Why Are We Holding on to Conspiracies So Much?

In the years since the assassination of JFK, the belief that Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t act alone has grown year on year, despite there not having been any new evidence for decades (Jolley & Douglas, 2014a). This is a conspiracy theory. In this post, Tom Kelly is going to explain what a conspiracy theory is, the impacts of conspiratorial belief and some speculation as to why we seem to be moving into a more conspiratorial world.

To start with the very obvious question: what is a conspiracy theory? In one sense you’ll know the kind of things I’m talking about: the belief that 9/11 was an inside job, holocaust denial, claiming the moon landings were faked and so on. But this kind of understanding is limited for a couple of key reasons: First, this puts conspiracism ‘in the eye of the beholder.’ It’s subjective. If I believe 9/11 was an inside job, that belief may be a conspiracy theory to others, but to me it’s just a thing I believe. Second, that kind of intuitive list isn’t operationalised, we can’t ‘do science’ on a list of theories and generalise beyond that list unless we find something that binds them.

Until quite recently I had a definition I was fairly happy with: Wood, Douglas and Sutton (2012) defined a conspiracy theory as ‘People or organisations working together, in secret, to accomplish some (usually) sinister goal.’ You need multiple individuals, secrecy and a goal. Nice and simple, catches pretty much any conspiracy you can think of. But, in my view, it has a problem and that problem is fairly major.

This definition, by taking the subjectivity out of what is a conspiracy theory, can put you in an absurd spot. Consider two beliefs ‘9/11 was an inside job lead by the CIA’ and ‘9/11 was conducted under the direction of Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda’. Both have groups working together, both are (or at least were) secret, both with the same goal. Using the Wood et al (2012) definition the only thing that makes one a conspiracy theory is that Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attack. If they hadn’t, both the official account and the conspiracy theory fit the same label.

What I’m getting at here is there’s something like an evidence gap. There’s some stuff out there that we have enough evidence to just say ‘it happened’. Moon landings, holocaust, Al-Qaeda being responsible for 9/11 etc. have happened, as there is a large volume of broadly accepted evidence. I’m suggesting at a certain point, something that was potentially a conspiracy theory becomes widely accepted enough we can say ‘it happened’ (Watergate and Iran-Contra are often cited in the literature). The perpetrators fessing up is illustrative, but not conclusive. Incidentally, those of you still paying attention will also have noticed I’ve basically invited some level of subjectivity back into my definition, which is hardly ideal either. But, overall, I think this is a better, albeit messy, compromise.

To give you a better idea of what I mean I’ll give you an example of a conspiracy theory that I think is vaguely plausible and therefore could, eventually, be ‘proven’. Most people agree that human caused climate change is happening (although some reject this as 97% of climate scientists colluding to secure funding). The possible conspiracy theory I am referring to is that the 3% aren’t universally acting in good faith. Some may have been bought by interested parties who want to corrupt the debate, and indeed cause uncertainty rather than let the scientific community form a consensus. This is to delay public pressure and government intervention which in turn could delay increased costs on companies or individuals who, frankly, would rather not pay up.

This – to be clear – is a conspiracy theory, whilst there is a fair amount of evidence, I can’t state ‘this is happening’. But I can say it’s possible, I may even believe it, but it’s still a conspiracy theory.

So, does that make me a conspiracy theorist…. Erm, I don’t know. If your definition is that you’re prepared to believe something you don’t ‘know’ to be true that involved secret groups working together, then most of us, perhaps all of us are ‘conspiracy theorists’. Indeed, Jane and Flamming quipped in 2014 ‘we’re all conspiracy theorists now’ (Jane & Flemming, 2014). But that’s evidently not all that useful as definitions go.

The problem here is I really don’t have an answer. To borrow from one Justice Potter Stewart ‘I don’t know who a conspiracy theorist is, but I know one when I see one.’ So now that we’ve gone in circles and largely learnt nothing more than ‘definitions are hard’, why on earth does anyone care?

Well thankfully this is a much easier question. For a start, conspiracy theories have some interesting interesting logical properties. It’s been long established that people who endorse one conspiratorial belief tend to endorse several (Goertzel, 1994). But why?

Well, there are at least two explanations. First, the supposed actors in many conspiracies (let’s just use the moon landings and man-made climate change hoax as examples) are the same. The USA government, NASA, associated scientists, possibly the media. Second, they’d also need to do similar things to fake both events: doctored satellite images for instance. So, if you get enough evidence, you’re willing to say the moon landings were faked, you already have loads of evidence that climate change is a fake too.

This ‘logical’ conspiracy belief is challenged by the previously mentioned paper by Wood et al. They found (believe it or not) among some participants that the more you thought Princess Diana faked her own death, the more likely you were to think MI6 assassinated her. Likewise, the more participants thought Osama Bin Laden survived the raid on his compound in Pakistan, the more likely they believed that he had been dead for years. Both Diana and Bin Laden were (seemingly) alive and dead. The proposed explanation for this finding is that it’s less about actions and more about narrative. Provided ‘you are being lied to’ is the main narrative, the paper suggests that you don’t really think too much about how you’re being lied to. On the one hand we have ‘logical’ conspiracy beliefs and on the other a pretty clearly ‘illogical’ fixation with narrative.

