I have often dealt in my blog with people who believe in conspiracy theories. These are individuals such as those who claim the Earth is flat and that the moon landing never happened; those who claim that the World Trade Center buildings on 911 were brought down by explosive charges and not by fires; those who claim that vaccines cause autism; those who claim that climate change isn’t real and the evidence for it is forged or altered by scientists and politicians trying to take away people’s rights and spread socialism; those who claim that the teaching of evolution is part of a conspiracy to attack religion and inject atheism into schools; or those who claim that the condensation trails left behind by flying jets are the result of the government spraying chemicals at high altitude.
Why do people believe in conspiracy theories? What does science have to say about this matter?
The belief in conspiracy theories has only become an important area of scientific investigation in the last two decades, but scientists have made many interesting observations and proposed hypotheses about the dynamics of the process as well as those who engage in it. The research so far indicates that, despite the great diversity of conspiracy theories, the belief in them arises as a result of the same underlying and predictable psychological processes. If an individual believes in one conspiracy theory, it is very likely that this individual will believe in other conspiracy theories even if these theories are mutually contradictory. Additionally, the belief in conspiracy theories can be greatly influenced by social context. Situations that lead to crisis in a society, such as wars, natural disasters or rapid social change, or situations that lead to individuals or groups of people feeling powerless, vulnerable, or victimized, will increase the belief in conspiracy theories.
The belief in conspiracy theories has been proposed to conform to four basic principles:
1) Belief in conspiracy theories has consequences. These consequences may be mostly negative affecting things like health, interpersonal relations, and safety of individuals or groups of individuals, but conspiracy beliefs can also fuel social change in societies, with the nature of the outcome being dependent on the type of change brought about.
2) Belief in conspiracy theories is universal. This means that belief in conspiracy theories is prevalent in all human cultures and is also found both in the present and the past. This suggests that belief in conspiracy theories is part of our biology and may have arisen through natural selection. The hypothesis has been proposed that in ancient hunter-gatherer societies, conspirational thinking was actually an advantage for individuals who faced intergroup conflict and aggression from other individuals who formed coalitions.
3) Belief in conspiracy theories is social, because it results in the upholding of a strong ingroup identity and the protection of this ingroup against some outgroup that is perceived to be hostile. It has been found that people who are likely to perceive their ingroup as superior, and to perceive outgroups as threatening, are more prone to belief in conspiracy theories.
4) Belief in conspiracy theories is emotional. Despite the fact that many conspiracy theories are underpinned by elaborate arguments, the evidence indicates that believers in conspiracy theories rely more on emotional and intuitive rather than analytical thinking. This may be the reason why belief in conspiracy theories can be triggered by strong emotional stimuli that produce anxiety, uncertainly, and feelings of lack of control.
The belief in conspiracy theories has been proposed to be driven by three psychological motives:
1) Epistemic Motives: These motives involve the need to reduce uncertainty by finding explanations when information is ambiguous or lacking; the need to find meaning when faced with seemingly random events; or the need to defend beliefs when they are challenged.
2) Existential Motives: These motives involve the need for individuals or groups to feel safe and in control of their environment.
3) Social Motives: These motives involve the need to maintain a positive image of oneself or of one’s ingroup. The belief in conspiracy theories may allow the individual or the group to deal with a threat to the positive image of the self or of the group by blaming others for negative outcomes.
As I explained at the beginning of this post, research into conspiracy theories is an emerging scientific field, so we need to give scientists time to gather more evidence and put to test the relevant hypotheses before we can come up with a definite theory regarding the how and why of conspiracy theories and their believers. But one of the things that I found interesting is the idea that conspirational behavior, far from being a pathology, may actually be part of our biology and may serve (or may have served) some useful purpose in our evolutionary history. This means that every one of us is capable of displaying this behavior, even without being conscious of it.
Regardless of whether conspirational thinking may be a product or our biology and serve several purposes as outlined above, I would argue that in the cases where conspiracy theories do not match reality (which is the majority), the long-term effects of leading a life divorced from said reality cannot be positive. I believe this is especially true nowadays in the age of the internet when believers in conspiracy theories band together and form networks of like-minded individuals with their own websites, and chatrooms. Such groups are easily identifiable by those who want to infiltrate their communities and exploit them.
Believers in conspiracy theories tend to view with distrust people like me who disagree with them publicly, but I think the real threat to these groups are those who agree with them in order to prod them towards some action. I have already outlined a step by step procedure by which anyone can sell snake oil. In my opinion, believers in conspiracy theories are highly vulnerable to snake oil salesmanship. This exploitation of conspiracy theory believers by unscrupulous individuals or organizations has taken place, and will continue taking place, because conspiracy theory groups tend to insulate themselves from those who are most likely in the position to help them, which in this case are those who disagree with them.
Such is the complexity of the human mind.
Photograph by Damon D'Amato is used here under an Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.
