July 25, 2014
Ah, the allure of a good conspiracy theory. Who was behind the assassination of John F. Kennedy? Did the US government know about 9/11 before it happened? Are there aliens living among us? Has anyone ever actually been to the moon? (My friend, Robin Shipp, hates it when I bring this up!)
According to Rasmussen’s latest poll, fewer than half of Americans (45%) feel certain that JFK was shot by just one person. The same poll indicates that 24% of Americans believe that the US government knew about the September 11, 2001 attacks before they happened and did nothing to prevent them. About the same number (23%) believe that President Barak Obama wasn’t born in the United States.
But conspiracy theorists don’t just live in the US. No, they are everywhere. Iran has been floating a theory that says that ISIS, the militant group that has taken over vast parts of Iraq and Syria, is really a plot by the US, Britain and Israel to destabilize the region.
And the latest conspiracy theory from Russian media indicates that it wasn’t Russia or pro-Russian Ukrainian militants that shot down flight MH17. It was the Ukrainian government with the help of the CIA who were responsible. Another theory suggests that the downing of the Malaysian flight was an assassination attempt on Vladimir Putin.
The list of conspiracy theories could go on and on. But here is my question. WHY are people so attracted to the idea of a conspiracy theory. Obviously there are huge trust issues. We – and I’m talking about humanity in general – have been deceived and lied to before by governments, corporations and the media. Things, it turns out, aren’t always as they seem. But even when facts are sorted out, there are still those who are willing to believe in conspiracy theories and reject the stated and valid reasons behind various events. Here are three possible reasons why otherwise rational people might gravitate towards a good ol’ conspiracy theory:
1.) The Hook Factor. Apparently, if you’ve ever believed in one conspiracy, you are more likely to believe in others, says Viren Swami, professor of psychology at the University of Westminster in the UK. Once the idea of a conspiracy makes sense to you, it’s a hard habit to break. In fact, Psychology Today says that just being exposed to conspiracy theory literature increases the likelihood that you’ll become a believer. That’s a scary thought – we seem to be really easily manipulated by information, no matter where it comes from.
2.) The “I’m Not Part of the Inside Group” Factor: The same Psychology Today article says that people who are not involved with their civil society are more likely to be swayed by conspiracy theories. The idea behind it is that people who are uninvolved in their nation, state or community try to make up for that feeing of exclusion by endorsing bizarre theories.
3.) The “Let’s Blame a Foreigner” Factor: It couldn’t be us! We’re the “good guys.” So in order to explain bad behavior or unthinkable circumstances, it becomes easier if we blame some outside force. So it must be the Communists, or the Illuminate, the Canadians or anyone who is NOT us. Blaming foreigners (anyone who is different than you in nationality, religion or ideology) can include accusing others for inciting social unrest, attempts to overthrow governments, cross-border violence (you started it first!!) and even the outcome of soccer games. It helps people sleep better at night…
I guess the overriding attraction of any conspiracy theory is a desire to connect the dots and make sense of the world. Shadowy figures pulling global strings and controlling the world seems to be preferable – at least for some – than not knowing or understanding the real complexities of what’s going on and what it means. There is no doubt that the internet, Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media are contributing to the idea of conspiracy theories. Media bias, cherry-picked stories and outright lies from governments don’t help. Instead of the hard work of sorting out facts and context, a tidy conspiracy seems appealing.
It used to be said that when information was scarce, conspiracy theories grew. While there is some truth to this, I believe that even when there is much information, conspiracy theories continue to grow. Quantity of information is no guarantee of truth. Even with limitless sources of information, questions and doubts linger. I guess the biblical passage of 2 Timothy 3:7 is proving true…as it predicts that in the last days, people will be “always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth.”