Conspiracy theories: why they are so compelling

Many of you will have encountered people who are very focused on one or more conspiracy theories.  These people are convinced that their particular subject should get more critical attention, and they will devote a lot of energy to arguing, defending, or promoting their issue.  Sometimes they will even become convinced that they know the facts and that doubters are simply ignorant of those facts.

Why is this so?  What causes otherwise bright and rational people to obsess on the second shooter on the grassy knoll, government cover-ups of alien contact, secret ruling cabals, Jewish bankers, fluoride in tap water, and similar dark conspiracies about which only a few brave souls know the real truth?

I have been reading, observing, and interacting with conspiracy believers for about 20 years now, and I have distilled what I see as the common denominator that explains all of them.  Put briefly, it’s dissociation (see Wiki article).  This is a psychological phenomenon wherein people find the world around them too difficult to manage, so they unconsciously create a new world that they can deal with.  It can spring from a wide range of triggers, for example: a trauma such as childhood abuse or the loss of a loved one; a chemical imbalance in the brain; social conditioning from peers; or even a lifetime of ordinary frustrations.

The new world created is essentially just like the old world, but with a new feature that the dissociating person will obsess on.  For illustration, think of Don Quixote “tilting at windmills”.  In this story, he imagined that windmills were giant monsters, so he attacked them violently, hoping—and fully intending—to save the world from these monsters.  He knew in his heart that it was the right thing to do, and he also felt that if he succeeded it would prove his worth to the woman he loved.

Life is horrifying, life is difficult.  If we thought too much about the atrocities that occur every day, every minute, the pain would be too much to bear.  In America, every two minutes on average, someone is raped.  The figures for rape and mutilation in war-torn regions of the world are far more horrifying than that.  Every day in the news we hear of some new outrage of military violence, or some new flare-up of bitter feuds that have gone on for centuries.  Boys as young as 11 or 12 are forcibly recruited into tribal armies, and brainwashed into soulless killers who will behead, disembowl, rape, and machine-gun their own families and villages of innocent strangers.  Politicians lie to us constantly, and the government really does cover up its misdeeds, sometimes even on a very large scale.  Corporations grow ever more stupefyingly immense and powerful, to the point that they seem as inscrutable and unstoppable as a volcano god.

In a world like this, the only way to survive is to shut it out, to not allow the horror and atrocity to affect us too much.  We feel impotent, helpless, overwhelmed.  We seek out the things that we can control, and cling to those as our life raft in a stormy ocean.  We take up an involving hobby or area of study, we get caught up in power struggles at work, we cling devotedly to a dietary regimen, we join church groups.  Even our political views nearly always spring from this process—we all believe that the political stance each of us takes is the most rational, but since everyone believes that, clearly we are just picking our own personal definition of “rational”.  I could write a whole chapter just on dietary obsessions such as veganism, candidiasis, organics, and raw foods.  For most of us, most of the time, these devotions don’t do any significant harm, especially not compared to the far worse things going on in the world.

Unfortunately, these focus issues can get out of control.  They can expand out to affect your relationships with other people; they can cause intense stress to the point of triggering real physical ailments; they can make us vote for harmful legislation; they can empty your bank account; and they can become clinically-diagnosable disorders.

Part of the appeal is that, by and large, nobody can prove that what you believe isn’t real.  Nobody can prove that you were not abducted by aliens.  Nobody can prove that Oswald acted alone.  Nobody can prove the absence of secret power-mongers and puppet-masters.  Nobody can prove that you don’t feel better with your dietary regimen.  And, my favorite, nobody can prove that you don’t hear a significant improvement in audio quality when using audiophile-marketed power outlets, cable risers, USB cords, or even Beltist notes in red ink in the freezer (read and be amazed).

So now we have a situation where a belief or a concern successfully distracts you from the actual horrors that surround us every day, and nobody can prove that you’re wrong.  It gives us a sense of purpose and identity, and possibly even heroic martyr status.  Is it any wonder that this situation is far preferable to one where you have to contend with overwhelming things you can’t understand or control, such as endless war, mounting debt, or an absence of love in your life?  Now with a new focus in your sights, created by you or your peers, you can set to work on managing the one thing in life that is within your control—because it exists inside you.

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  1. Kyle said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 3:31 pm

    Oh my. That “Beltist” stuff is fantastic. Good article, albeit I suspect too many hard truths for a lot of people to swallow- more’s the pity.

  2. James said,

    June 18, 2010 @ 9:53 pm

    Too many people chasing happiness; instead of just being happy.

  3. Brad said,

    June 20, 2010 @ 9:56 pm

    I understand what you’re saying here, but calling it dissociation is underestimating the true nature and severity of dissociative disorders. Saying a person is prone to believe conspiracies because they’re dissociative is tantamount to saying a slightly moody person has full-on bi-polar disorder. There are similarities, but outlandish attempts at rationalization do not a dissociation make.

    It’s actually coincidental that you stress rationalization, because that’s the psychological term (defense/coping mechanism) you’re more closely defining. 🙂

  4. Cyrus said,

    June 20, 2010 @ 10:21 pm

    Actually I knew exactly what I was saying. I was not underestimating dissociative disorders at all, but rather the other way around: I was asserting that “defense/coping mechanisms” that have gotten to the point of hallucinatory delusion and self-harm, or the the harm of others, are far more prevalent and powerful than most people –including the writers of psych textbooks– would like to believe.

  5. BassDeluxe said,

    June 30, 2010 @ 5:22 pm

    bashing conspiracy theories – why is it so compelling?

    People by now have figured out that they are not informed about the important issues on the news (party gossip), lied to on important issues (reasons for wars etc.), powerless when billions, trillions are changing hands (financial crisis, greece bankrupcy etc.). We’re just told that things are alright and bitter pills have to be swallowed.

    I’m glad that people are not putting up with that. Lacking any political movement that could change anything (be it for better or worse), the only thing that they can do seems to be going onto the internet after work and do their own “research”. The result is a) amazing – I would never ever have considered questioning the moon landing, but some people really think outside the box, and b) often garbage, vulnerable to harsh criticism.

    However, I can’t really share that feeling of intellectual superiority, when one of the conspiracy theorists is thrashed, like in the mythbusters moon landing videos. That smugness, that condescending tone in the narration of these videos.

    Maybe, if those who had the abilities to do real research and to find real truth would spend less time debunking superstition and spend more time uncovering corruption, conflicts of interest and lies, people would have less reason to hang on to said conspiracies in the first place.

  6. Cyrus said,

    June 30, 2010 @ 6:42 pm

    Very good points! Food for thought.

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