Wed, Nov 27, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Why we love conspiracy theories, and why that can be damaging

When faced with a chain of events, many people see patterns that are not really there and deduce cause and effect relationships which do not really exist

By Chris French  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Other research has pointed to the relevance of the psychological mechanism of projection. It appears that some people are more inclined to believe in conspiracies than others, because those people would themselves feel inclined to engage in conspiracies in similar contexts. The reasoning goes like this: “If I were in that situation, I would probably engage in conspiratorial behavior. That implies that most people would do likewise. Therefore, this conspiracy probably really did take place.”

Another factor that plays an important role is confirmation bias, probably the most ubiquitous cognitive bias of them all. We all have a tendency to pay more attention to evidence that supports what we already believe or want to be true and to ignore, neglect or dismiss evidence that contradicts our favored beliefs.

In one study, participants were presented with information relating to the JFK assassination. Some of the information was more consistent with the lone gunman explanation, some was more consistent with the conspiracy-based explanation. All participants found the information that was consistent with their pre-existing views more convincing than information that was inconsistent with those views. Thus the presentation of the same information had a polarizing effect: Those who already believed in the conspiracy theory believed in it even more strongly; those who already rejected the conspiracy theory, rejected it even more strongly.

In real life, information about major events is often complex and includes errors and anomalies, meaning that such contradictory interpretations are all too easy. One of our greatest strengths as a species is our ability to find patterns and connections in complex data, and to perceive cause and effect relationships between events. The problem is that we sometimes see patterns when they are not really there, and deduce cause and effect relationships where they do not exist.

Not surprisingly perhaps, those who believe strongly in conspiracies tend to show higher levels of anomie and paranoia. It is not just that they do not trust governments and official institutions. They are also less likely to trust their next-door neighbors and their colleagues at work. They tend to feel powerless, the victims of uncontrollable external forces, and it is arguably the case that belief in conspiracies gives them at least the illusion of control. Identifying an out-group as the cause of one’s misfortune — be it the government, the CIA, the Illuminati or whatever — means there is at least the possibility that this enemy can be defeated. It is also undeniably satisfying to believe that one is in possession of secret knowledge about the way things really are that others are either too stupid or ignorant to believe.

It should be noted that none of the psychologists engaged in this line of research would for one minute maintain that all conspiracy theories are false. A tiny minority of such theories do turn out to be true. The focus of this research is not upon whether any specific conspiracy theory is true or false, but instead upon trying to understand the factors that make such theories so easy to believe for so many people. A second focus is upon why some people are more drawn to believe in conspiracies, even entirely fictional or mutually contradictory ones, than others.

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