Marylyn vos Savant is an American writer who was recognized by the folks at Guinness World Records to be the person with the highest IQ in the world before that category was eliminated from their world record groupings in 1990. Marylyn writes a weekly column for the magazine Parade, where, among other things, she solves puzzles and answers questions that her readers send to her. In 1990, one reader sent her a puzzle (named the Monty Hall Puzzle after a Canadian-American game show host) that involved a game show where you are given a choice between 3 doors. Behind one door is a car, and behind the other 2 doors there are goats. You pick one door, and the game show host proceeds to open one of the remaining 2 doors revealing a goat. The game show host then asks you if you want to switch your original selection to the other remaining door. The question is: is it to your advantage to switch your choice of doors?
Marylyn replied in a very matter of fact way that the answer is “Yes, you should switch”. If you keep your original choice, the odds of winning the car are 1/3, but if you switch, the odds of winning the car are 2/3. This ignited a firestorm among her readers which included quite a number of scientists. She received thousands of letters telling her that there is no advantage in switching because, as there are 2 doors left, one with a goat and the other with a car, the probability of winning the car is 1/2. Of those that wrote letters to her, only 8% of the general public and 35% of scientists thought she was right. Marylyn wrote another column maintaining she indeed was right and tried to explain her reasoning, but to no avail. The insults started coming in. Many laypeople and scientists (including mathematicians and statisticians from prestigious research centers in the country) lectured her on probability and berated her intellect, some even suggesting that maybe women think about statistics differently.
In response Marylin wrote a another column asking for a nationwide experiment to be carried out in math classes and labs, in essence reproducing the problem using 3 cups and a penny. After this she was vindicated. The experiment she suggested along with simulations performed using computers, proved that she was indeed correct, and many former skeptics wrote letters of contrition apologizing for insulting her. By the time she published her last column on the subject, 56% percent of the general public and 71% of scientists (the majority) accepted that she was right.
The process outlined above, displayed an initial phase of skepticism, followed by a second phase of analysis and corroboration of the claim. However, the case of the puzzle is clear cut. There is no ambiguity. Everyone could perform the experiment and convince themselves of the truth (there are even online sites that allow you to do this now). And yet, despite this, there were still a significant percentage of individuals who did not accept Marylyn’s conclusion.
The two phases mentioned above are also seen in the acceptance of counterintuitive scientific theories, although the complexity of the analyses is much greater and not accessible to everyone, and the opposition from the skeptics is much stronger. This is especially true in some dramatic situations involving science where the debate spreads into the social and political realms spanning conspiracy theories. One such case is the conspiracy theory that states that the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers after the attacks of 911 was produced by demolition charges and not as a direct result of the attacks. Among the buildings that collapsed, the case of Building 7 became a lightning rod for the conspiracy theorists because of the way it was damaged and the way it fell.
Building 7 was one of the buildings in the World Trade center complex. It was not targeted by the terrorists, but rather when the World Trade Center Towers collapsed, this inactivated the pipes carrying water to the sprinkler system of Building 7, and burning debris from the towers ignited fires within the offices. The fires burned for several hours, and then Building 7 collapsed in a manner that reminded both laypeople and experts of a controlled demolition. Additionally, at this time the collapse of a steel frame building such as Building 7 was unheard of. This, along with a series of interpretations of actions and communications taking place that day, led a large number of people to express skepticism that Building 7 could have collapsed due to the fire.
The above state of affairs represented the initial phase of what happens when people are confronted by something that counters their sense of how things should work. Skepticism in this phase is a reasonable reaction to the information being received.
Among the several investigations conducted after 911, the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) conducted a thorough 3 year investigation that explained why building 7 collapsed in a manner reminiscent of a controlled demolition. In doing this they discovered a new type of progressive collapse which accounted for the collapse of the building which they dubbed fire-induced progressive collapse. Using simulations, they conclusively explained how a steel frame building such as Building 7 could be brought down by fires, and they ruled out other explanations. Some reasonable skeptics were still left unconvinced because, after all, no steel frame building had ever collapsed due to fire alone. However, this changed when the Plasco High-Rise building in Tehran (a steel frame building like Building 7) collapsed as a result of a fire in 2017. A very clear explanation of the above facts is presented by Edward Current in the video below.
Because of this and other investigations, the scientific community today accepts the explanation that Building 7 collapsed due to fire. This was the second phase where facts were gathered, research was carried out, and the issues were explained to the satisfaction of the majority. This is not to say that there aren’t some holdouts. For example the Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth is a group that has still refuses to accept these conclusions, and in their website they boast of having 3,141 plus architects and engineers that still espouse skepticism of the accepted explanation. However, considering there were 113,554 licensed architects in the US in 2017 and 1.6 million employed engineers in the US in 2015, you can see that these individuals represent just a minority of their professions that still cling to an irrational skepticism that is unwarranted.
Such is the resistance some human beings display to accepting counterintuitive facts, whether they are the solutions to a fun puzzle or the explanations behind world changing events.
The Monty Hall Problem image by Cepheus is in the public domain.