The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories

Watching a single woman-in-red denounce President Barack Obama as a noncitizen is not particularly scary. We can imagine any number of complicated life narratives for this woman’s shotgun rage. We may even muster compassion. The more alarming question is, Why are all those other people cheering her on?

Just did a story for The Daily Beast on the latest conspiracy theory in a summer ripe with paranoia. Before the gentleman who warned the government to get its hands off of his Medicare, there was the resurgence of the moon-landing “hoax” and rampant speculation about the real purpose of Swine Flu.

Are conspiracy theories getting worse? The limited research that has been done suggests….well, yes, maybe. Two of the major forces that propel conspiracy theories into popularity both happen to be on the rise at the moment.

The first is what psychologists call anomie—a sense of alienation and anxiety about the future. In 1992, a Rutgers University sociologist named Ted Geortzel decided to try to measure the belief in conspiracy theories among a sample of Americans. He surveyed 348 southern New Jersey residents—a racially diverse group that represented the region overall—to find out what they thought of 10 different conspiracy theories.

The results were a little frightening. Most of the participants believed several of the conspiracies. And people who believed in one theory were likely to believe in others. Some 41% thought it was at least partially true that the Air Force is hiding evidence that the United States has been visited by flying saucers. And 42% said it is partly or definitely true that the FBI was involved in the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

In this and other such studies, minorities were significantly more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. But plenty of white people raised their hands, too. In general, people who believe that the average person’s situation is getting worse, that it is unfair to bring a child into the world today, and that most public officials are uninterested in the average man seem to be more likely to also believe outlandish but sinister explanations for major historical events.

Anomie may be more prevalent in times of high unemployment and widespread uncertainty—times like right now, in other words. People feel a generalized sense of malaise and distrust. To relieve that discomfort, it may help to assign blame to an evil mastermind. Which evil mastermind depends on what patterns your brain has previously held to be true.

For some people, the most sensible evil doer will be a liberal, dark-skinned president with foreign relatives and a tendency to see America as something less than perfect. For others, the obvious dark lord would be the opposite—a conservative, pink-skinned vice president with a tendency to see America as perfect. Psychologists have a name for this tendency, albeit a lame one: “confirmation bias.” We pay more attention to theories that support our pre-existing conditions.

Which leads to the second force behind modern conspiracy theories. The Internet (you knew this was coming) makes it effortless to find detailed confirming evidence to support our biases. In his 2009 book, Going to Extremes, legal scholar Cass Sunstein detailed the tendency of like-minded people to become more extreme—after they spend time talking amongst themselves. He should know, now more than ever.

GeneralAmanda Ripley