NYT: “Why Rational People Buy Into Conspiracy Theories”

Another act of desperation from the mainstream media – it always amuses me how they deliberately mix different “conspiracy theories” to make them sound more ludicrous (this is known as smear by association – a good example I’ve noticed is when discussing 9/11 with defenders of the official story they’ll bring up David Icke’s lizard theory), then ultimately attempt to reduce it to crude psychologizing about “paranoia”, with conspiracy theories “compelling to those with low self-worth” (this is known as ad hominem – the standard, low-brow version of this is when someone calls you a “loon” or member of the “tin foil hat brigade”).

One commenter on disinfo described this article succinctly: “More mass-media hand wringing. “Gosh, why aren’t they buying our crap like they used to? Just because we’re hand-in-glove with the same people who are stripping them of their rights, siphoning their wealth, sending them off to war on false pretexts, poisioning their environment, and making them all diabetic by stuffing everything they eat with high fructose corn syrup is no reason to distrust us. And just because we have been caught time and again misleading, withholding information, lying, and getting stuff wrong from sheer incompetence is no reason not to believe us. They must be crazy. We’ll ridicule them, but really it’s for their own good.”

Via The New York Times:

In the days following the bombings at the Boston Marathon, speculation online regarding the identity and motive of the unknown perpetrator or perpetrators was rampant. And once the Tsarnaev brothers were identified and the manhunt came to a close, the speculation didn’t cease. It took a new form. A sampling: Maybe the brothers Tsarnaev were just patsies, fall guys set up to take the heat for a mysterious Saudi with high-level connections; or maybe they were innocent, but instead of the Saudis, the actual bomber had acted on behalf of a rogue branch of our own government; or what if the Tsarnaevs were behind the attacks, but were secretly working for a larger organization?

 Crazy as these theories are, those propagating them are not — they’re quite normal, in fact. But recent scientific research tells us this much: if you think one of the theories above is plausible, you probably feel the same way about the others, even though they contradict one another. And it’s very likely that this isn’t the only news story that makes you feel as if shadowy forces are behind major world events.

“The best predictor of belief in a conspiracy theory is belief in other conspiracy theories,” says Viren Swami, a psychology professor who studies conspiracy belief at the University of Westminster in England. Psychologists say that’s because a conspiracy theory isn’t so much a response to a single event as it is an expression of an overarching worldview.

As Richard Hofstadter wrote in his seminal 1965 book, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” conspiracy theories, especially those involving meddlesome foreigners, are a favorite pastime in this nation. Americans have always had the sneaking suspicion that somebody was out to get us — be it Freemasons, Catholics or communists. But in recent years, it seems as if every tragedy comes with a round of yarn-spinning, as the Web fills with stories about “false flag” attacks and “crisis actors” — not mere theorizing but arguments for the existence of a completely alternate version of reality.

Since Hofstadter’s book was published, our access to information has vastly improved, which you would think would have helped minimize such wild speculation. But according to recent scientific research on the matter, it most likely only serves to make theories more convincing to the public. What’s even more surprising is that this sort of theorizing isn’t limited to those on the margins. Perfectly sane minds possess an incredible capacity for developing narratives, and even some of the wildest conspiracy theories can be grounded in rational thinking, which makes them that much more pernicious. Consider this: 63 percent of registered American voters believe in at least one political conspiracy theory, according to a recent poll conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University.

While psychologists can’t know exactly what goes on inside our heads, they have, through surveys and laboratory studies, come up with a set of traits that correlate well with conspiracy belief. In 2010, Swami and a co-author summarized this research in The Psychologist, a scientific journal. They found, perhaps surprisingly, that believers are more likely to be cynical about the world in general and politics in particular. Conspiracy theories also seem to be more compelling to those with low self-worth, especially with regard to their sense of agency in the world at large. Conspiracy theories appear to be a way of reacting to uncertainty and powerlessness.

Economic recessions, terrorist attacks and natural disasters are massive, looming threats, but we have little power over when they occur or how or what happens afterward. In these moments of powerlessness and uncertainty, a part of the brain called the amygdala kicks into action. Paul Whalen, a scientist at Dartmouth College who studies the amygdala, says it doesn’t exactly do anything on its own. Instead, the amygdala jump-starts the rest of the brain into analytical overdrive — prompting repeated reassessments of information in an attempt to create a coherent and understandable narrative, to understand what just happened, what threats still exist and what should be done now. This may be a useful way to understand how, writ large, the brain’s capacity for generating new narratives after shocking events can contribute to so much paranoia in this country.

“If you know the truth and others don’t, that’s one way you can reassert feelings of having agency,” Swami says. It can be comforting to do your own research even if that research is flawed. It feels good to be the wise old goat in a flock of sheep.

