How conspiracists think

New research helps explain why some see elaborate government plots behind events like 9/11 or the Boston bombings

Topics: Scientific American, Conspiracy theorists, Truthers, 9/11, Boston Marathon, Boston Bombings, ,

How conspiracists thinkRunners continue to run towards the finish line of the Boston Marathon as an explosion erupts near the finish line. (Credit: Reuters/Dan Lampariello)
This article originally appeared on Scientific American.

Scientific American Did NASA fake the moon landing? Is the government hiding Martians in Area 51? Is global warming a hoax? And what about the Boston Marathon bombing…an “inside job” perhaps?

In the book “The Empire of Conspiracy,” Timothy Melley explains that conspiracy theories have traditionally been regarded by many social scientists as “the implausible visions of a lunatic fringe,” often inspired by what the late historian Richard Hofstadter described as “the paranoid style of American politics.” Influenced by this view, many scholars have come to think of conspiracy theories as paranoid and delusional, and for a long time psychologists have had little to contribute other than to affirm the psychopathological nature of conspiracy thinking, given that conspiricist delusions are commonly associated with (schizotype) paranoia.

Yet, such pathological explanations have proven to be widely insufficient because conspiracy theories are not just the implausible visions of a paranoid minority. For example, a national poll released just this month reports that 37 percent of Americans believe that global warming is a hoax, 21 percent think that the US government is covering up evidence of alien existence and 28 percent believe a secret elite power with a globalist agenda is conspiring to rule the world. Only hours after the recent Boston marathon bombing, numerous conspiracy theories were floated ranging from a possible ‘inside job’ to YouTube videos claiming that the entire event was a hoax.

So why is it that so many people come to believe in conspiracy theories? They can’t all be paranoid schizophrenics. New studies are providing some eye-opening insights and potential explanations.

For example, while it has been known for some time that people who believe in one conspiracy theory are also likely to believe in other conspiracy theories, we would expect contradictory conspiracy theories to be negatively correlated. Yet, this is not what psychologists Micheal Wood, Karen Douglas and Robbie Suton found in a recent study. Instead, the research team, based at the University of Kent in England, found that many participants believed in contradictory conspiracy theories. For example, the conspiracy-belief that Osama Bin Laden is still alive was positively correlated with the conspiracy-belief that he was already dead before the military raid took place. This makes little sense, logically: Bin Laden cannot be both dead and alive at the same time. An important conclusion that the authors draw from their analysis is that people don’t tend to believe in a conspiracy theory because of the specifics, but rather because of higher-order beliefs that support conspiracy-like thinking more generally. A popular example of such higher-order beliefs is a severe “distrust of authority.” The authors go on to suggest that conspiracism is therefore not just about belief in an individual theory, but rather an ideological lens through which we view the world. A good case in point is Alex Jones’s recent commentary on the Boston bombings. Jones, (one of the country’s preeminent conspiracy theorists) reminded his audience that two of the hijacked planes on 9/11 flew out of Boston (relating one conspiracy theory to another) and moreover, that the Boston Marathon bombing could be a response to the sudden drop in the price of gold or part of a secret government plot to expand the Transportation Security Administration’s reach to sporting events. Others have pointed their fingers to a ‘mystery man’ spotted on a nearby roof shortly after the explosions. While it remains unsure whether or not credence is given to only some or all of these (note: contradicting) conspiracy theories, there clearly is a larger underlying preference to support conspiracy-type explanations more generally.

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Interestingly, belief in conspiracy theories has recently been linked to the rejection of science. In a paper published in Psychological Science, Stephen Lewandowsky and colleagues investigated the relation between acceptance of science and conspiricist thinking patterns. While the authors’ survey was not representative of the general population, results suggest that (controlling for other important factors) belief in multiple conspiracy theories significantly predicted the rejection of important scientific conclusions, such as climate science or the fact that smoking causes lung cancer. Yet, rejection of scientific principles is not the only possible consequence of widespread belief in conspiracy theories.  Another recent study indicates that receiving positive information about or even being merely exposed to conspiracy theories can lead people to become disengaged from important political and societal topics. For example, in their study, Daniel Jolley and Karen Douglas clearly show that participants who received information that supported the idea that global warming is a hoax were less willing to engage politically and also less willing to implement individual behavioral changes such as reducing their carbon footprint.

These findings are alarming because they show that conspiracy theories sow public mistrust and undermine democratic debate by diverting attention away from important scientific, political and societal issues. There is no question as to whether the public should actively demand truthful and transparent information from their governments and proposed explanations should be met with a healthy amount of scepticism, yet, this is not what conspiracy theories offer. A conspiracy theory is usually defined as an attempt to explain the ultimate cause of an important societal event as part of some sinister plot conjured up by a secret alliance of powerful individuals and organizations. The great philosopher Karl Popper argued that the fallacy of conspiracy theories lies in their tendency to describe every event as ‘intentional’ and ‘planned’ thereby seriously underestimating the random nature and unintended consequences of many political and social actions. In fact, Popper was describing a cognitive bias that psychologists now commonly refer to as the “fundamental attribution error”: the tendency to overestimate the actions of others as being intentional rather than the product of (random) situational circumstances.

Since a number of studies have shown that belief in conspiracy theories is associated with feelings of powerlessness, uncertainty and a general lack of agency and control, a likely purpose of this bias is to help people “make sense of the world” by providing simple explanations for complex societal events — restoring a sense of control and predictability. A good example is that of climate change: while the most recent international scientific assessment report (receiving input from over 2500 independent scientists from more than a 100 countries) concluded with 90 percent certainty that human-induced global warming is occurring, the severe consequences and implications of climate change are often too distressing and overwhelming for people to deal with, both cognitively as well as emotionally. Resorting to easier explanations that simply discount global warming as a hoax is then of course much more comforting and convenient psychologically. Yet, as Al Gore famously pointed out, unfortunately, the truth is not always convenient.

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