The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories
by Wayne McDonald
As a reader of the many essays here at World Mysteries.com, I have noticed that many of them deal with, at least in part, what are popularly known as conspiracy theories. The issue to be addressed in this essay will be why such theories seem to enjoy such popularity.
In its basic form a conspiracy theory involves the belief that some events or series of events are the result of a systematic, intentional, and usually covert attempt by the architects of the conspiracy to prevent certain facts from becoming public knowledge. The supposed end result of such conspiracies is practically always to promote the concentration of wealth or power in the hands of these conspirators or their “masters.”
Obviously, all conspiracy theories require that there be a “villain,” a group of “them,” who is responsible for a conspiracy which is invariably targeted at “us.” Beyond this requirement, “generic” conspiracy theories are usually “tailored” to specific conditions.
For our purposes, we can consider conspiracy theories to fall into one of three general categories: obstructive, oppressive, and deceptive.
An obstructive conspiracy theory proposes the existence of a conspiracy whose purpose is to prevent, or at least impede, some event from occurring. An example would be a supposed conspiracy involving “big oil” and the automotive industry to prevent the introduction of an automobile engine that could run on water.
Oppressive conspiracies are unique in that they purport to explain perceived social inequalities or perceived political disenfranchisement. This class of theories is based on the previously mentioned “them” engaged in an active conspiracy against “us.” There are many conspiracy theories of this class circulating in contemporary society. Some of the more widely-held oppressive conspiracy theories maintain that:
• The CIA and the Air Force concealed the fact that a “UFO” crashed near Roswell, NM and that several dead “aliens,” as well as valuable advanced technologies, were recovered from the crash site (and that some of these technologies have been used by the government against its citizens).
• The virus responsible for AIDS was created in a government laboratory and then deliberately released into the black and gay communities in order to rid society of “undesirables.”
• The CIA deliberately allowed, and in some cases was actively involved in, the importation of narcotics to be sold within inner-city neighborhoods.
Oppressive conspiracy theories are frequently used to both obtain and retain political or some other form of power. The well-documented invocation of numerous alleged conspiracies, as well as the recent anti-Semitic ranting, of former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney of Georgia’s 4th congressional district are examples of this tactic.1
A close relative of the oppressive theory is the deceptive conspiracy theory. Deceptive conspiracies are dedicated to presenting the illusion that the root cause of some social, economic, or political problem is something other than actual cause. The most notorious use of this tactic came in the early 1930s in Germany.
Germany was in social and economic chaos as a result of the repressive conditions set forth in the Treaty of Versailles which had essentially stripped Germany of its economic infrastructure. When the worldwide effects of the Great Depression were factored in, the desperate German people were willing to literally try anything. Adolph Hitler and the Nazi party, playing on the already widespread anti-Semitism of the era, blamed all of Germany’s problems on the Jews. It is not necessary to relate the tragic results of this particular conspiracy theory.
We may now turn our attention to the prevalence of contemporary belief in conspiracy theories as well as psycho-social factors that may contribute to such beliefs.
In 1992 sociologist Ted Goertzel2 surveyed 348 residents of southwestern New Jersey concerning their acceptance or rejection of 10 popular conspiracy theories, including the three mentioned above.3 The results of that survey regarding the three above-mentioned theories are summarized in Table 1.
|Alleged Conspiracy||Definitely True||Probably True||Don’t
|Probably False||Definitely False|
More recently, a national survey of 1,010 adults was conducted by Ohio University to determine the acceptance of various conspiracy theories related to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. This survey indicated that 36% of those surveyed believed it to be “‘very likely’ or ‘somewhat likely’ that federal officials either participated in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon or took no action to stop them.”4
Given the number of respondents who admit believing that the four above-mentioned conspiracy theories may be true, we may now examine the possible reasons behind why such a significant portion of the population hold such beliefs.