Surprisingly, Swami’s work has also turned up a correlation between conspiracy theorizing and strong support of democratic principles. But this isn’t quite so strange if you consider the context. Kathryn Olmsted, a historian at the University of California, Davis, says that conspiracy theories wouldn’t exist in a world in which real conspiracies don’t exist. And those conspiracies — Watergate or the Iran-contra Affair — often involve manipulating and circumventing the democratic process. Even people who believe that the Sandy Hook shooting was actually a drama staged by actors couch their arguments in concern for the preservation of the Second Amendment.

Our access to high-quality information has not, unfortunately, ushered in an age in which disagreements of this sort can easily be solved with a quick Google search. In fact, the Internet has made things worse. Confirmation bias — the tendency to pay more attention to evidence that supports what you already believe — is a well-documented and common human failing. People have been writing about it for centuries. In recent years, though, researchers have found that confirmation bias is not easy to overcome. You can’t just drown it in facts.

In 2006, the political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler identified a phenomenon called the “backfire effect.” They showed that efforts to debunk inaccurate political information can leave people more convinced that false information is true than they would have been otherwise. Nyhan isn’t sure why this happens, but it appears to be more prevalent when the bad information helps bolster a favored worldview or ideology.

In that way, Swami says, the Internet and other media have helped perpetuate paranoia. Not only does more exposure to these alternative narratives help engender belief in conspiracies, he says, but the Internet’s tendency toward tribalism helps reinforce misguided beliefs.

And that’s a problem. Because while believing George W. Bush helped plan the Sept. 11 attacks might make you feel in control, it doesn’t actually make you so. Earlier this year, Karen Douglas, a University of Kent psychologist, along with a student, published research in which they exposed people to conspiracy theories about climate change and the death of Princess Diana. Those who got information supporting the theories but not information debunking them were more likely to withdraw from participation in politics and were less likely to take action to reduce their carbon footprints.

Alex Jones, a syndicated radio host, can build fame as a conspiracy peddler; politicians can hint at conspiracies for votes and leverage; but if conspiracy theories are a tool the average person uses to reclaim his sense of agency and access to democracy, it’s an ineffective tool. It can even have dangerous health implications. For example, research has shown that African-Americans who believe AIDS is a weapon loosed on them by the government (remembering the abuses of the Tuskegee experiment) are less likely to practice protected sex. And if you believe that governments or corporations are hiding evidence that vaccines harm children, you’re less likely to have your children vaccinated. The result: pockets of measles and whooping-cough infections and a few deaths in places with low child-vaccination rates.

Psychologists aren’t sure whether powerlessness causes conspiracy theories or vice versa. Either way, the current scientific thinking suggests these beliefs are nothing more than an extreme form of cynicism, a turning away from politics and traditional media — which only perpetuates the problem.

Maggie Koerth-Baker is science editor at BoingBoing.net and author of “Before the Lights Go Out,” on the future of energy production and consumption.

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11 responses to “NYT: “Why Rational People Buy Into Conspiracy Theories”

  1. Pingback: Media Coverage of the Bilderberg Group Adopts a Tone of Desperation | Orwellwasright's Weblog

  2. Pingback: Mainstream Media Coverage of the Bilderberg Group Adopts a Tone of Desperation | Conspiracy Theories

  3. Pingback: Mainstream Media Coverage of the Bilderberg Group Adopts a Tone of Desperation | SOUL:ASK

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  5. I think you messed two things up.

    1) There are conspiracies.
    2) Nearly nothing you don’t like is there because someone conspired to put it there.

    People often use 1) to claim 2). And the article shows how this mechanism works. The fallacy is to conclude from “There are conspiracies” to “About everything is a conspiracy”.
    Yes, there was a conspiracy to crash airplaines into skyscrapers in New York City and strategic buildings in Washington DC. As it seems, it involved probably 50 people, 20 were training how to fly commercial airplanes and how to hijack them and maybe 30 were planning the , giving money and logistic support. It was a sophisticated scheme, and no one was really considering it possible before. And one of the 20 people was even caught before the act and we still didn’t found out what they planned.
    And here the problem with conspiracy theories arises. Because a lot of people didn’t consider it possible for 50 people to come up with this, they invent another theory which involves 500 to 5000 people, which plan ahead and conspire and set things up to make it look as if 50 people executed it. And here is the point where it becomes problematic. Because you don’t believe 50 people can set it up and keep it secret to the world, you first invent 5000 people to set it up and keep it secret to the world, and afterwards you need another 50,000 people knowing about it and still keep it secret to the world. This is the point when wishfull thinking takes over. Occam’s razor be damned, because we don’t want 50 people to be so dangerous, we invent 50,000 people being so dangerous. And we will believe everything which contradicts “the official theory”, even if it is not consistent with anything else we believe. We don’t check anymore if the new information somehow fits with anything we believe to be true, if it only makes the official description look bad. And here we are in conspiracy theory territory. We wish so bad for the “official information” to be wrong, that we tolerate anything we would normally consider stupid or fringe, if it only contradicts the officials.

