Conspiracies, Conspiracy Theories, and Conspiracy Theorists
Everybody has secrets. We all have aspects of our lives that we don’t want others to know about. The problem with secrets is that they are only secret when they are kept secret, and there is sometimes a temptation to share the secret with someone. When we tell our secrets to someone, we ask that person to become part of a conspiracy and not share the secrets with anyone else. If a conspiracy is defined this simply, there are many millions of conspiracies on the planet at any given time. The fundamental problem with secrets and conspiracies is that they are undermined by the most common human activities: story-telling and gossip. A storyteller is granted additional credence if the story reveals a secret. And the more people that know a secret, the more likely it is that someone will reveal the secret to someone who should not know the secret. So most conspiracies unravel because of the human love of gossip.
However conspiracy theorists do not believe that secrets are hard to keep. Conspiracy theorists are those who passionately theorize that successful long term conspiracies exist. A conspiracy theory presents ‘facts’ that explain how and why the conspiracy exists. These presumed conspiracies are not just ordinary secrets; they involve plans to engage in some major immoral, unethical, illegal sequence of behaviors that will harm others. Conspiracy theorists view conspirators as different from the rest of us. According to conspiracy theorists, conspirators do not succumb to the weakness of gossip or doubt. They can keep secrets forever, and therefore conspiracies can go on forever. Theorists further believe that the conspirators weave elaborate lies about their evil goals and their complicated plans, and that everyone else is gullible enough to believe these lies, except the theorists themselves, of course.
Conspiracy theories can be dangerous. Conspiracy theories can easily become propaganda (lies) in the hands of the unscrupulous. The world’s oldest conspiracy theory concerns the Elders of Zion. According to this theory there is a hidden group of Jewish elders who are secretly and successfully extending their control over all aspects of human life. This theory has been a building block of anti-Semitism in Czarist and Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, many Arab countries, and various extremist hate groups at both ends of the political spectrum. Another dangerous conspiracy theory purports that the 9/11 attacks were an inside job perpetrated by various United States government agencies. Polling indicates that forty percent of Americans believe this theory!
Why do people believe in conspiracy theories? First, we humans have cognitive biases that make believing in conspiracy theories easy. We have a tendency to see patterns where none exist, and we interpret new information and recall old information in ways that confirm our already-held expectations and beliefs. Second, conspiracy theorists have strong animosity toward the institutions that dominate our culture, such as corporations, universities, the government, the media and the military. And they tend to feel that they have very little personal control over their own lives; this combination creates psychological vulnerability and paranoia. Research conducted over the last several decades indicates rising American anxiety about the increasing lack of control in their lives. In essence conspiracy theories allow people to blame their less-than-optimal personal circumstances on mysterious powerful secret groups.
And now, at a time when the Internet encourages fake news and high speed rumor spreading, we have a conspiracy theorist President. Having a President who believes in conspiracy theories will unfortunately encourage more Americans to believe in conspiracy theories. The timing of this could not be worse. Americans need to have faith in our basic institutions, which means believing that the people who run and staff these institutions are not conspirators, but simply imperfect humans trying to do their best to serve their constituents and the public.
Anthony Stahelski, is a a professor of psychology at Central Washington University in Ellensburg Washington. He can be reached at [email protected]
graphic via shutterstock.com