Sceptics or nuts? A brief look at why people believe in conspiracy theories

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From correctly believing that President Nixon and his administration were covering up the Watergate burglary, to thinking the world is under the control of lizard people from outer space… Where does rational thought end and lunacy begin?

Recent polls show that 50% of Americans believe in medical conspiracy theories. Mobile phones are causing cancer, but large corporations are covering it up. The Food and Drug Administration are deliberating withholding natural cures for cancer because of pressure from drug companies. The CIA deliberately infected the African-American community with HIV.

Many still think Princess Diana's death was no accident

Many still think Princess Diana’s death was no accident

It’s not just medical conspiracies that are widely believed in. A large percentage of Britons believe that Princess Diana’s death was not an accident. A majority of Americans still think the assassination of John F. Kennedy was part of a wider conspiracy. And let’s not forget the millions and millions of people who believe that elements inside the United States government either let 9/11 happen or conspired to instigate it.

What is a conspiracy theory?

A conspiracy theory accuses two or more people of secretly plotting to do, allow or cover up something heinous, criminal or harmful. They normally spring up when a major event or catastrophe occurs. The magnitude of the incident or its aftermath is so enormous that people start analysing everything, distrustfully poking holes and making interpretations (such as 9/11). Alternatively, the event is so shrouded in mystery that people formulate conspiracy theories to fill in the gaps (such as the recent unexplained disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370).

However, ‘conspiracy theory’ and ‘conspiracy theorist’ are today often used in a derogatory sense, to describe people believed to be either paranoid, eccentric or suffering from mental illness. Not helping this issue are people like former BBC sports presenter David Icke, a proponent of the theory that shape-shifting reptiles control the world.

Why do people devise conspiracy theories?

I can think of three main reasons why, when something big or awful happens, many people jump to the conclusion of foul play…

1. Because some people are – frankly – nuts

When I was an employment lawyer, I worked on a case that involved a woman suing her employers because she believed two things. Firstly, they were spying on her via surveillance cameras in the air fresheners. Secondly, they were putting hidden insults in her code for the office photocopier.

She was obviously as mad as a box of frogs.

But saying that conspiracy theorists suffer from paranoia, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder or other mental illnesses like schizophrenia is to paint too simple a picture. It may be true in some cases, but in others, the social and psychological causes are more complex.

Australian cognitive scientist Professor Stephan Lewandowsky says that conspiracy theorists feel a lack of control and use conspiracies to regain some order when something terrible or extraordinary occurs. Conspiracy theories can also bring a feeling of power to the more weak-willed or less educated.

Others have argued that social reinforcement is important to the spread of belief in conspiracy theories, the idea that “millions of people can’t all be wrong”.

An even more curious cause is the one advanced by the British Psychological Society, that we as humans are wired to believe that a significant event has a significant cause. They ran a study in which subjects were given four scenarios, in which a president is:

(a) Shot and killed

(b) Shot, survived with wounds, and died of a heart attack at a later date

(c) Shot and survived with wounds

(d) Unharmed because the shooter missed

It was found that subjects were significantly more likely to suspect a conspiracy where the president had died, despite the evidence being the same in all four scenarios. They concluded that where such a significant event as a president’s death has occurred, a tragic accident or a gunman acting alone are not significant enough explanations. To believe in a major conspiracy is much more satisfying.

2. Because they don’t trust the powers that be – and why should they?

"I did not have sexual relations with that woman."

“I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”

Ah, yes. One of the most famous sound bites in the world is that of President Bill Clinton staunchly denying doing the dirty with Monica Lewinsky. When the famous ‘blue dress’ was presented as evidence, he had to admit his lie. Oops.

We also know from the recent MPs’ expenses scandal that those in power are both able and willing to lie, cheat and defraud the public.

That’s not to mention all the broken election promises. Suffice it to say, it’s not hard to see why people don’t trust the government, and suspect them of being involved in sinister activities.

3. Because some conspiracy theories are true…

Theories about a Watergate cover-up and underhand dealings by the highest-ranking members of the US government were eventually validated.

Hot off the heels of the 9/11 conspiracy theories was the theory that the 2003 British-American invasion of Iraq was founded on lies about the existence of weapons of mass destruction. Another theory proven correct after a CIA informant admitted he lied about the weapons, and the US Senate Intelligence Committee confirmed that faulty intelligence was used to justify the war.

And the long-held beliefs that we are living in a surveillance state, with the government spying on our phone calls and Internet activities, were confirmed following Edward Snowden’s global surveillance disclosures in 2013.

While they might not have been preceded by a conspiracy theory, other nasty conspiracies have also been proven true.

You can hardly blame people for believing the CIA deliberately infected African-Americans with HIV. Not after the US Public Health Service conducted the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, secretly withholding  treatment from hundreds of African-Americans with syphilis and never even telling them they had it.

Nor can you blame people for suspecting large corporations of hiding the cancer-causing effects of mobile phones. Not when it was proven that companies and industry officials knew for decades about the mortal danger of the now-banned asbestos, but concealed it from the public.

There’s no doubt there are some quacks out there. Quacks with outrageous ideas. There are social/psychological reasons for conspiracy theories that cannot be ignored.

But what also cannot be ignored is that we live in a world of lies, secrets and people who yearn for power. Next time you’re told an outrageous conspiracy story, it’s worth stopping for a moment and thinking, is it really so outrageous? Really?

Next week:

I begin an examination of the world’s biggest conspiracy theory: Roswell.

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