Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?

New Scientist has an interesting article by Patrick Leman on the psychology of believing in conspiracy theories.

Belief in conspiracy theories certainly seems to be on the rise, and what little research has been done investigating this question confirms this is so for perhaps the most famous example of all – the claim that a conspiracy lay behind the assassination of JFK in 1963. A survey in 1968 found that about two-thirds of Americans believed the conspiracy theory, while by 1990 that proportion had risen to nine-tenths.

One factor fuelling the general growth of conspiracy beliefs is likely to be that the internet allows new theories to be quickly created, and endlessly debated by a wider audience than ever. A conspiracy-based website built around the death of Princess Diana, for example, sprang up within hours of the car crash that killed her in 1997.

Well that sounds about right but then he makes a twisted turn in logic.

So what has been the impact of the growing conspiracy culture? 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.

That sounds like an admirable goal, but how does thinking outside the box correspond to “belief” in conspiracy theories? It’s one thing to consider them, to propose hypotheticals and then investigate until they are undermined, but how can one compare thinking outside the box to rabid belief in the unbelievable? I also don’t agree in his example of a conspiracy that turned out to be true.

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.

This is again a mistake. It’s the conflation of a criminal conspiracy with a conspiracy theory. They are different. There is no doubt people conspire to break the law. The difference between the Iran Contra conspiracy and say, no-plane 9/11 conspiracies lies in the fact that there is actual real verifiable evidence of the former. People realized that something was going on when drug runners arrested in Florida were saying that they were running guns at the behest of the National Security Council. Now, that’s interesting. The trail was followed and it led to more and more drug traffickers, arms dealers and eventually to the Columbians, Manuel Noriega and even the middle-east. There wasn’t some countervailing theory that explained all these bits and pieces. And each time a piece of evidence uncovered it was consistent with an overall picture of criminal activity on the part of Oliver North and the Reagan administration.

A criminal conspiracy has little or nothing to do with a conspiracy theory, which is an entirely different beast. Conspiracy theorists are seeking to prove something they want to believe. Instead of scientifically following a stream of facts to a rational conclusion they collect bits and pieces and oddments, not to synthesize a robust alternative explanation, but more to crap on an official version or more cohesive theories. The fact that their interpretation of events, evidence, and testimony leads to more and more dubious explanations for the data, and impossible situations is unimportant. Contrary to Leman’s assertion, this type of thinking is completely contrary to what makes good scientific, and probably journalistic investigation. 9/11 conspiracy thinking is typical of this, and rather than going into it here – and dammit I mean it – check out Bronze Dog’s “Twoof is Wewative” coverage of recent crank arguments here. He sums it up nicely. These explanations rely on dubious facts and interpretation of events, and increase in complexity the explanation for how the towers fell or the Pentagon was hit astronomically. All of a sudden, rather than a reasonable explanation – planes hitting buildings, buildings catch fire, buildings fall, you have a range of theories from the hilariously absurd (holographic projection), to pointlessly complex (planned demolition). Anyway, Bronze Dog covers it there, go argue with him if you’re a twoofer, it’s not the point of this thread.

Back to Leman’s essay, as he gets back on the right track.

On the other hand, there is a dangerous side to conspiracy theories. During the cold war, they arguably played a part in sowing mistrust between east and west. For canny politicians or campaigners, conspiracy theories can be a good way of exploiting people’s fears by promulgating rumours that are difficult, if not impossible, to disprove.

Such beliefs can have a far-reaching impact on people’s lives. For example, over 20 per cent of African Americans believe that HIV was created in a laboratory and disseminated by the US government in order to restrict the growth of the black population, according to a series of studies by Sheryl Bird at Oregon State University and Laura Bogart at Kent State University in Ohio. The people who believe this theory also tend to be more sceptical of government health messages that condoms can stop HIV transmission. These are chilling findings, especially considering that although African Americans constitute only 12 per cent of the US population, they account for nearly half of the nation’s AIDS cases.

He also touches on some crank magnetism issues:

Unfortunately there has been little research carried out into what kind of events trigger conspiracy theories, who tends to believe them, and why. We do know, however, that people who believe in one theory are more likely to believe in others: there is a good chance that someone who believes the moon landings were faked will also believe that JFK was killed by a second gunman from the infamous grassy knoll.

Finally, an interesting argument for the source of conspiratorial tendencies (you’ll like this Ted)

Age is not the only demographic to influence conspiracy beliefs. Several US studies have found that ethnic minorities – particularly African and Hispanic Americans – are far more believing of conspiracy theories than white Americans. In our recent UK study, we found a similar race effect, coupled with an even stronger association between income and belief levels. People who describe themselves as “hard up” are more likely to believe in conspiracies than those with average income levels, while the least likely to believe are the well off.

How can we account for the link between race, income level and conspiracy theories? Theorists tend to show higher levels of anomie – a general disaffection or disempowerment from society. Perhaps this is the underlying factor that predisposes people more distant from centres of power – whether they be poorer people or those from ethnic minorities – to believe in conspiracies.

