the psychology of conspiracy theories

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  • 8/6/2019 The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories


    As a reader of the many essays here at World, I have noticed that many of them deal

    with, at least in part, what are popularly known as conspiracy theories. The issue to be addressed in this

    essay will be why such theories seem to enjoy such popularity.

    In its basic form a conspiracy theory involves the belief that some events or series of events are the

    result of a systematic, intentional, and usually covert attempt by the architects of the conspiracy to

    prevent certain facts from becoming public knowledge. The supposed end result of such conspiracies ispractically always to promote the concentration of wealth or power in the hands of these conspirators or

    their masters.

    Obviously, all conspiracy theories require that there be a villain, a group of them, who is

    responsible for a conspiracy which is invariably targeted at us. Beyond this requirement, genericconspiracy theories are usually tailored to specific conditions.

    For our purposes, we can consider conspiracy theories to fall into one of three general categories:

    obstructive, oppressive, and deceptive.

    An obstructive conspiracy theory proposes the existence of a conspiracy whose purpose is to prevent,

    or at least impede, some event from occurring. An example would be a supposed conspiracy involving

    big oil and the automotive industry to prevent the introduction of an automobile engine that could runon water.

    Oppressive conspiracies are unique in that they purport to explain perceived social inequalities or

    perceived political disenfranchisement. This class of theories is based on the previously mentionedthem engaged in an active conspiracy against us. There are many conspiracy theories of this class

    circulating in contemporary society. Some of the more widely-held oppressive conspiracy theories

    maintain that:

    The CIA and the Air Force concealed the fact that a UFO crashed near Roswell, NM and thatseveral dead aliens, as well as valuable advanced technologies, were recovered from the crash site

    (and that some of these technologies have been used by the government against its citizens).

    The virus responsible for AIDS was created in a government laboratory and then deliberately releasedinto the black and gay communities in order to rid society of undesirables.

    The CIA deliberately allowed, and in some cases was actively involved in, the importation of

    narcotics to be sold within inner-city neighborhoods.

    Oppressive conspiracy theories are frequently used to both obtain and retain political or some other

    form of power. The well-documented invocation of numerous alleged conspiracies, as well as therecent anti-Semitic ranting, of former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney of Georgias 4th

    congressional district are examples of this tactic.1

    A close relative of the oppressive theory is the deceptive conspiracy theory. Deceptive conspiracies

    are dedicated to presenting the illusion that the root cause of some social, economic, or politicalproblem is something other than actual cause. The most notorious use of this tactic came in the early

    1930s in Germany.

    Germany was in social and economic chaos as a result of the repressive conditions set forth in the

    Treaty of Versailles which had essentially stripped Germany of its economic infrastructure. When theworldwide effects of the Great Depression were factored in, the desperate German people were willing

    to literally try anything. Adolph Hitler and the Nazi party, playing on the already widespread anti-

    Semitism of the era, blamed all of Germanys problems on the Jews. It is not necessary to relate thetragic results of this particular conspiracy theory.

  • 8/6/2019 The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories


    We may now turn our attention to the prevalence of contemporary belief in conspiracy theories as well

    as psycho-social factors that may contribute to such beliefs.

    In 1992 sociologist Ted Goertzel2 surveyed 348 residents of southwestern New Jersey concerning their

    acceptance or rejection of 10 popular conspiracy theories, including the three mentioned above.3 Theresults of that survey regarding the three above-mentioned theories are summarized in Table 1.

    Table 1


    Definitely True Probably TrueDontKnow

    Probably False Definitely False

    UFO 12% 29% 11% 25% 23%

    AIDS 4% 8% 10% 26% 53%

    Drugs/Inner city 7% 14% 9% 29% 41%

    More recently, a national survey of 1,010 adults was conducted by Ohio University to determine theacceptance of various conspiracy theories related to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. This

    survey indicated that 36% of those surveyed believed it to be very likely or somewhat likely that

    federal officials either participated in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon or took

    no action to stop them.4

    Given the number of respondents who admit believing that the four above-mentioned conspiracy

    theories may be true, we may now examine the possible reasons behind why such a significant portion

    of the population hold such beliefs.

    Goertzel identified three traits as being correlated with a belief in conspiracy theories:

    anomia, the respondent stated a belief that he/she felt alienated or disaffection relative to the


  • 8/6/2019 The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories


    a tendency to distrust other people; and

    a feeling of insecurity regarding continued employment.

    Citing Volkan5, who suggested that insecure and/or discontented people very often feel a need for a

    tangible enemy on which to externalize their anger, Goertzel notes that conspiracy theories may serveto provide an enemy to blame for problems which otherwise seem too abstract and impersonal. He

    further observes that conspiracy theories also provide ready answers for the believers unanswered

    questions and help to resolve contradictions between known facts and an individual's belief system.The latter observation seems to be verified by the widespread acceptance within the Muslim world of

    the contention that the September 11 attacks were the work of Israel, in conjunction with the Bush

    Administration, in order to increase anti-Muslim sentiments abroad.6

    Surprisingly, Goertzel found that there was no correlation between race, age, and economic status andthe latter two traits. Although he did not suggest that the two latter traits mentioned above may be self-

    perpetuating (people who have experienced employment difficulties in the past may be more

    distrusting of others which, in turn, may lead to future interpersonal issues that can have a negativeimpact on employment), intuitive reasoning suggests that this could be possible.

    In summary, I accept the published findings and opinions of Goertzel et al as being at least subjectively

    valid. Successful conspiracy theories are those that to some degree empower the believer against whatare perceived as external forces that he/she blames for some unpleasant or undesirable facet of theirlives. In addition conspiracy theories serve to absolve the individual of some degree of self-

    accountability since, if the individual is being oppressed by some powerful conspiracy, the

    individuals efforts at self-advancement will always be futile and thus become nothing more than a

    waste of time. Sadly, it seems that conspiracy theories and their advocates are now deeply engrainedin the popular psyche and without prospects for their ultimate refutation.

    And, no, Im not part of some conspiracy against conspiracy theories.


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