Conspiracy theories have been around almost as long as human beings and they have become an integral part of our everyday life. The United States seems to be a particularly fertile field for these theories, both as a source and a target. Theories range from the Federal Reserve System (established in 1913) as a tool of the New World Order– a shadow world government that the supported the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in the 1930s to the theory put forth by Venezuelan state-run TV station ViVE that the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti was caused by a US government weapons testing program.
Dictionary.com defines conspiracy theory as:
“A theory that explains an event as being the result of a plot by a covert group or organization; a belief that a particular unexplained event was caused by such a group. The idea that many important political events or economic and social trends are the products of secret plots that are largely unknown to the general public.”
So, what causes conspiracy theories to develop? Psychologists have found that in order to understand a major or unexpected event, people look for meaning in it, looking for the why and how of the event. Unfortunately, accurate information may be scarce immediately after the event and the lack of reliable information leads to rumors and guesses. Legal scholars Sustein and Vermeule (2008) describe what happens:
“Whenever a bad event has occurred, rumors and speculation are inevitable. Most people are not able to know, on the basis of personal or direct knowledge, why an airplane crashed, or why a leader was assassinated, or why a terrorist attack succeeded. In the aftermath of such an event, numerous speculations will be offered, and some of them will likely point to some kind of conspiracy. To some people, those speculations will seem plausible, perhaps because they provide a suitable outlet for outrage and blame, perhaps because the speculation fits well with other deeply rooted beliefs that they hold. Terrible events produce outrage, and when people are outraged, they are all the more likely to attribute those events to intentional action.”
The plausibility of these speculations is either strengthened or weakened by a person's frame of reference, what he believes or what she has experienced (psychologists call it cognitive bias). Everyone has a cognitive bias that drives their daily lives and helps them make sense of the major or unexpected event.
Also, our perception of a situation is influenced by social, political, and economic conditions in which it occurred. Research, conducted by sociologist Ted Goertzel, found that the following traits are related to a person's belief in conspiracy theories. He/she will have a:
Belief that he/she felt alienated or disaffected relative to (or, separated from) “the system;” Tendency to distrust other people; and, feeling of insecurity regarding continued employment.
Goertzel’s identified traits findings are supported by research conducted by psychologist Jean Twenge and her associates. They found that people who feel that external forces are determining what happens to them (external locus of control) are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. Those who have an internal sense of control (internal locus of control), a belief that their control their own lives, will be less likely to believe in conspiracy theories.
Also, Goertzel found that belief in conspiracy theories is not affected by a person's race, age, residence, or gender. In other words, belief in conspiracy theories occurs in all segments of society. Even the rich and well educated may believe conspiracy theories.
Conspiracy theories are neither good nor bad. They just are. Author and journalist Christopher Hitchens describes them as the exhaust fumes of history, the inevitable outcome of the 24-hour news cycle, the Internet, movies, television and books with conspiracy theory story lines, etc. we have more access to more information, more quickly than at any other time in history. As a result, conspiracy theories will be born, flourish, and die as the world around us continues to change and as we struggle to find meaning in those changes.
Sustein, Cass & Vermeule, Adrian, Conspiracy Theories (2008), http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1084585, accessed, February 1, 2010.
Goertzel, Ted (1994): Belief in Conspiracy Theories, Political Psychology 15: 733-744), http://crab.rutgers.edu/~goertzel/conspire.doc , accessed January 29, 2010.
Twenge, Jean, Zhange, Liqing and Im, Charles (2004). “It's Beyond My Control: A Cross-Temporal Meta-Analysis of Increasing Externality in Locus of Control, 1960-2002.” Personality and Social Psychology Review, Vol. 8, No. 3, 308-319, http://psr.sagepub.com/cgi/reprint/8/3/308, accessed January 30, 2010.