Page 11 - The 'X' Chronicles Newspaper - March 2019
P. 11

Why Rational People Buy Into Conspiracies 11

           Why Rational People Buy

           Into Conspiracy Theories

                 By Maggie Koerth-Baker

          In the days following the bombings at the
          Boston Marathon, speculation online regarding
          the identity and motive of the unknown
          perpetrator or perpetrators was rampant.  And
          once the Tsarnaev brothers were identified and
          the manhunt came to a close, the speculation
          didn’t cease. It took a new form. A sampling:
          Maybe the brothers Tsarnaev were just patsies,
          fall guys set up to take the heat for a mysterious
          Saudi with high-level connections; or maybe
          they were innocent, but instead of the Saudis,
          the actual bomber had acted on behalf of a
          rogue branch of our own government; or what if
          the Tsarnaevs were behind the attacks, but were
          secretly working for a larger organization?
                 Crazy as these theories are, those
                                                          more pernicious. Consider this: 63 percent of         Surprisingly, Swami’s work has also
          propagating them are not — they’re quite
          normal, in fact. But recent scientific research  registered American voters believe in at least  turned up a correlation between conspiracy
                                                          one political conspiracy theory, according to a  theorizing and strong support of democratic
          tells us this much: if you think one of the
                                                          recent poll conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson   principles. But this isn’t quite so strange if you
          theories above is plausible, you probably feel
                                                          University.                                    consider the context. Kathryn Olmsted, a
          the same way about the others, even though
                                                                 While psychologists can’t know exactly  historian at the University of California, Davis,
          they contradict one another. And it’s very likely
                                                          what goes on inside our heads, they have,      says that conspiracy theories wouldn’t exist in a
          that this isn’t the only news story that makes
                                                          through surveys and laboratory studies, come   world in which real conspiracies don’t exist.
          you feel as if shadowy forces are behind major
                                                          up with a set of traits that correlate well with  And those conspiracies — Watergate or the Iran-
          world events.
                                                          conspiracy belief. In 2010, Swami and a co-    contra Affair — often involve manipulating and
                 “The best predictor of belief in a
          conspiracy theory is belief in other conspiracy  author summarized this research in  The       circumventing the democratic process. Even
                                                          Psychologist, a scientific journal. They found,  people who believe that the Sandy Hook
          theories,” says  Viren Swami, a psychology
                                                          perhaps surprisingly, that believers are more  shooting was actually a drama staged by actors
          professor who studies conspiracy belief at the
                                                          likely to be cynical about the world in general  couch their arguments in concern for the
          University of  Westminster in England.
                                                          and politics in particular. Conspiracy theories  preservation of the Second Amendment.
          Psychologists say that’s because a conspiracy
                                                          also seem to be more compelling to those with         Our access to high-quality information
          theory isn’t so much a response to a single event
                                                          low self-worth, especially with regard to their  has not, unfortunately, ushered in an age in
          as it is an expression of an overarching
                                                          sense of agency in the world at large.         which disagreements of this sort can easily be
                                                          Conspiracy theories appear to be a way of      solved with a quick Google search. In fact, the
                 As Richard Hofstadter wrote in his
                                                          reacting to uncertainty and powerlessness.     Internet has made things worse. Confirmation
          seminal 1965 book, “The Paranoid Style in
                                                                 Economic recessions, terrorist attacks  bias — the tendency to pay more attention to
          American Politics,” conspiracy theories,
                                                          and natural disasters are massive, looming     evidence that supports what you already believe
          especially those involving meddlesome
                                                          threats, but we have little power over when they  — is a well-documented and common human
          foreigners, are a favorite pastime in this nation.
                                                          occur or how or what happens afterward. In     failing. People have been writing about it for
          Americans have always had the sneaking
                                                          these moments of powerlessness and             centuries. In recent years, though, researchers
          suspicion that somebody was out to get us — be
                                                          uncertainty, a part of the brain called the    have found that confirmation bias is not easy to
          it Freemasons, Catholics or communists. But in
                                                          amygdala kicks into action. Paul  Whalen, a    overcome. You can’t just drown it in facts.
          recent years, it seems as if every tragedy comes
                                                          scientist at Dartmouth College who studies the        In 2006, the political scientists Brendan
          with a round of yarn-spinning, as the Web fills
                                                          amygdala, says it doesn’t exactly do anything  Nyhan and Jason Reifler identified a
          with stories about “false flag” attacks and
                                                          on its own. Instead, the amygdala jump-starts  phenomenon called the “backfire effect.” They
          “crisis actors” — not mere theorizing but
                                                          the rest of the brain into analytical overdrive —  showed that efforts to debunk inaccurate
          arguments for the existence of a completely
                                                          prompting    repeated    reassessments     of  political information can leave people more
          alternate version of reality.
                                                          information in an attempt to create a coherent  convinced that false information is true than
                 Since Hofstadter’s book was published,
                                                          and understandable narrative, to understand    they would have been otherwise. Nyhan isn’t
          our access to information has vastly improved,
                                                          what just happened, what threats still exist and  sure why this happens, but it appears to be more
          which you would think would have helped
                                                          what should be done now. This may be a useful  prevalent when the bad information helps
          minimize such wild speculation. But according
                                                          way to understand how, writ large, the brain’s  bolster a favored worldview or ideology.
          to recent scientific research on the matter, it
                                                          capacity for generating new narratives after          In that way, Swami says, the Internet and
          most likely only serves to make theories more
                                                          shocking events can contribute to so much      other media have helped perpetuate paranoia.
          convincing to the public.  What’s even more
                                                          paranoia in this country.                      Not only does more exposure to these alternative
          surprising is that this sort of theorizing isn’t
                                                                 “If you know the truth and others don’t,  narratives help engender belief in conspiracies,
          limited to those on the margins. Perfectly sane
                                                          that’s one way you can reassert feelings of    he says, but the Internet’s tendency toward
          minds possess an incredible capacity for
                                                          having agency,” Swami says. It can be          tribalism helps reinforce misguided beliefs.
          developing narratives, and even some of the
                                                          comforting to do your own research even if that
          wildest conspiracy theories can be grounded in
                                                          research is flawed. It feels good to be the wise                      (Continues on Page 12)
          rational thinking, which makes them that much
                                                          old goat in a flock of sheep.
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