Why are we so eager to embrace conspiracy theories?

Dec 28, 2014

Image: Andrzej Krauze

By Eric Oliver and Tom Wood

The world is awash with conspiracy theories: Malaysia Airlines flight 17 was diverted by the CIA; drug companies are preventing the release of natural cures for cancer; Queen Elizabeth is part of a secret plot to control the world.

Most pundits dismiss such theories as the ravings of a paranoid fringe. Some claim they are cranks who pose a serious risk to society. The evidence, however, reveals a more nuanced picture.

For the past eight years, we have been asking people in the US their views about conspiracy theories. We find three important facts.

First, the theories are widely endorsed. At any given time, at least half of Americans agree with one or more of the common ones.

Second, adherence is common across the population. Although racial minorities and the less-educated embrace them more readily, educated whites also subscribe to them.

Read the full article by clicking the name of the source located below.

20 comments on “Why are we so eager to embrace conspiracy theories?

  • 1
    Light Wave says:

    Because we know we live in a culture where we are lied to pretty much constantly….by the guv …..the truth is stretched and excuses are made using coded doublespeak by the people keeping the secrets in broad day light so to speak…..so its no wonder we dont know crazy but plausible truth from crazy fiction…..plenty shocking truths have been actively covered up……

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  • 2
    NearlyNakedApe says:

    Widespread scientific illiteracy is one reason. Carl Sagan discusses this at length in “The Demon Haunted World”.

    I think another reason is culture: movies, novels, TV series are replete with stories built around government conspiracies and it strikes the imagination of some people to such a degree that they start believing the stories are true. It may seem trivial but a lot of people adhere to conspiracy theories for the simple reason that they are more seductive, more “sexy” than the plain old truth. I call this the “James Bond effect”.

    Lastly and even more trivial: ego. Some people are so ill-informed and so disinclined to make an effort to learn anything substantial about science, politics, foreign affairs, history, etc… that adhering to a conspiracy theory flatters their ego: it gives them the illusion they know something you don’t. They feel as though they are part of “the initiated few”. I believe this kind of behavior qualifies as an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

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  • Comspiracy theories are a double edged sword imparting credibility to both sides of the debate leaving the ordinary guy in the middle torn by ambiguity and ambivalence. President Johnson, secretary of defense Robert McNamary told the American people we were winning the war in Vietnam. Cabinet members. Generals, senators, congressman, all went along. We know today that the president, Mcnamara and the whole gang knew our troops were losing the war and told the Big Lie that many Americans swallowed for ten years. “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq followed the same pattern -another ten-year war of lies and deception.

    Conspiracy theories have their roots in many sources, some of them just plain crazy. The tendency to believe them, however, may follow from the recognition that we can be lied to at the highest levels of government and business; and in our daily lives easily scammed and defrauded to our own detriment by a wide assortment of con-men.

    The fatal weakness of conspiracy theories in the political, corporate or organized crime arena is that they require an incredible number of people to keep the secret. Inevitably, people involved in complex crimes and coverups; deceptions and frauds of a higher order will blab under pressure, when their conscience or hubris gets the better of them, or simply in an unguarded moment when they’ve had too much to drink. Conspirators are also easy prey for spies, investigative reporters or garden variety skeptics delving into the matter at hand. To paraphrase Shakespeare, “Conspiracy will out!”

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  • I hate the phrase “conspiracy theory” for two reasons. First, it is essentially a fallacy. The idea that because a theory postulates a conspiracy it is by definition wrong or less credible has no basis in fact. Conspiracies happen all the time, it’s why we have laws to prosecute people for them. The official story for 9/11 is a conspiracy theory.

    The second reason I hate the term is that while many people write articles like this thinking they are on the side of critical thinking, dismissing something just because it’s a “conspiracy theory” is actually the antithesis of critical thinking. When you do that you aren’t thinking critically you are just slapping a label on something and dismissing it without thought.

    I don’t believe in most of the 9/11 Truther theories for example but it’s not because they are conspiracy theories it’s because I’ve looked at the evidence and arguments and realized they are not at all convincing.

