Where Do Conspiracy Theories Come From?

Conspiracy theories are seemingly everywhere these days By their very nature, conspiracy theories are unproven, but that has not hurt their popularity

A study by University of Chicago political science professors Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood showed that, in any given year, about half of Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory But why do they believe? Where do conspiracy theories come from? The Oxford Dictionary defines the term “conspiracy theory” as “A belief that some covert but influential organisation is responsible for an unexplained event” Professor Jan-Willem van Prooijen expands the definition to specify the belief that ""a group of actors is colluding in secret in order to reach goals that are considered evil or malevolent"" A common accusation in the media and politics is that such conspiracy theories are a product of the unfettered, unaccountable communicative power of the Internet However, a study by Professor Marvin Zonis and Craig Joseph found “[there is] little evidence for the proposition that conspiracy theories are unique to our digital age”

Indeed, Zonis and Joseph’s 1994 study concluded that “[There is] substantial conspiracy theorising among citizens around the world” and “a tendency to believe in conspiracy theories is part of human nature” However, Professor van Prooijen says that research into the origins and perpetuation of conspiracy theories only seriously began in 2011 Unsurprisingly, those studies have confirmed the ubiquity and longevity of conspiracy theories For instance, a 2017 psychological study by van Prooijen and Karen Douglas found that “belief in conspiracy theories has been prevalent throughout human history” As proof, they quote a 2014 study by political scientists Joseph Uscinski and Joe Parent

They randomly selected 104,803 published letters sent to the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune between 1890 and 2010 A surprising number of these letters alluded to conspiracy theories, and the extent to which these letters contained conspiracy theories did not increase over time Moreover, Jan-Willem van Prooijen and Karen Douglas confirm that, “after being formed, conspiracy theories can become part of lay representations of history and are transmitted to new generations as coherent narratives” Scientists think they know why According to Doctor David Ludden, conspiracy theories propagate because “Seeking explanations for events is a natural human desire

We’re constantly asking why things happen the way they do We also quickly find answers to those questions — not necessarily the true answers” This is because “people have a fundamental need to understand why events occurred, particularly in the case of negative or unexpected events” Karen Douglas calls such extreme events “societal crisis situations” and defines them as “impactful and rapid societal change that calls established power structures, norms of conduct, or even the existence of specific people or groups into question” They include political assassinations, terror attacks and widespread technological changes

Douglas’ study found that throughout history, crisis events “have stimulated belief in conspiracy theories” Psychology professor Christopher French explains, “The real-world events that… become the subject of conspiracy theories tend to be intrinsically complex and unclear” In other words, conspiracy theories “serve an important psychological function for people trying to cope with large, stressful events like a terrorist attack” Professor van Prooijen’s study reveals that ""People don’t like it when things are really random Randomness is more threatening than having an enemy

You can prepare for an enemy, you can’t prepare for coincidences"" Professor Eric Oliver says people who rely on their intuition over analytical thinking are more likely to accept conspiracy theories ""They go with their gut feelings They’re very susceptible to symbols and metaphors"" Consequently, van Prooijen says people ""need to blame the anxiety that they feel on different groups and the result is frequently conspiracy theories

"" Moreover, conspiracy theories are easily formed because humans have a highly evolved ability to draw conclusions and predict consequences based on sensory data and observation of the world around them The risk of this innate ability is that it can lead to oversimplification and misperception through what psychologists call ""cognitive bias” Psychologists argue that three particular biases influence the formation of conspiracy theories The first is confirmation bias: people are more willing to accept explanations that fit what they already believe Then there is proportionality bias: our tendency to believe that big events must have big causes

Finally, there is our susceptibility to perceiving illusory patterns We naturally see causal relations where there may not really be any A 2017 study suggests that people with greater knowledge of news media are less likely to believe conspiracy theories Stephanie Craft, professor of journalism at the University of Illinois, says, “It’s significant that knowledge about the news media — not beliefs about it, but knowledge of basic facts about structure, content and effects — is associated with less likelihood one will fall prey to a conspiracy theory, even a theory that is in line with one’s political ideology” Indeed, Doctor Ludden says it is no coincidence that people who feel socially marginalised are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories

Research shows such people lack a sense of security in their lives Conspiracy theories can give them a sense of control over their situation, and the feeling they possess privileged knowledge Professor Roland Imhoff agrees He says, “Seeing evil plots behind virtually any world event is not only an effort to make sense of the world It can also be gratifying in and of itself: It grants one the allure of exclusive knowledge that sets one apart from the sleeping sheep” At the same time, journalist William Cummings observes that “Conspiracy theorists can be conservative, liberal or any other political stripe — male or female, rich or poor, well educated or not” Professor French summarises, “As a species, one of our greatest strengths is our ability to find meaningful patterns in the world around us and to make causal inferences

We sometimes, however, see patterns and causal connections that are not there, especially when we feel that events are beyond our control… The crux of the matter is that conspiracists are not really sure what the true explanation of an event is – they are simply certain that the ‘official story’ is a cover-up” Professor van Prooijen characterises conspiracy theories as a ""form of belief"" He says, ""It doesn’t matter how much evidence to the contrary you raise… It’s very easy to dismiss evidence as being part of the conspiracy, being part of the coverup So it’s very hard to disprove a conspiracy theory"" All these psychological and sociological studies have concentrated on the fact that conspiracy theories are, by definition, unproven

However, they have not investigated the impact of confirmed conspiracies, that were and are very real In law, a conspiracy is a crime defined as “An agreement between two or more people to commit an illegal act, along with an intent to achieve the agreement's goal” Throughout history, there have been many significant secret plots Judas accepted the High Priests’ bribe to betray Jesus; Catholic rebels tried to blow up Britain’s Parliament; French military officers framed a Jewish soldier as a spy to save one of their own; Serbian revolutionaries assassinated the heir to the Austrian throne; the CIA tested LSD on unwitting US

citizens; President Nixon tried to cover up the Watergate break-in; the Reagan administration sold arms to Iran to illegally fund the Contra rebels in Nicaragua The list is endless Although scientists have yet to study the sociological impacts of these events on the public consciousness, it seems very probable – almost certain – that people are inclined to find conspiracy theories credible because governments and secret groups have repeatedly tried and succeeded in nefarious schemes That does not mean all conspiracy theories should be believed It certainly does not mean that conspiracy theorists are never wrong, or should go unchallenged

It means that conspiring is part of human nature Science shows that conspiracy theories are a very human way of interpreting the events of history Conspiracy theorists can come from any walk of life Certain people are drawn to believe more than others – especially those who feel marginalised and powerless But anyone who invents or investigates a conspiracy theory has a reason to do so: because the worst of humanity has carried out conspiracy plots throughout history

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