pays 10 million Euros each year to keep food controllers quiet.” A third claimed, “The extract ‘testiculus taurus’ found in Red Bull has unknown side effects.” Participants were asked to quantify their level of agreement with each theory, ranging from 1 (completely false) to 9 (completely true). The average score across all the theories was 3.5 among men and 3.9 among women. According to the authors, “the strongest predictor of belief in the entirely fictitious conspiracy theory was belief in other real-world conspiracy theories.”

Clearly, susceptibility to conspiracy theories isn’t a matter of objectively evaluating evidence. It’s more about alienation. People who fall for such theories don’t trust the government or the media. They aim their scrutiny at the official narrative, not at the alternative explanations. In this respect, they’re not so different from the rest of us. Psychologists and political scientists have repeatedly demonstrated that “when processing pro and con information on an issue, people actively denigrate the information with which they disagree while accepting compatible information almost at face value.” Scholars call this pervasive tendency “motivated skepticism.”

Conspiracy believers are the ultimate motivated skeptics. Their curse is that they apply this selective scrutiny not to the left or right, but to the mainstream. They tell themselves that they’re the ones who see the lies, and the rest of us are sheep. But believing that everybody’s lying is just another kind of gullibility.