Why do people believe in conspiracy theories? UFOs, Area 51, The Illuminati, 9/11, New World Order, ‘chemtrails’, the moon landing – there’s conspiracies about all of them and many people believe them. I’m not really interested in debunking all of these specific conspiracy theories. Since I don’t think there’s a shred of evidence for any of them, spending my time trying to prove them wrong just isn’t worthwhile. But if you’re interested in finding out what experts (trained scientists and engineers) have to say about the 9/11 and moon landing conspiracies, for example, you can find out about their rational explanations for these events. I’m more interested in the psychological basis of believing in conspiracy theories.
The political scientist Michael Barkun identifies three types of conspiracy theories. There are event conspiracy theories – when a conspiracy is responsible for a single event (such as 9/11); systemic conspiracy theories – when a single organisation aims to gain mass control (such as the Jews, Freemasons, Catholic Church etc.) and finally there are super-conspiracy theories – when multiple conspiracies are linked together and work together towards a common goal (such as the New World Order). But all of them have something in common; all of them assert that complex plots are being carried out by hidden, secret forces. Undoubtedly governments, religions and other institutions do things we are not aware of, but a conspiracy theory stretches this fact to a new extreme by claiming that what they are doing is malicious, making them our worst enemies.
One reason why conspiracy theories are popular is because humans have a natural tendency to look for meaning in otherwise random, chance events. The neurologist Klaus Konrad coined the term apophenia in 1948 to characterise the onset of delusional thinking in psychosis – as a modern term it means the experience of seeing meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data. The sceptic Michael Shermer in his book The Believing Brain uses a similar term called patternicity to describe the human tendency to not only find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise, but to also infuse real patterns with “meaning, intention and agency.” Our brains have evolved to connect the dots and create meaning out of the patterns we think we see. Our ancestors would have had an evolutionary advantage to have a brain like this, since they would be more likely to find real patterns – such as a lion behind a bush – than would a competitor whose brain wasn’t projecting patterns and meaning onto the world all the time.
The biologists Kevin Foster and Hanna Kokko wrote a paper called The Evolution of Superstitious and Superstitious-like Behaviour. In it they argue that humans are not very good at estimating whether a rustle in the bushes, for example, is a threat or not. Because of this fact, the cost of believing the rustle is a predator when it’s not is very low, whereas the cost of believing it’s nothing when it is a predator is very high. Our physical bodies and behaviour operate according to cost-benefit balances. Therefore, if believing that most patterns are real is beneficial, then this behaviour would evolve; which it did.
Sometimes A is connected to B and sometimes it isn’t. But when it is, we have learned something valuable about the world which allows us to make predictions, survive another day and have another opportunity to reproduce. Unfortunately, our brains have not evolved to detect true patterns from false patterns; there is no error-detecting mechanism in our brain. The reason is that there’s probably no evolutionary disadvantage in looking for patterns everywhere. Luckily, we do have the scientific method, which allows us to spot the true patterns from the false ones, by looking at the evidence and whether it falsifies our pre-conceptions or not.
In the case of the moon landing conspiracy, people who believe in it point out that video footage shows the flag blowing in the wind. According to them, the moon landing must have been faked and filmed on Earth, since there is no wind on the moon which could cause the flag to move. However, the appearance of the flag waving was caused by a metal pole along the top of it which kept the flag in position. When the astronauts put the flag in the ground, the pole vibrated which caused the flag to move. After the astronauts put the flag in the ground it continues to move as if “blowing in the wind”, but this is only because the energy in the flag has nowhere to dissipate to – there is no atmosphere on the moon. So here we have scientific evidence which falsifies one of these conspiracy claims. But despite the evidence, many people still cling on to these conspiracy theories. Why?
In psychology there is also something called confirmation bias. This is a tendency in humans to interpret information in a way that confirms our pre-conceptions. There is also something called cognitive dissonance, which is when someone feels discomfort in holding two belief systems which are in conflict. In order to overcome this discomfort, information, data and evidence will have to be manipulated in a way which preserves both belief systems. Both confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance are very common are can be used to explain why otherwise rational people might also believe in creationism, astrology, crystal healing, homeopathy, tarot reading, psychics, mediums and other New Age inventions. It’s easy to see confirmation bias in conspiracy theories too.
In one version of the 9/11 conspiracy theory, it is believed that the American government had detonated bombs inside the twin towers after the planes had crashed. According to the conspiracy theory, the buildings could only have fallen in the way they did if a controlled explosion was involved. However, these conspiracy theorists have no evidence for a belief in 9/11 as an “inside job” and ignore the evidence against their case. Christen Simensen from SINTEF, a research organisation in Norway, has said that the collapse of the building can be explained be a chain of chemical events. When molten aluminium gets in contact with water, which it would have when the sprinkler system went on in the building, enormous amounts of hydrogen are formed, which leads to higher temperatures, which leads to a series of explosions. In spite of this, conspiracy theorists continue to selectively choose information which supports their belief.
According to one study carried out by Dr Patrick Leman, people are naturally inclined to believe that a significant event will have a significant cause. This seems almost common sense. However, in the study 64 participants were presented with four scenarios in which the president of a fictional country was either: (a) shot and killed, (b) shot but survived, (c) wounded but survived, (d) survived with wounds but later died of a heart attack or (d) was unharmed. The participants were more likely to suspect a conspiracy in the case of a major event – the president being assassinated in scenario (a) – than in the other cases. This tendency to assume a significant cause for a significant event helps explain why JFK assassination conspiracy theories are so popular. Significant events can equally be explained by chance, coincidence, a particularly crazy individual or any other number of boring reasons.
Another feature of conspiracy theories is that they seem to be paranoid by nature. They are heavily influenced by anxiety or fear to the point of becoming a delusion. Again, there can be an evolutionary reason for this. Being paranoid about potential threats is useful because it makes you more vigilant and more likely to avoid that threat. In modern times, many people recognise religion, government and other organisations as threats – which is understandable since they are powerful and influential – and they become paranoid about them. This paranoia can then lead to conspiracy theories.
It might be unfair to characterise all conspiracy theories as irrational and paranoid, since some conspiracy theories have turned out to be true. For example, the Tuskegee Experiment in 1932 involved the US government monitoring the effects of syphilis and performing experiments on those infected. However, the experiments were conducted without consent, mostly on illiterate black males who weren’t told they had syphilis and proper treatment was later denied to them. It took until 1972, that’s 40 years later, for a man named Peter Buxton to uncover this evil government plot. Still, true conspiracies are rare and they seem to be limited to single events. If you believed in all of the conspiracy theories about single events, sure, one might turn out to be true but that would be due to chance alone.
Until there’s evidence for one of these conspiracies there’s no reason to believe in them. There’s no use in being paranoid all the time about what the government is doing behind our backs. Sure the CIA, by definition, uses covert actions and has secret plans, but it is irrational to think that these plans must be malicious. In addition, any conspiracy theory assumes that many people are involved in covering it up. If 9/11 was a government plot, hundreds of government officials would have to be in on it. If the moon landing was faked, everyone working at NASA at the time must have been in on it. People are not good at keeping secrets and having that many people preserve such a monumental secrets just seems unlikely. Even small secrets involving a small number of people cannot be kept secret, such as the private lives of politicians.
Sam Woolfe is a philosophy graduate from Durham University. His main interests are in modern science, environmental and animal ethics, and philosophy. He currently lives in London.