Fifty years ago, on Nov. 22, then-US president John F. Kennedy, one of the most charismatic leaders of modern times, was gunned down by a lone gunman in Dallas, Texas. Or was he? The majority of people in the US and many people around the world doubt the “official story” and instead believe that JFK was, in fact, the victim of a conspiracy involving members of the mob. Or the CIA. Or communists. Or extreme rightwingers. Or the military-industrial complex. The list goes on.
The idea that JFK was not the victim of a lone deranged gunman has been referred to as the “mother of all conspiracy theories,” although some might argue that this accolade should nowadays go to the claim that the terrorist attacks on the US on Sept. 11, 2001, was an inside job. Although these two conspiracies are probably the most widely held, a wide variety of other conspiracy theories are also endorsed by large proportions of the population. These include the idea that Diana, Princess of Wales, was murdered, that US astronauts never actually landed on the moon, that the HIV/AIDS virus was deliberately manufactured with genocidal intent and that the world is, in fact, ruled by giant shape-shifting lizards. What is it about conspiracy theories that make them so attractive to so many people? And why is it that some people are more drawn to such theories than others?
One possibility, of course, is that all of the above conspiracy theories are true and based upon a cool and rational analysis of available evidence. The only reason that some people do not believe in them might be because they have not looked at the evidence and instead, like mindless sheep, have simply accepted the lies of the establishment.
This seems highly unlikely. For one thing, in this Internet age with instant access to rolling news, conspiracy theories arise almost instantly after any major event, often far too quickly for any evidence to have been properly gathered and analyzed regarding the real cause of the event in question. Second, studies have shown that some people will, upon first encountering them, endorse entirely fictional conspiracies dreamt up by researchers with no supporting evidence whatsoever. Finally, those with a strong inclination towards conspiratorial thinking will even endorse mutually contradictory conspiracy theories.
Thus, those who believe that Diana was murdered by the British secret service are also more likely to believe that she faked her own death; those who believe that al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was in fact already dead at the time that the US claims to have killed him are also more likely to believe that he is still alive. The explanation is, of course, that those with a conspiratorial mindset are not exactly sure what really happened with respect to these dramatic events. The only thing they are sure of is that the “official story” is not true.
Surprisingly, with a few notable exceptions, it is only recently that psychologists have turned their attention towards this fascinating topic, but there are signs this has changed in recent years, with an increasing number of relevant publications and publication of special issues of journals and blogs devoted exclusively to this topic. Some interesting findings have already emerged.
For example, it appears that one of the underlying cognitive factors that inclines us toward belief in conspiracy theories is our intuitive notion that big events must have big causes. This has been referred to as the proportionality bias. Thus we find it hard to accept that JFK was the victim of a lone deranged gunman or that Diana was the victim of a drunk driver. We prefer the idea that such major events must have major causes — such as complex conspiracies by groups of powerful individuals.