Why Do We Believe Conspiracy Theories? The Science Revealed

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This weekend marks the 45th anniversary of the first moon landing conducted by the crew of Apollo 11. Or does it?

Whenever someone talks about the lunar landings, conversation invariably drifts towards that arguments about whether or not the US actually did land on the Moon. Of course, the common conspiracy theory is that the US faked the landings in an attempt to win the Space Race against the Russians. Instead of blasting 384,400 km up into space, the logic goes that NASA filmed the lunar landings in a film studio - possibly with the help of Stanley Kubrick. This might sound slightly ridiculous, but up to 20% of Americans apparently believe this.

Of course, conspiracy theories are not limited to the Moon landing. Practically every major event in recent history quickly conjures up a conspiracy theory, whether its 9/11, the assassination of JFK or the death of Princess Diana, conspiracy theories abound, and often, they're not limited to 'paranoid crackpots'.

For example, 50 years after JFK's assassination, 61% of the American population still do not believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone (perhaps thanks to Oliver Stones' movie, JFK), while 30% of Americans believe the US government had a role in orchestrating the September 11th attacks. These figures certainly aren't insignificant, so why do people choose to believe in conspiracy theories?

Why Do People Believe Conspiracy Theories?

This topic has attracted a wide range of research from a number on institutions, and much of the results suggest that belief in conspiracy theories depends on one's world view, personal view and role in society. There's also a bit of biology thrown in for good measure.

One of the main psychological reasons stated by researchers, including Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, a cognitive scientist at the University of Western Australia, is that people who often believe in conspiracy theories frequently feel a lack of control. Lewandowsky states that by believing in conspiracy theories, which often provide a sense of order to random events, believers can regain agency and develop a sense of control and power. This, he explains, is a defense mechanism designed to protect the individual from the dread of random events which can destroy their lives - such as natural disasters, terrorist attacks, plane crashes etc.

A general lack of trust also compounds this issue, especially if the believer feels excluded from the power process. This lack of trust could explain why conspiracy belief is less marked in upper class individuals, especially those with ties to major corporations or government institutions. Since they are ingrained within these bodies, they inherently trust the information they receive. However, those on the lower end of the scale - especially those who may feel financially or socially insecure - are inclined to see the world as conspiring against them.

However, one of the most important elements of all this, is that conspiracy theorists develop whats called "motivated skepticism" or a "self-sealing nature of reasoning". Essentially, this states believers will ignore any information which does not support their initial belief, even if it is well-supported by third-party evidence. Psychologists have discovered that: “when processing pro and con information on an issue, people actively denigrate the information with which they disagree while accepting compatible information almost at face value.” As Slate's William Saletan explains:

The answer is that people who suspect conspiracies aren’t really skeptics. Like the rest of us, they’re selective doubters. They favor a worldview, which they uncritically defend. But their worldview isn’t about God, values, freedom, or equality. It’s about the omnipotence of elites.

Of course, we all do this to a certain extent. However, the above mentioned lack of trust and power means conspiracy theorists take this to an extreme - twisting evidence until it either confirms their position or decrying evidence as part of the conspiracy. For example 23% of Republicans polled in May 2011 still believe Obama was not born in America, despite the presentation of his birth certificate - which was the evidence originally demanded by 'birthers'. Political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler identify this phenomenon as the "backfire effect" as it suggests accurate information can sometimes further entrench conspiracy theorists into their beliefs.

Research has also shown that belief in one conspiracy theory will usually result in belief in more. For example, someone who believes the moon landing was faked, will also believe the government killed JFK, that aliens crashed at Roswell and that 9/11 was an inside job. This can result in strange situations in which believers believe in contrary theories. One British study showed that people who believe Princess Diana was murdered, are also likely to believe she faked her own death.

Although an element of social conditioning effects if people believe in conspiracies, there is also an interesting biological solution to all this. Paul Whalen, a scientist at Dartmouth College, believes a part of the brain, the amygdala, could be responsible. The amygdala does little on its own, but in times of stress or uncertainty it kicks in, forcing the rest of the brain into 'analytical overdrive'. This prompts the brain to repeatedly reassess information in order to create comfortable and understandable narratives - potentially resulting in conspiracy theories.

Furthermore, research has also revealed that conspiracy belief is not really determined by political affiliation or general level of intelligence. Traditionally, conspiracy belief is associated with the left - in particular suggestions the world is governed by a capitalist conspiracy to keep the working class enslaved - however, more recently it appears equal with both Democrats and Republicans, although there is a difference in which conspiracies they will believe.

However, despite all this psychological and biological mumbo-jumbo, there is another salient reason for conspiracy belief: Conspiracies do actually exist. The CIA did really try to murder Castro, they really id fund coups all around the world, Russian spies were active in the US and there is compelling evidence to suggest the US Army did test dangerous chemicals by spraying them on poor neighborhoods during the 1960s. Although many of these acts originated from the Cold War, they have bred a sense of paranoia which remains today.

Which conspiracy theories do you believe?

Mark Newton475 people voted
Who killed JFK?
  • 114
    Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone.
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  • 286
    Lee Harvey Oswald and others, acting on behalf of members of the government.
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  • 20
    Fidel Castro hired killers
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  • 55
    The Mafia
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Mark Newton464 people voted
Was the moon landing faked?
  • 128
    Yes
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  • 227
    No
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  • 109
    Maybe
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Mark Newton433 people voted
Who was responsible for 9/11?
  • 207
    Al Qaeda
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  • 158
    The Bush Administration
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  • 15
    Mossad - Israeli Intelligence Agency
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  • 53
    Someone else
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Mark Newton444 people voted
Did aliens crash at Roswell?
  • 317
    Yes. And the government's finding it.
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  • 127
    No.
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Mark Newton443 people voted
Is the world controlled by the Illuminati and a New World Order?
  • 192
    Yes.
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  • 140
    No.
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  • 111
    Partly.
    Click to answer

Sources:

Salon: Why people believe in conspiracy theories

The Guardian: Why do people believe in conspiracy theories? Because conspiracies happen

New York Times: Why rational people buy into conspiracy theories

New Republic: A Majority of Americans Believe in JFK Conspiracy Theories. Who Are They?

USNews: The Normal Life of Crazy Conspiracy Theories

Slate: Conspiracy Theorists Aren’t Really Skeptics

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