Essentially, societal disempowerment increases the probability of belief. One could read this two ways. First, that disempowerment leads to coping mechanisms to protect one’s ego. You’re not poor and powerless because you are unintelligent, or are lazy, or some other simple explanation. It’s because the man is keeping you down. The system is against you. A perceived enemy at odds with you is easier to face than one’s own defects.

A second explanation – that the wealthy and elite are no more rational than the disempowered, but because of their status, they have no desire to rock the boat.

Leman then goes on to discuss an experiment to show how conspiracy theories find root in people’s imaginations, as well as possibly developing a third explanation for why people believe:

So what kind of thought processes contribute to belief in conspiracy theories? A study I carried out in 2002 explored a way of thinking sometimes called “major event – major cause” reasoning. Essentially, people often assume that an event with substantial, significant or wide-ranging consequences is likely to have been caused by something substantial, significant or wide-ranging.

I gave volunteers variations of a newspaper story describing an assassination attempt on a fictitious president. Those who were given the version where the president died were significantly more likely to attribute the event to a conspiracy than those who read the one where the president survived, even though all other aspects of the story were equivalent.

To appreciate why this form of reasoning is seductive, consider the alternative: major events having minor or mundane causes – for example, the assassination of a president by a single, possibly mentally unstable, gunman, or the death of a princess because of a drunk driver. This presents us with a rather chaotic and unpredictable relationship between cause and effect. Instability makes most of us uncomfortable; we prefer to imagine we live in a predictable, safe world, so in a strange way, some conspiracy theories offer us accounts of events that allow us to retain a sense of safety and predictability.

Another intriguing hypothesis. For the disempowered conspiracy theories might provide a more rational and predictable world, yet another coping-mechanism, but not based as much on personal failing as what he ascribes to anomie.

Leman goes on to describe problems with conspiracy theorists and confirmation bias (surprise surprise) and how they ignore anything that contradicts their theory and only latch on to evidence consistent with their pre-formed worldview.

…conspiracy believers found new information to be more plausible if it was consistent with their beliefs. Moreover, believers considered that ambiguous or neutral information fitted better with the conspiracy explanation, while non-believers felt it fitted better with the non-conspiracy account. The same piece of evidence can be used by different people to support very different accounts of events.

This fits with the observation that conspiracy theories often mutate over time in light of new or contradicting evidence. So, for instance, if some new information appears to undermine a conspiracy theory, either the plot is changed to make it consistent with the new information, or the theorists question the legitimacy of the new information. Theorists often argue that those who present such information are themselves embroiled in the conspiracy. In fact, because of my research, I have been accused of being secretly in the pay of various western intelligence services (I promise, I haven’t seen a penny).

He also discusses how the anti-theorists are also susceptible to bias, and when engaged with the conspiracy theorists become similarly biased towards the evidence. While I’d like to see numbers showing a quantitative relationship between bias in the theorists vs anti-theorists (I suspect the conspiracy theorists are worse) this is not surprising. The more fundamental problem, beyond anomie, is unscientific thinking, and the tendency of people to just want to win arguments. People get emotionally invested in a factual position, and for or against, they’ll latch on to whatever they can so they don’t have to let go. The reason why I wish he gave numbers with this assertion is that it will inevitably lead to some parity nonsense, with the conspiracy theorists suggesting they and the theorists are on equal footing evidence-wise, and merely have different biases.

He ends with something a little bit like the crank HOWTO. It’s a conspiracy theory HOWTO, and it sounds kind of fun.

Pick your adversary

• A sense of anomie (dislocation from society and authority) fuels beliefs in conspiracy theories, so pick a big bad organisation of some sort – government or big business is ideal

• For added spice, identify a shadowy, secretive society with implied links to your adversary: the more shadowy, the better

Choose your event

• You’ll need a big, contemporary newsworthy event around which to weave your theory

• If it’s a sudden, shocking visual occurrence of international import it is more likely to become a “flashbulb memory” for the masses. Your key conspiracy audience, most able to create such vivid “indelible” memories will be between the ages of 20 and 35

Develop your story

• Construct your theory from carefully selected information that weaves together into a compelling story

• If something doesn’t fit, reinterpret it in line with your theory

• Create uncertainty: question existing evidence or find new evidence that contradicts the “official” account

Prepare your defence

• If someone highlights a gap or inconsistency in your evidence, don’t be afraid to tweak your story, but keep the core conspiracy in place

• You can allow the finer details of the theory to mutate, but always keep in mind the maxim – “they did it, I just have to find the proof that they did it”

• Broaden the circle of conspirators to include those who question your position… “they’re denying the truth – they must be involved too!”

Overall a very interesting article. I like the conspiracy HOWTO in particular. Especially given all the times I’ve been accused of just being a Republican, Democratic, pharmaceutical company, or grant-seeking shill.