    Somehow we don’t like it that shit happens, thus we invent a big conspiracy whose sole purpose is to put shit everywhere. It’s a little bit like the Intelligent Design movement. Because some people don’t like the fact that livings adapt and change and split into diverse species over time just by themselves, they invent a big conspiracy (the Intelligent Designer), who put livings in their ecological niche on purpose. And it’s a little bit an excuse for our own failings. “The dog ate my homework” is probably one of the first conspiracy theories we invent to explain away the fact that we were lazy and didn’t prepare correctly.

    • orwellwasright

      There isn’t anything remotely original you’ve written there – all standard specious arguments from those who believe the official story (I like the focus on 9/11 by the way, even though the NYT article wasn’t about that). You do realise you’ve committed every error the mainstream media commits when it comes to “conspiracies”, don’t you? You know, wild assumptions about what other people believe – which makes it easy to answer your own questions, when you don’t bother to ask someone for their opinion and instead decide for yourself what you think it is. Misunderstanding of how to apply occam’s razor (it is not a license to ignore evidence which contradicts the view you espouse, much as you’d like it to be reduced to the simplest terms – presumably to make it easier for you to comprehend). Ridiculous and irrelevant comparisons (“it’s a little bit like the Intelligent Design movement”); wild smear by associations which add nothing to your “argument” but crudely attempt to undermine the other.

      You’re a fan of the New York Times, aren’t you?

      You messed more than two things up, I’m afraid…

  6. No. It wasn’t original, and conspiracy theories are neither. I don’t smear anyone, I just point out when mechanisms look very alike.
    All start with the same proposition: It can’t be true so someone makes it look as if it was true. That’s ok. We all know how con artists work, we all have watched magicians on stage, and we all have read crime novels where in the beginning, it all looks as if a person is the perpetrator who was framed. We all know that people have conspired, are currently conspiring and will conspire to achieve their goals. We know that people do things on purpose. And we know that goals that don’t find general approvement better be pursued in secrecy.

    But sometimes, we start to confuse the means with end. The main purpose of a conspiracy is not to play games with the population. The main purpose is a precise goal, and the conspiracy will not expand to much beyond the original goal, it will mainly be only the absolutely necessary. To conspire is hard work, and to keep it secret is hard work too. To involve too many people will increase the risk of the conspiracy to be uncovered or of someone just screwing up really bad. Conspiracy theorists tend to underestimate the amount of work necessary to keep a conspiracy going, to shield it from being uncovered and to work around faults, misplanning, people being late and whatever will or can happen. And they seem to constantly overestimate the abilities and means of the conspirators. But they are humans to. They have small goals, they are constantly erring, feuding, screwing up or are being plainly wrong.

    A conspiracy theory that only works if nothing goes wrong and where the conspirators are somehow superhuman, is irreal, it’s that simple.

    • orwellwasright

      Again, you make vague, blanket statements which don’t actually really say anything at all and are sometimes completely absurd at face value. ” To involve too many people will increase the risk of the conspiracy to be uncovered or of someone just screwing up really bad.” Examples? This statement is meaningless. There have been numerous whistleblowers from the FBI and CIA regarding 9/11 which proves that there are insiders who release information contradicting or undermining the government’s official story.

      “Conspiracy theorists tend to underestimate the amount of work necessary to keep a conspiracy going” Who are “conspiracy theorists”? Do they meet and have a club where they all agree on everything? Or are you using a simplistic reductive term so you can lump them all into one same-thinking collective, where it’s easier to categorically define what you believe their position on any given “conspiracy” is? This is juvenile in terms of analysis, I’m afraid.

      “And they seem to constantly overestimate the abilities and means of the conspirators.” Except when they provide evidence that the conspirators have cocked things up – you know, all that evidence etc which undermines the official narrative and leads to “conspiracy theory”

      “A conspiracy theory that only works if nothing goes wrong and where the conspirators are somehow superhuman, is irreal, it’s that simple” Yes – especially when you’re the only person actually suggesting that’s the case.

      You’re all generalisations, misrepresentations (you don’t cite anything in particular and preface many sentences with the use of “we”, which makes it look like you’re expressing collectively held views but they’re actually your own) and irrelevancies.

      Like I say, a fan of the NYT

  7. Time to ditch NYT as a rag mag after this.

  8. Pingback: TRANSCEND MEDIA SERVICE » Media Coverage of the Bilderberg Group Adopts a Tone of Desperation

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