But it’s not just the content of conspiratorial belief that is, frankly, a bit weird. Belief in and exposure to conspiracy theories has been linked to a list of disinclinations including to vote (Jolley & Douglas, 2014a), to support charity (van der Linden, 2015), to reduce carbon footprints (Jolley & Douglas, 2014a), to believe in both climate science and science in general (Lewandowsky, Oberauer & Gignac, 2013) and to vaccinate (Jolley & Douglas, 2014b). It’s an oversimplification to say conspiracy belief is exclusively associated with bad societal outcomes, but there is evidence their spread is troubling to society as a whole. The eventual net consequence to society of numerous small changes in individual behaviour could be profound. There’s also deeply troubling, if anecdotal, links between exposure to conspiracy theories and real-world violence. Those who perpetrate mass shootings often seem to justify their actions based on highly conspiratorial world views.

It’s here that technology comes in. Historically, there were obvious limits, or at least bottlenecks, in the spread of information both accurate and otherwise. Year on year, these bottlenecks are being removed. The internet has given us tools to find people like us, who think like us, believe like us and we can communicate with them more easily than ever before. Bigger networks leads to more Echo chambers and more extreme beliefs (Madsen, Bailey & Pilditch, 2018). This is before we start talking about what I’ll crudely call confirmatory algorithms in social media. These algorithms use what the technology companies know about us to show us information that we already agree with. Technology is telling us what we want to hear having given us the tools to hear anything we want.

In this kind of environment, we’re able to access any and every conspiracy theory, and when we find someone we like or something we like, our technology will show us more and more and more of it. We can then spread it among friends, virtual and otherwise, who will in turn do the same. Although technology may not be the cause of a growth in conspiracism, it can’t help but amplify and spread conspiratorial thinking. Given the association between conspiracism and bad social outcomes, this is an issue the literature, our politicians and indeed the technology companies need to get ahead of.

This leads to one of the most interesting developments in the recent study of conspiracy theories, albeit political rather than academic. Until recently there was little apparent need for the most powerful men in the world to propagate conspiratorial views. Why? Well, usually, people in positions of power either didn’t say things they couldn’t evidence or acquired evidence before making a statement. Big important note: This is not to suggest they were always or were even ever honest, but there was at least a passing interest in trying to premise one’s arguments on evidence. With its ‘alternative facts’ and concerns about ‘the deep state’ or allegations of ‘millions’ of illegal Clinton voters, the Trump administration seems to be leading the western hemisphere into a brave new world.

The motivations for and the consequences of this new political reality are way beyond the scope of this blog post. However, we now have multiple senior politicians (Trump is just highly salient) across numerous countries propagating and disseminating conspiracy theories. National governments are not solely in the business of confronting conspiracy theories, and, possibly, covering up their own involvement in conspiracies. Rather, politicians seem to be willing to push them as a political tool. One way or another perhaps we really are all conspiracy theorists now.

References Goertzel, T. (1994). Belief in Conspiracy Theories. Political Psychology, 15(4), 731. doi: 10.2307/3791630

Jane, E., & Flemming, C. (2014). We’re all conspiracy theorists now – even our lizard overlords. Retrieved 6 November 2019, from https://theconversation.com/were-all-conspiracy-theorists-now-even-our-lizard-overlords-33933

Jolley, D., & Douglas, K. (2014b). The Effects of Anti-Vaccine Conspiracy Theories on Vaccination Intentions. Plos ONE, 9(2), e89177. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0089177

Jolley, D., & Douglas, K. (2014a). The social consequences of conspiracism: Exposure to conspiracy theories decreases intentions to engage in politics and to reduce one's carbon footprint. British Journal Of Psychology, 105(1), 35-56. doi: 10.1111/bjop.12018

Lewandowsky, S., Oberauer, K., & Gignac, G. (2013). NASA Faked the Moon Landing—Therefore, (Climate) Science Is a Hoax. Psychological Science, 24(5), 622-633. doi: 10.1177/0956797612457686

Madsen, J., Bailey, R., & Pilditch, T. (2018). Large networks of rational agents form persistent echo chambers. Scientific Reports, 8(1). doi: 10.1038/s41598-018-25558-7

van der Linden, S. (2015). The conspiracy-effect: Exposure to conspiracy theories (about global warming) decreases pro-social behavior and science acceptance. Personality And Individual Differences, 87, 171-173. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2015.07.045

Wood, M., Douglas, K., & Sutton, R. (2012). Dead and Alive: Beliefs in Contradictory Conspiracy Theories. Social Psychological And Personality Science, 3(6), 767-773. doi: 10.1177/1948550611434786

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