In our global village, we respond to shocking news events in many ways including trying to make sense of them in emotional, moral, spiritual, political and scientific terms. When such an event happens such as President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Princess Diana’s death or 9/11, we look for its explanation and meaning. When the explanation is not clear, the meaning is not clear, so confusion arises to compound the emotional upset. Conspiracy theories are satisfying since they place events in an understandable context and help us deal with events intellectually and emotionally.
Conspiracy theories emerge when flawed logic combines with evidence that is lacking, disputed or contradictory. This can be exploited by mythmakers, mischief makers and attention-seekers. But genuine researchers, investigators and truth-seekers may offer explanations for the event. The situation is not helped when governments withhold or fabricate information for “reasons of state.” All governments keep secrets. Often a government’s explanation for an event in itself can become a conspiracy theory, such as 9/11.
Once a conspiracy theory is formulated, it can continue through the momentum of a confirmation bias. This occurs when the believer accepts all evidence that confirms the theory while rejecting all that does not.
Conspiracy thinking is embraced by a surprisingly large proportion of the population. Some 69% of Americans believe President John F. Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy. Sixty per cent of UK adults believe that Princess Diana was murdered. Sixty per cent of US adults believe that the US government is withholding information about 9/11. According to Scripps News/Ohio University poll, 36% of respondents suspected that the US government played a role in 9/11.
Which types of conspiracy theories are more likely to be believed?
In general, with all of the ingredients necessary for a conspiracy theory present, the more tragic the outcome of an event the more likely people are to believe it was the result of a conspiracy. This is what researchers found in a paper presented to the British Psychological Society in 2003. The researchers also found that if people become distanced from institutions of power and state, they are more likely to distrust official accounts.
Are conspiracy theories ever good for you?
According to some in the field of evolutionary psychology, conspiracy theories can be good for you. It is argued that paranoid tendencies are associated with an animal’s ability to recognize danger. Higher animals attempt to construct mental models of the thought processes of both rivals and predators in order to read their hidden intentions and predict future behavior. This ability is valuable in sensing and avoiding danger in the animal community. But so far there has been no gene found for such “alertness.”