    Finally, it’s good to remember that many theories that were dismissed as “conspiracy theories” in the past are now acknowledged to be true. It used to be a left wing conspiracy theory that the Gulf of Tonkin attack was provoked by a long term plan that the US DOD had to have the USN take their ships near or inside Vietnamese waters with the specific intention of provoking such a response. Then the Pentagon Papers were published and we found that this absolutely was the explicit plan of the USN and DOD (confirmed by official Pentagon historians whose work was supposed to remain a secret).

    Even now people are still laughed at as conspiracy theorists for pointing out how ludicrous the lone gunman theory for Oswald is; ignoring that the US Congress did an investigation and determined that: “on the basis of the evidence available to it, that Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy.”


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  • Thus, rather than trying to argue or reason, the first step should be
    to empathise. After all, whether knocking on wood or wishing someone
    luck, we all engage in magical thinking. Only by appreciating the
    emotional tug of conspiracy theories will it be possible for us to
    communicate in a meaningful way with our neighbours in tinfoil hats.

    This seems less than helpful and, still less, meaningful. Simple courtesy demands it, as with all discussion.

    ‘Conspiracy theory’ is a covert reference to delusional paranoia commonly used by the medical profession, like DTS (danger to shipping) and NFN (normal for Norfolk). The first assumption must be that all the conspiracies asserted are delusional. That seems unlikely.

    Obviously all kinds of absurd assertions are indeed delusional but to categorise every assertion as a ‘conspiracy theory’ is a simple slur, rather than a refutation. Consider the ‘conspiracy theory’ of Bertrand Russell regarding the assassination of Kennedy, where he points out the many inconsistencies inherent in the official account. I have yet to find any official response to Russell’s questions.

    If each case is decided on its merits we don’t need this portmanteau term.

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  • 9/11 is almost synonymous with conspiracy theory.

    It seems to me those who believed George Bush, without any evidence, when he is a known pathological liar, are the naive ones.

    Bush would not tell me the names of the insider traders who sold short American Airlines just prior to 9/11.

    Bush would not let me see evidence of the films of something hitting the Pentagon. Why?
    Everyone ignored that tape of the ordering of the “pulling” of building 7.
    Bush announced Bin Laden did it hours afterward. If he knew that fast, he knew beforehand too. What was his evidence?

    I don’t have my own theory. I simply refuse to believe Bush without evidence. His theory is full of implausibilities. One being the alleged pilot could not even fly a Cessna. Another that the entire US military was incapable of shooting down 3 unarmed planes.

    The insurance companies paid out double on the damage to the buildings.

    “Follow the money”
    ~ Deep Throat

    Cui prodest scelus, is fecit.

    The one who derives advantage from the crime is the one most likely to have committed it.
    ~ Lucius Annaeus Seneca 4BC 65AD

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  • 8
    GavSalkeld says:

    … many people write articles like this thinking they are on the side of
    critical thinking, dismissing something just because it’s a
    “conspiracy theory” is actually the antithesis of critical thinking.

    Absolutely agreed; I have said as much in the past. So glad to see I am not alone!

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  • The two cognitive errors (false positive agency detection and incomplete causal mechanics) that support the cultural construct of religion also support conspiracy theory nuttery.

    Religion is just better organised for the purposes of parasitism in the form of money making and political manipulation.

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  • The thing that always impresses me about conspiracy theory proponents is the utter faith in other people. I have never worked anywhere where I have not seen layers of incompetence (including in myself), laziness, failure to understand the whole picture (including in myself) and just in general human failability. Conspiracy theorists seem to believe there are a class of people who are both so entwined in evil (not just selfishness but evil world dominating plans) and yet also so competent that they believe that this whole thing is one giant plan, withheld so easily from the rest of us but they know the truth.

    A number of years ago I read a great book about this. The title was something like “How I became a teenage Fascist” in which the author started out as a garden grade white supremacist and worked his way over a decade through a number of fascist groups until the numerous conspiracy theories ended up at lizard people and Atlantis. At which point his common sense kicked in, a very good insight into how these people think.

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  • Sometimes the thought of conspiracies is actively promoted by groups such as the Heartland Institute . This is a right-wing think tank located in Chicago that pours out vast quantities of (mis) information discrediting climate change and throws doubt on medical findings and methodology.
    Some people just lap this stuff up.