Goertzel identified three traits as being correlated with a belief in conspiracy theories:
- anomia, the respondent stated a belief that he/she felt alienated or disaffection relative to “the system;”
- a tendency to distrust other people; and
- a feeling of insecurity regarding continued employment.
Citing Volkan5, who suggested that insecure and/or discontented people very often feel a need for a tangible enemy on which to externalize their anger, Goertzel notes that conspiracy theories may serve to provide an “enemy” to blame for problems which “otherwise seem too abstract and impersonal.” He further observes that conspiracy theories also provide ready answers for the believer’s unanswered questions and help to resolve contradictions between known ‘facts’ and an individual’s belief system. The latter observation seems to be verified by the widespread acceptance within the Muslim world of the contention that the September 11 attacks were the work of Israel, in conjunction with the Bush Administration, in order to increase anti-Muslim sentiments abroad.6
Surprisingly, Goertzel found that there was no correlation between race, age, and economic status and the latter two traits. Although he did not suggest that the two latter traits mentioned above may be self-perpetuating (people who have experienced employment difficulties in the past may be more distrusting of others which, in turn, may lead to future interpersonal issues that can have a negative impact on employment), intuitive reasoning suggests that this could be possible.
In summary, I accept the published findings and opinions of Goertzel et al as being at least subjectively valid. Successful conspiracy theories are those that to some degree empower the believer against what are perceived as external forces that he/she blames for some unpleasant or undesirable facet of their lives. In addition conspiracy theories serve to absolve the individual of some degree of self-accountability since, if the individual is being “oppressed” by some powerful conspiracy, the individual’s efforts at self-advancement will always be futile and thus become nothing more than “a waste of time.” Sadly, it seems that conspiracy theories and their advocates are now deeply engrained in the popular psyche and without prospects for their ultimate refutation.
And, no, I’m not part of some conspiracy against conspiracy theories.
- Anti-Defamation League (2006): ADL Condemns Racist, Anti-Semitic Tirades at Rep. Cynthia McKinney’s Concession Speech. Press Release, Anti-Defamation League of the United States.” Available at http://www.adl.org/PresRele/ASUS_12/4869_12.htm , accessed June 12, 2007.
- Current affiliation: Department of Sociology, Rutgers University, Camden, NJ.
- Goertzel, Ted (1994): Belief in Conspiracy Theories, Political Psychology 15: 733-744).
Available at http://crab.rutgers.edu/~goertzel/conspire.doc , accessed June 11, 2007.
- Hargrove, Thomas (2006): Third of Americans Suspect 9-11 Government Conspiracy, Scripps Howard News Service. Available at http://www.scrippsnews.com/911poll , accessed June 13, 2007.
- Volkan, V: The Need to have Enemies and Allies. Northvale (NJ): Jason Aronson (1988).
- Anti-Defamation League (2006): “9/11 Anti-Semitic Conspiracy Theories Still Abound.” Press Release, Anti-Defamation League of the United States. Available at http://www.adl.org/main_Anti_Semitism_Domestic/9_11_conspiracy_theories.htm , accessed June 12, 2007.
© Wayne McDonald
All Rights Reserved.
Presented with Permission
PS1: The New World Disorder, why I don’t worry about World Government
This is kind of a generalist conspiracy theory post. There’s conspiracy theories about an incipient USA police state, North American Union government, world government, or some combination of the three. And as I’ve said before, no one has a crystal ball, and human history has gone down all sorts of unexpected and unlikely paths before … so pretty much anything is possible. That being said, here are some of the general reasons why I don’t lose any sleep over any of these albeit alarming possibilities.
The above image of a swastika shaped building is from Google Earth and I’m claiming it as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit and its use here in no conceivable way interferes with the copyright holder’s commercial use of the image. It’s the barracks for the navy Seals and as far as anyone can tell its shape was purely accidental. IE it’s a great shape to maximize window exposure and have some courtyards to boot, window exposure is important as it was built in the pre-air conditioner era in Coronado California. The Navy has taken so much criticism that they are going to spend over $600,000 to change the shape of the building so it no longer looks like a swastika from space. Yeah, that’s a good use of taxpayer’s money.
