Why Are Conspiracy Theories So Compelling?

In my last post, I described the first phase of my research, in which I am attempting to develop an empirically informed definition of ‘conspiracy theory’. In this post, I want to discuss the second focus of my research: why it is that conspiracy theories are so compelling for so many people.

Newspaper article with headline "Kennedy Slain by CIA, Mafia, Castro, LBJ, Teamsters, Freemasons"Although the specifics can be debated, it is clear that conspiracy theories are very popular. In a recent survey, 61% of participants claimed belief in some form of a conspiracy theory about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. This could possibly be attributed to increased publicity about the event due to its impending fiftieth anniversary and coverage of the release of some previously classified documents regarding it. But in an even more wide-ranging study four years ago, the number was 51%. At the very least, it looks plausible that more than half of Americans believe in this particular conspiracy theory, and there are plenty of other theories out there. For example, approximately 40% of respondents endorsed the conspiracy theory that the FDA is withholding a natural cancer cure.

Conspiracy theories are often treated dismissively as the ravings of deranged paranoiacs. Yet, we have good reason to believe that a majority of Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory, and we can’t dismiss all of them in this way. Why, then, are conspiracy theories so compelling? There are a number of predictors for belief in conspiracy theories. The best is belief in other conspiracy theories: if someone believes one conspiracy theory, the likelihood that they believe another goes up. Other predictors are useful for predicting if a subject believes in a particular conspiracy theory, but not for the likelihood that they believe in conspiracy theories generally. Belief in conspiracy theories is common regardless of race, but white Americans are more likely than African-Americans to believe in Sandy Hook conspiracy theories (in which the government supposedly faked the Sandy Hook shooting in order to initiate more stringent gun control laws), while African-Americans are more likely than white Americans to believe that the CIA developed AIDS in order to kill African-American populations. Similarly, political liberals are more likely to endorse GMO conspiracy theories, while political conservatives are more likely to endorse climate change conspiracy theories. Evidence does suggest that people are less inclined to believe in conspiracy theories the more educated they are, but exactly why this is the case is still unclear. Higher education is correlated with a complex of many other facts and it remains to be seen whether the education itself is the cause of decreased belief.

My own suspicion is that an important part of the appeal of conspiracy theories is that we tend to find appeals to coincidence unconvincing. This is often perfectly reasonable. If a recently-elected politician installs close friends and family to all important posts, insisting that, by coincidence, their friends and family were the most qualified individuals for the posts, we will be rightly suspicious. It can be a problem, however, when this suspicion transfers over to extraordinarily complex events. For example, there is a long-standing conspiracy theory that Bill Clinton arranged for the assassination of dozens of people with whom he had varying levels of contact. An enormous part of the appeal stems from the seeming unlikelihood of so many deaths that can be linked to Clinton. Of course, a president comes into contact with a staggering number of people, and some small number of these are bound to die in a variety of ways. It is not surprising that a number of people who met Clinton died; it is merely coincidental, and what would really be surprising is if no one who he met died. When a case is sufficiently complex (such as the network of everyone a United States president meets), coincidence will often be the explanation for events.

An image titled "The Clinton Body Bags" that lists people Bill Clinton came in contact with who are now dead.There are other cases where “conspiratorial thinking,” in which we are inclined to suspect agency is the cause of an event rather than coincidence, seems appropriate. It seems appropriate that homicide detectives presume agency was involved rather than coincidence when investigating an unexpected death, and that they ask questions like “Who would benefit from this?” in determining what agency was at work. On the other hand, it seems inappropriate that a voter should presume agency rather than coincidence was involved in explaining why a former member of the president’s staff died in a plane crash, and should not ask questions like “Who would benefit from this?” in order to discover who might have arranged the disaster.

Conspiratorial thinking, utilized in the appropriate circumstances, is a powerful tool that allows us to discount appropriately explanations that are, in other circumstances, much more plausible. When applied in inappropriate circumstances, on the other hand, conspiratorial thinking can metastasize and overwhelm our rational thinking. For instance, someone nearly always benefits from any event, so that asking “Who would benefit from this?” will nearly always yield a suspect. Without compelling reason to suspect agency in the first place, it is important to refrain from asking the question. My hope is to run a series of psychological studies to see whether people who believe in conspiracy theories are also more suspicious of coincidence as an explanation in general.

In my next post, I’ll talk some about some difficulties I’ve had running the initial portion of this study, as well as talk a bit about the digital tools I’m using.

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