Why So Many People Believe In Conspiracy Theories
Have you ever felt unsatisfied with the explanation of a strange event? Find out why we often come up with and believe conspiracy theories.
Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you.
- Joseph Heller, Catch-22 An intriguing new political science study reveals that around half of the American public believes in one or more conspiracy theories. According to the authors, the findings go a long way to explaining the country's current political culture.
As Julian Huguet explores in today's DNews report, scientists have been studying the phenomenon of the conspiracy theory for a long time. While it's no secret that huge numbers of people subscribe to them, there may be specific psychological, biological and even mathematical reasons why.
First the biology: Studies have shown that when confronted with frightening events, the brain's amygdalae -- the part that processes fear -- prompts the rest of the brain to start looking for answers. We're hardwired to look for patterns or other information that will help us assess the situation and make a plan.
With big and baffling problems, however, the brain runs into mathematical tangles. When the brain tries to assess really large data sets -- or a really confounding dilemmas -- it can find millions of patterns, real and perceived.
That's where the psychological principle of confirmation bias comes into play. To reduce options to a manageable cognitive level, we tend to only register information that confirms what we already know and believe. The concept of proportionality is often involved, too. That idea refers our psychological tendency to believe large events have large causes.
Back to the recent study: Political scientists Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood crunched the numbers from several national surveys over a six-year period. They found that those susceptible to believing in conspiracy theories don't necessarily tend toward political conservatism, as the stereotype suggests.
Instead, Americans who believe in conspiracy theories are simply those who tend toward non-traditional thinking in general -- and that's about half the electorate. According to the study abstract: "[The] likelihood of supporting conspiracy theories is strongly predicted by a willingness to believe in other unseen, intentional forces...."
Double Secret Bonus Trivia: According to a Washington Post report on the study, the most popular political conspiracy theories include the "birther" conspiracy (endorsed by about 25 percent), the "truther" conspiracy about 9/11 (endorsed by about 19 percent), and the theory that the FDA is deliberately withholding natural cures for cancer (endorsed by 40 percent).
New Yorker: I Don't Want to Be Right
Los Angeles Times: Conspiracy Theories: Why We Believe The Unbelievable
Scientific American: Ramsey Theory
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