The first is the simple observation that global power and wealth is more concentrated than at any time in history, a tiny handful of families and corporations control the lion’s share of the world’s assetsd. Many of these families have been accumulating this wealth and power for centuries. When you are already King of the Hill, there’s no where else to go. IE the powers that be don’t need a police state to control us, they already control us through advertising and the “media.” This alone is the primary reason I don’t lose any sleep over incipient police states or such. It’s too late.
Secondly, there’s the problem of the essential practicality of such an undertaking. No matter how much technology the police state has at its disposal, sooner or that that information has to be filtered through human brains. IE there is a limit to what can be accomplished by trying to micromanage people’s lives from the centre somewhere. This is borne out by twentieth century experiments in same. The big three experiments along totalitarian lines, Nazi Germany, Mao’s China, and the USSR … all ended badly. That doesn’t mean someone won’t try, but even if they do, I think it’s doomed to failure. There is some limit to the size of a police state, and I don’t think it’s very high.
Thirdly, usually when someone wants to control the very lives of their subjects, it’s because there is ideology or personality involved. And by personality, I mean some central character with malignant narcissism like Hitler. Well, the powers that be in the west are diffuse enough that it seems unlikely that some single individual will be able to assume world wide (or even US wide) dictatorial powers. (The idea that Obama is going to be some sort of dictator doesn’t pass the laugh test.) And if there’s any real ideology to capitalism, I haven’t seen it. Greed, ambition, and lack of scruples isn’t an ideology. It’s a pathology, but I digress.
Lastly, I ‘ve been around for awhile. And I’ve been seeing the same recycled imminent police state theories since the mid seventies. Hell, they’ve been a literary genre since the end of World War Two. That alone should give people pause. It’s already 25 years after 1984, and there’s no world wide police state yet. It makes me think that a good argument can be made that this belief is part and parcel of the modern human experience, more myth than real possibility. The endless choices that face people in the modern world are bewildering, it’s not surprising that it’s easy to believe that some evil entity could control it all. Or some good entity, there is a striking morphological similarity between NWO conspiracy theories and belief in the second coming.
Which oddly enough leads me to the one situation where there is the possibility of an ideologically driven police state or even global police state. And that would be some sort of Evangelical Christian police state. Certainly not a new idea, it too as a conspiracy meme has been around since at least The Handmaid’s Tale. How likely is that? Damned if I know. I think my final observation, and again one I have made before under similar contexts, is that I think that people who worry about the unpleasant possibilities of a new world order are missing the point. We already have a very unpleasant situation where the rich are ever getting richer, let’s deal with the devil we have instead of the devil we might have.
Moving right along, I’ll post on the Ft. Sills massacre sometime soon, as is usually the case with something like this, I want to wait awhile for the facts to settle out of the dust. It’s pretty sickening though, both the act itself … and what some people have said in response. In fact the later is even more sickening in some ways. Jesus wept.
Have a great weekend everyone.
Source: Doug’s Darkworld
Doug’s Darkworld is a blog about war, mysteries, history, strange things, science, logic, photography, cosmology, paleontology, anthropology, current events, religion, propaganda, philosophy, psychology, sociology, ghosts, paranormal events, movies, astronomy, space exploration, metaphysics, foreign policy, propaganda, and whatever else strikes my fancy.
The High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) is an ionospheric research program jointly funded by the US Air Force, the US Navy, the University of Alaska and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)
The HAARP project directs a 3.6 MW signal, in the 2.8–10 MHz region of the HF [High Frequency] band, into the ionosphere. The signal may be pulsed or continuous. Then, effects of the transmission and any recovery period can be examined using associated instrumentation, including VHF and UHF radars, HF receivers, and optical cameras. According to the HAARP team, this will advance the study of basic natural processes that occur in the ionosphere under the natural but much stronger influence of solar interaction, as well as how the natural ionosphere affects radio signals. [ Perhaps this research is related to Tesla’s Death Ray and/or Wireless Energy experiments?].