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  • The problem is not that conspiracy theories exist. To postulate a theory, or a hypothesis, is a good thing unless its ridiculous. To acknowledge that a particular theory is possibly true is not a problem, after all, over the years a number of popular theories have been true. Its not even a problem to suspect the truth of moderately bizarre theories, as some of them, too, have been real.
    The problem is the step from here to completely believing in a theory without substantive evidence, based often just on cynicism, which is irrational, or believing in magic or fairy tales, which is likewise.
    As a suggestion to those who believe in each and every government conspiracy, let me remind you that most of the time, most governments could not find their *ss with both hands. You expect them to manage a conspiracy involving hundreds of people in a detailed enterprise without being found out?

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  • most governments could not find their *ss with both hands.

    As one who has moved in circles where government conspiracies are likely to be found, we developed an aphorism that describes this conjecture.

    If you have to choose between a conspiracy and a @#$% up, choose the @#$% up.”

    You will be right almost all of the time if you follow this.

    Another one that has evidentiary weight. A conspiracy is defined as an agreement by two persons to do an act. (mostly this act is a crime, but not always) In the real world, if two people conspire to commit an act, almost always one, or sometimes both of them will be police informants, or subject to intelligence scrutiny. Very few conspiracies succeed. The 9/11 plot was good one, but the American intelligence agencies had all of the information they needed to put it together, however in America, because there are so many agencies, and these agencies are staff by homo sapiens, with ego’s and aspirations, they didn’t tell each other what they knew, so each agency only had a small piece of the intelligence. While the President of the day ordered them to share, they are still behaving like kids in a sandpit with only one toy.

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  • I see conspiracy theories as a cover-up of lies. Usually government lies. Someone here has mentioned how one of the comments give him/her a feeling of not being alone. Actually, perhaps that could be an answer to the question why people are so eager to embrace a conspiracy theory. Afraid people are eager to belong in a group, to be in a herd of same thinkers, just like great family of religious people who fraternize among each other with their illusions. We do like herds, it gives us a feeling of being safe. No? People after great shock like 9/11 where eager to fraternize, isn’t it?
    And I agree this theories are enemies of common sense and a healthy society.

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  • The same reason religion is embraced; it satisfies our innate need to read agency into everything we don’t understand.

    A trait which we all have to resist on a daily basis, but which can only be kept at bay in light of the knowledge that it’s part of our evolutionary inheritance.

    So relax, and put your trust in science!

    “Do yourself a favour, Educate your mind, get yourself together, Hey! there ain’t much time.

    Stevland Morris. aka Stevie Wonder.

    The quote contains an unavoidable and deep irony of course; but that, as the saying goes, is life.

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  • I believe Oliver and Wood are using “conspiracy theory” in the pragmatic sense of a false alternative explanation for a case already proven beyond a reasonable doubt by responsible investigators.

    Though people who cleave to conspiracy theories are sometimes nutters, most are mentally stable and cognitively normal people afflicted with susceptibility to suggestion.

    When any crime is committed, duly authorized authorities begin a search for the perpetrator if he cannot be apprehended on the spot. ( The perpetrator may or may not be alive. In the case of 9/11 the “trigger men” had perished.) The crime is meticulously reconstructed using, forensic, physical and circumstantial evidence along with testimony from eyewitnesses and multiple other sources: DNA, fingerprints, blood typing, fire arm ballistics, phone records, written documents, photos, video taping and audio recordings to name a few. Location and movement of suspects and anyone reasonably connected to the crime are traced with chronological precision almost frame by frame as needed for an accurate narrative of pertinent events.

    A modern sophisticated investigation should usually produce a thorough account detailed at every step with objective or rationally credible evidence. Of course there are exemptions sullied with errors, but such instances are not what Oliver and Wood are talking about.

    There are people who will look at investigations, and no matter how professional, how thorough, how independent, how impartial and objective, will dissent because they read a book by Bugs Bunny that the government is lying. Clearly Pepe Le Pew (that skunk!) did it.

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  • Melvin.

    I think that individuals who”cleave” to conspiracy theories do so because they have a fundamental need to do so; or they just need to get a life.

    I have an acquaintance who was a friend until he infuriated me so much by invariably plumping for confirmation bias by, for instance, trying to make a case by drawing down videos from the net which are clearly spoofs – little green men and portentous music included – ; he happens to believe the the 1969 Apollo 11 crew found life on the Moon and that the American government has been concealing the fact ever since.

