Do you know Paul McCartney died in 1966 and has a body double? Or really, that The Beatles never existed? Birds aren’t real. The world is flat. The Queen is a lizard. The earth is hollow. Planes leave chemtrails and they are poisoning us. Katy Perry is JonBenet Ramsey. The Hadron Collider could open a portal to hell if it hasn’t done so already. Prince Charles is a vampire. Pokemon Go is a government intelligence and surveillance app. Tupac faked his death and is still alive. As did Elvis. Stevie Wonder isn’t blind. The US government can control the weather. Big Pharma has a cure for cancer but won’t tell us. Emily Bronte’s brother actually wrote Wuthering Heights. We’re living in a simulation. Historical dates are altered by the Pope. 9/11 was a controlled demolition. One day is actually four days happening all at once. The author of Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll, was Jack the Ripper. The moon landings were faked and the film of the landing was directed by Stanley Kubrick. But actually the moon doesn’t actually exist. Micheal Jackson is actually La Toya Jackson. The CIA created HIV/Aids. Aliens built Stonehenge. Sir Francis Bacon actually wrote some of Shakespeare’s plays. JFK’s assassination was an inside job. Denver International Airport is the hub for the Illuminati. Disney’s Frozen was named Frozen to frustrate people looking for information about Walt Disney himself being cryogenically frozen. And Finland doesn’t exist.
Let’s talk about conspiracy theories this week.
Let’s start off with some definitions. The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of ‘conspiracy theory’ is “the theory that an event or phenomenon occurs as a result of a conspiracy between interested parties; spec. a belief that some covert but influential agency (typically political in motivation and oppressive in intent) is responsible for an unexplained event”.
The phrase “conspiracy theory’ was first used in the The American Historical Review in 1909, although could have been considered to exist since the early 19th century. It only really became common and well used in the mid-1960s.
There are different types of conspiracy theory and a good example of the different kinds come from Jesse Walker’s 2013 work – The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory. He identified five types:
- The Enemy Outside – theories based on people from outside a group scheming to affect those within that group.
- The Enemy Within – conspirators who are indistinguishable from everyday and ordinary citizens.
- The Enemy Above – powerful people manipulating their surroundings for their own personal/collective gain.
- The Enemy Below – Less powerful, or lower class people seeking to flip social order.
- The Benevolent Conspiracies – Angelic forces seeking to help people and improve the world.
So that’s outsiders, insiders, the powerful, the not powerful and the benevolent.
But why do people believe them?
Conspiracy theories used to be the preserve of those on the fringes of society, but recently, they have become more and more commonplace Perhaps this is exacerbated by people like, pffft, I don’t know – a certain president who looks like a wotsit, really enjoys twitter and makes ridiculous accusations about birth certificates? Or popular YouTubers who make videos about pizza. It’s no news that invention of the internet has assisted the spread of misinformation. In fact misinformation has never been so easily accessible.
University of London Professor Chris French notes that conspiracy theories aren’t the preserve of middle aged men living in their mothers basements anymore but rather the data that exists on who believes in them or not glides right across social class, age and gender. He, and many others, theorise that the reason why people believe in them is because people, naturally, enjoy order, patterns and things that are regular in nature. We are creatures of habit and we like routine. Just think about how frustrated we become when something doesn’t work the way it should, the TV remote, a road diversion, a cancelled flight.
So when our order, patterns and regularities are altered, even a tiny bit, we easily recognise it and sometimes we overthink why it has happened. We overthink it into having a significance when realistically there isn’t any.
We also question why it has happened. And you know what happens when we have a question? You want an answer, you want it quickly and you want it to satisfy you. Sometimes that answer isn’t true but that is the answer that is available. Sometimes that answer is that someone or something made it happen.
To make this worse, we all think that we are good people so we struggle with understanding how bad or tragic things happen. It’s hard for us to believe that someone could walk into a school with a gun, fly a plane into a building, or kill someone on the street without there being a higher power above them ordering it to happen.
Uncertainty is an unpleasant state for our little caveman brains. We don’t handle it well. Conspiracy theories give you a sense of understanding and a comforting certainty.
We all have an in built desire to maintain a positive self-image. Most people achieve that through work, family, friends, hobbies, groups they participate in. But some people can’t or don’t engage in those kind of things so they can feel excluded. Conspiracy theories offer a community of their own where people who believe them can feel welcome – bolstering a positive self image.
So we have pretty much gone through the three reasons that research concludes why people believe in conspiracy theories – the desires for understanding and certainty, the desire for control and security and the desire to maintain a positive self-image.
But do conspiracy theories actually satisfy those desires? Obviously there has been research on this that involved college students exposed to such theories. They ended up showing higher levels of insecurity but as such a group has little motivation to believe in them in the first place – we can’t rely on this has heavy evidence.
There are real world effects to conspiracy theories. Viren Swarmi, a social psychology professor is quoted as saying “It’s increasingly becoming clear that lots and lots of people believe in them, and they have negative outcomes”. We can only look at the massive measles outbreaks that have clearly stemmed from a very dangerous misbelief that that vaccines cause autism.
So that’s our hot take on conspiracy theories. What are your favourites? Why do you think people believe them? What would be the most bananas one to be true?
Oh, before we sign off – Epstein didn’t kill himself.
Popular Mechanics – https://www.popularmechanics.com/culture/g29365567/conspiracy-theories/
Vulture – https://www.vulture.com/2016/10/pop-culture-conspiracy-theories-c-v-r.html
Time – https://time.com/5541411/conspiracy-theories-domestic-terrorism/
Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conspiracy_theory
BBC – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-47144738
Psychology Today – https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/talking-apes/201801/why-do-people-believe-in-conspiracy-theories