This will enable scientists to develop techniques to mitigate these effects in order to improve the reliability and/or performance of communication and navigation systems, which would have a wide range of applications in both the civilian and military sectors, such as an increased accuracy of GPS navigation, and advancements in underwater and underground research and applications. This may lead to improved methods for submarine communication and the ability to remotely sense the mineral content of the terrestrial subsurface, among other things. One application would be to map out the underground complexes of countries. The current facility lacks the range to reach these countries, but the research could be used to develop a mobile platform.
HAARP is the subject of numerous conspiracy theories, with individuals ascribing various hidden motives and capabilities to the project. Journalist Sharon Weinberger called HAARP “the Moby Dick of conspiracy theories” and said the popularity of conspiracy theories often overshadows the benefits HAARP may provide to the scientific community.
The alleged dangers of HAARP were dramatized in popular culture by Marvel Comics, author Tom Clancy, and The X-Files. A Russian military journal wrote that ionospheric testing would “trigger a cascade of electrons that could flip Earth’s magnetic poles.” The European Parliament and the Alaska state legislature held hearings about HAARP, the former citing “environmental concerns.” Author of the self-published Angels Don’t Play This HAARP, Nick Begich has told lecture audiences that HAARP could trigger earthquakes and turn the upper atmosphere into a giant lens so that “the sky would literally appear to burn.”
A 2009 episode of The History Channel series That’s Impossible speculated that ionospheric heating from HAARP could theoretically cause localised atmospheric upcurrents that disrupt or “bend” the jet stream and influence regional weather patterns, prompting conspiracy theorists to connect changed weather patterns in the Atlantic Ocean during the 1980s as well as subsequent El Nino events with HAARP.
Conspiracy theorists have linked HAARP to numerous earthquakes. An opinion piece on a Venezuelan state-run television channel’s website named HAARP as a cause of the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
Skeptic computer scientist David Naiditch called HAARP “a magnet for conspiracy theorists”, saying the project has been blamed for triggering catastrophes such as floods, droughts, hurricanes, thunderstorms, and devastating earthquakes in Pakistan and the Philippines aimed to shake up “terrorists.” Naiditch says HAARP has been blamed for diverse events including major power outages, the downing of TWA Flight 800, Gulf War syndrome, and chronic fatigue syndrome. Conspiracy theorists have also suggested links between HAARP and the work of Nikola Tesla (particularly potential combinations of HAARP energy with Tesla’s work on pneumatic small-scale earthquake generation) and physicist Bernard Eastlund. According to Naiditch, HAARP is an attractive target for conspiracy theorists because “its purpose seems deeply mysterious to the scientifically uninformed”.
It’s theorized that HAARP has been around for many years, over 20, and that there are 20 such transmission stations throughout the world. They are located key electromagnetic points on the Earth.
You can read about the “end of the world” here:
and perhaps more truth than you want to know about it here:
and finally, a scientifically predicted phenomena, the fire from the sky which, as Nostradamus predicted, would cook the fish in the sea until the people will eat them since they have nothing else to eat (because of weather problems). http://www.youtube.com/watch?
Many feel, as do I, after reading and looking at research about the government, currently and for the past many years, has been beaming 1000 Gigawatts (so that in the atmosphere it ends up being 1 million watts), into the ionosphere, such that current weather patterns, the sudden occurrences of hundreds of thousands of animals, fish, “burnt” dolphins washing up onto shores, strange hurricanes etc, are all the result of HAARP.
Sent by Steve B. in response to our post: Mysterious Nazca-like Site near Dunhuang in China