    Neil de Grasse Tyson stating categorically that the Moon’s atmosphere is sterile, and explaining how that is known to be the case, has no impact on my acquaintance what so ever.

    How irritating is that?

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  • A woman I meet walking my dog in the morning has disclosed to me some of her beliefs.

    These involve “green lizard” reptilian aliens who can “Shape shift” with politicians, George Bush, Obama, the Queen and Tony Abbott in particular. They live underground, and have places like Balmoral Castle which they use to come and go from their underground realms. They are in cahoots with NASA in faking the moon landing photos. And so forth.

    This quite normal, and pleasant, elderly woman with a nice dog, has some beliefs that make the Mormons sound sane.

    These revelations came after she asked me if I was “religious,” and when I replied no, she confirmed that neither was she. And then came, at an evangelistic level, the guff about the green lizards, with an offer of a book I should read, which “Proves it all.”

    Is this conspiracy theory? I would offer not, and suggest that this and many other “conspiracy theories” are really religious at their roots.

    The parallels are obvious. In common with the “official” religions, there is a prophet, in this case an ex soccer player named David Icke. There is an “Holy Book,” in this case “The Secret Doctrine,” (Helena Blavatsky,) and, again in common, a desire to proselytize. Finally, and possibly most important, this rests on faith alone, with absolutely no credible evidence.

    Conversely, I suspect that religions, the Abrahamic religions anyway, have similiar neural origins as conspiracy theories.

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  • I used to work with (and drink) with a guy who was for a time a follower of David Icke back in his shell suit wearing Son of God days.

    This friend was a highly intelligent mathematics graduate professional software applications developer. What was interesting about him was that I saw his devotion move from one subject to another over time. Every shift had something in common: the subject was contrarian, off beat, unlikely, unpopular, irrational but crucially, for me, always worthy.

    This friend was a thinking man, a man of conscience, a friend of the downtrodden and helpless in other words a man of causes. Mostly, he was harmless but there was always the potential he would accidentally get mixed up with something over his head to my mind.

    It seemed to me after many a discussion with him that he was desperate: seeking something meaningful that was bigger, more important than the usual concerns of everyday life. Such was his desperation that he embraced the wacky ideas because they were wacky and because they made him feel he was more than just a number an aimless consumer. Despite his intellect and his education he became extremely irrational in his defence of his causes.

    For example he was a vegetarian (we agreed on that) and an animal rights supporter (again we agreed in part) but his justifications for these stances were peculiarly extreme. Where I was content with a “moderate” view on animal rights, trying to minimise my footprint on the animal world, he took it much further. For example, he became a staunch opponent of animal testing in the medical field. His motivation was to end the suffering of the animals tested upon (fair enough) but in order to push aside the positive outcomes (for humans) that have been delivered from this practice (which would,if accepted, have served to reduce his motivation to put a stop to it all) he confabulated a bunch of fantasy “facts” declaring that there have been no medical benefits ever derived from animal testing, that all such testing either prevented effective drugs being discovered or allowed poisons into our medical cabinets and the whole testing world was simply a conspiracy of pharma. He had lots of examples and “facts” at his disposal to prove this and no amount of discussion made the slightest impact.

    And that, I think, is a common feature of some conspiracy theorists, religious devotess and ideologues of all stripes including the one man band physics and cosmology Theory-of-Everything-Why-Einstein-was-wrong cranks that plague science forums: the underlying drive to believe in these things in very strongly emotional. They don’t believe them because they were persuaded by compelling evidence, they believe them because they have a desperate need to believe something. The arguments, the “evidence” is all just so much post hoc confabulation.

    You can’t fight crankery of any kind (including religious beliefs) that is sourced from emotional needs by using evidence and logical argumentation – they’re immunised against that approach….

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  • About the massacre of over 163 at No Gun Ri bridge; is that still a conspiracy theory? or, since most media acknowledge it, can we classify it as fact? because, you know. It’s only a “conspiracy theory” if pop media denies it, like they were for decades after No Gun Ri. If you believed it back then, you are a conspiracy nut. Only when the media, controlled by billionaires like Rupert Murdoch tells you something is true are you allowed to acknowledge it’s true.

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