The animation video is an actual rant by the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. I laughed so hard the first time I saw it that I shed tears. Contrary to popular belief that people who believe conspiracy theories are mentally ill, most of them are not.
There are differing definitions of what a conspiracy theory is among researchers, but I found a lot of similarities in these definitions. I found a comprehensive definition that captures all the similarities in a special issue about conspiracy theories in “Psychology Postgraduate Affairs Group Quarterly” by Robert Brotherton in his paper, “Towards a Definition of “’Conspiracy Theory’.”
“I define conspiracy theory as an unverified claim of conspiracy which is not the most plausible account of an event or situation, and with sensational subject matter or implications. In addition, the claim will typically postulate unusually sinister and competent conspirators. Finally, the claim is based on weak kinds of evidence, and is epistemically self-insulating against disconfirmation.”
The only thing that links the academic articles is the notion that conspiracy theories are more comforting than viewing the world as random and that no one is in charge. That’s not to say that conspiracies don’t exist. They do. Consider Watergate. Usually real conspiracies are short lived and are more mundane and petty then big events like 9/11 or John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Humans are pattern seeking and sometimes see relationships where there are none. Cognitive dissonance – the discomfort you feel when you come across information that invalidates deeply held beliefs – is in play as well. Everyone experiences cognitive dissonance from time to time and we usually think of explanations that conform to our beliefs because cognitive dissonance is such an unpleasant experience.
People who believe in conspiracies usually are people who feel powerlessness, marginalized, cynical, have an external locus of control -a perception that outside events control behavior such as the notion of fate- and have little trust in others – even towards their friends and families. The biggest predictor for believing a conspiracy theory is believing in other conspiracy theories. In addition, people who believe in conspiracy theories often believe in theories that contradict each other. Basically, conspiracy theorists have an overarching view of the world that’s a bit paranoid – a consistent lack of belief in the “official story” and that people are out to get them, but not enough to make them mentally ill. They often cast themselves as skeptics, but are, in fact, gullible. They’d like to believe in an orderly world – no matter how sinister – than one ruled by chance.
Another factor that makes belief in conspiracies is a psychological phenomenon called confirmation bias. You form an opinion and look for facts that support it and dismiss those that don’t. Even scientists – people who make a career out of being skeptics – have trouble with confirmation bias. Human brains evolved to look for patterns even when there are none. The best way to not get sucked in is to ask questions before forming an opinion and be aware of confirmation bias.
That said, like many people I have a hard time understanding people who believe David Icke’s idea that we’re controlled by reptile aliens that reside among us that get orders from other aliens that reside on the moon.
Then there is a movement and slick YouTube video from the left wing futurist Zeitgeist movement that what seems at first like evidence of a conspiracy combined with gross misinformation that I almost got sucked into it because of my own confirmation bias. It had clips of my heroes George Carlin and Carl Sagan. I finally snapped out of it because they portray 9/11 as an inside job. I’m ashamed to admit this. There’s another YouTube video called “Loose Change” produced by Alex Jones that also claims 9/11 was an inside job. I was going to watch it, but I can’t stomach it right now. I’ve provided links to these films, but do you really want to squander two hours of your life on bullshit? Though they are great examples of the definition I provided above.
Learning about conspiracy theories entertains me, but some conspiracy theories are dangerous. The idea that vaccines cause autism has led to children getting sick from illnesses that were once thought to have been eradicated in the US.
I found a great video on YouTube that educates the public on how to think critically: “Baloney Detection Kit.”