Conspiracy theories: the science behind belief in secret plots

The Guardian, UK/September 5, 2013

By Dean Burnett

For every major event, there is usually a theory that argues it was due to a conspiracy. Conspiracy theories are seemingly more popular than ever, so how do supposedly rational people get caught in their tangled webs?

Truly powerful figures always remain in the shadows, fearing nothing but lightbulbs and shin-high tables. Photograph: Chris Ison/PA

With constant revelations about government surveillance and possible impending war, this must be a fertile time for conspiracy theories.

You know when you put the bins out and you realise there's a bag in the corner that you'd forgotten about and you pick it up but it's so old it splits and you are suddenly surrounded by swarms of furious flies and you run indoors screaming and spend three hours in the shower, shuddering? I imagine it's a bit like that.

I'm involved in several conspiracies (apparently). When Channel 5 aired a shockingly non-critical show about moon landing conspiracies, I responded by "confessing" it was true, and inventing other "true" conspiracies, to emphasise how ludicrous the notion was. I made up conspiracies so far-fetched that I thought nobody could possibly believe them, revealing my naiveté about what people are able/willing to take at face value. But of course, it was pointed out often that I wrote this because I am a pawn of those behind the moon landing conspiracy.

Also, when I wrote a piece about Julie Burchill's attack on Transsexuals, I was told I did this because I was part of at least two conspiracies, one run by trans* people, and one dedicated to attacking trans* people. Hopefully it was separate people who were accusing me of these mutually exclusive things, but then you never know with this sort of stuff.

What is it that compels people to cry conspiracy in response to even relatively minor events? (eg me writing a forgettable blog). It would be pointless to critique all that is known here; it would change nothing, and I probably won't live long enough to finish. But there are numerous possible reasons why people get caught up in conspiracies, and how they end up being as complex and enduring as they are.

It's important to not just dismiss conspiracy theorists as "cranks", "nutters" or any other term that allows you to laughingly dismiss them. Admittedly, an extreme conspiracy theorist may have some disorder driving their actions, such as anxiety disorder, paranoia, psychosis or others. Maybe the condition isn't severe enough to warrant medical intervention, or maybe involvement with conspiracy theories is how some sufferers keep their symptoms in check, meaning it's a form of self-medicating. Or of course it could be that psychiatry itself is a conspiracy.

But mental disorders and conspiracy theories aren't directly linked by any means. You can believe the official account of JFK's assassination and still be diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Studies have shown that your average person seems worryingly susceptible to conspiracy theories. There are many possible reasons for this, such as how humans seem inclined toward Pareidolia (a tendency to see patterns and shapes in random occurrences). There are numerous factors that can affect how readily you believe in conspiracy theories, but no real strong indicator, so it could be any one.

But why? Perhaps conspiracy theories satisfy some basic human requirements? Maslow's hierarchy of needs argues that the most basic human needs are for food, shelter etc. In western society, we're lucky enough to typically have that taken care of. After that we need "safety": security and freedom from fear. Fear is often caused by the unknown, so once you "know" about the plots and machinations of shadowy powerful people, this could help.

After that we need "belonging". Humans are social creatures, so require acceptance from others. Conspiracy theory networks seem like a friendly bunch if you believe what they do (just as Jon Ronson), so do some find conspiracy theorising offers this a sense of belonging? And this may lead to the next level of needs: achievement, recognition and respect. Finding connections and evidence that points to conspiracies, cover ups etc would undoubtedly lead to big kudos in the conspiracy group you're part of.

That sense of community may also be why some conspiracies are so enduring and yet seemingly far-fetched. When you have groups, you get weird things going on. Normative influence, groupthink, people acting as Mindguards, group polarisation, these effects and more combine to ensure that the group remains intact and the overall views are inevitably far-fetched , and that any dissenting view is quickly stamped out or denied entry, leading to a lot of confirmation bias and cherry picking when it comes to research.

There are numerous other possible explanations for conspiracy theorist behaviour. It could even be something as simple but counterintuitive as the notion that conspiracy theories are comforting. It's unnerving to think there are gangs of giant lizards controlling the whole of mankind from the shadows, but is that less worrying than the possibility that we live in a random universe where unthinking forces could opt to snuff us out without cause or reason? Just as some people turn to God or the supernatural to fend off this possibility, perhaps some turn to conspiracy theories.

And before more rationalist types who read the Guardian science section start scoffing, there are many common views/opinions often expressed today that could easily strike others who don't share them as conspiracy theories. The NHS is being privatised in secret and the media is complicit in it? Yeah, right. The government is trying to gag charities? Of course it is. Oh, you have "evidence" do you? Yeah, people always do.

Perhaps the stigma around conspiracy theorists isn't fully deserved. Some of the most famous scientists ever (eg Darwin, Galileo) were those who challenged the official version of events.

And of course, maybe the conspiracies are true. For instance, what if this blog isn't an analysis of the psychology of conspiracy theories at all, but a manipulative ploy to break the record for "most unhinged comments" on the Guardian site? We'll never know.

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