Conspiracy theories: the science behind belief in secret plots

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