The Storytelling Animal

How stories make us human

A Cursed Rage for Order

Why Do So Many People Believe in Conspiracy Theories?
Jonathan Gottschall, Ph.D.
This post is a response to Shotgunnings and Clawhammerings by Jonathan Gottschall, Ph.D.

On the morning of September 11, 2001 George Bush was gutting his way through a photo-op with second graders  at Emma E. Booker elementary school, Sarasota Florida. Bush sat listening--bowels seething, heart racing--as the children read him a story about a pet goat.  After a few minutes, Bush’s Chief of Staff, Andy Card, interrupted to whisper something in the president’s ear about a second plane and the World Trade Center.  Bush nodded and gnawed his lip and kept listening to the goat story. When story time was over, Bush said, “Really good readers, whew! These must be sixth graders! Great readers! Very impressive!” As he left the classroom, Bush called out to the children, “Stay in school!”

Afterwards, Bush slumped in the back of his limousine, squeezing his kneecaps with both hands.  As his motorcade pulled into Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, Bush got the call. He let the phone ring in his hand for a long time.  And then he closed his eyes, and held the receiver to his ear.  He listened to the operative breathing into the phone.  In a halting voice, Bush uttered the code phrase, “I’m, I’m sorry…you got the wrong number.” At that moment, the CIA-rigged thermite cutter charges sliced through the girders of the north tower of the world trade center.

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Aboard Air Force One the president took a call from his handlers, a shadowy cabal of Zionists, Illuminati, and Masons. Everything was going as planned. Deranged with anger and fear, the American people would go anywhere Bush led.  And Bush—an alcoholic with a closet crammed with skeletons--would do anything the cabal said. That’s why they stole the election for him in the first place.

                 Or not.

A Scripps Howard poll of July 2006 showed that 36% of Americans—and a majority of democrats--believed that there was US government complicity in the 9/11 attacks. For members of the so-called 9/11 Truth Movement (or Truthers), the lurid short story I just told about elements of the US government pulling off an incredibly complicated and reckless plot to blow up national symbols and massacre its citizens isn’t that far-fetched. What strikes them as far-fetched is the idea that the American colossus was bloodied-up by a conspiracy of nineteen amateur Arabs, armed with razor blades, and led by an evil genius living in a cave. 

 

Stephen King Murdered John Lennon

 

What’s really striking about conspiracy theory is not how strange it is, but how ordinary it is.  Go to Google, type in “conspiracy,” and browse through some of the millions of hits.  There is a conspiracy theory for any major entertainment figure who dies young: Marilyn, Elvis, Biggie, Tupac, Michael Jackson, Princess Di (murdered because she had an Arab baby in her womb). And for any major political figure who is killed: RFK, JFK, MLK, Malcom X (all assassinated, perhaps, by the same Manchurian candidate). And there are of course conspiracy theories about Hurricane Katrina (the government blew up the levees to drown black neighborhoods), the New World Order (duck if you see a black helicopter), jet plane vapor trails (they spew aggression-enhancing chemicals into minority neighborhoods), Paul McCartney (long dead), John Lennon (gunned down by Stephen King), the holocaust (didn’t happen), Area 51 cover-ups (happened), moon landings (didn’t), and so on.

Conspiracy theory is not the province of a googly-eyed lunatic fringe, and it is not the province of the right or the left.  Most people probably subscribe to one ill-grounded conspiracy theory or another. If we are on the left we may believe that big oil purposely killed the water-powered car or that 9-11 was an inside job.  If we are on the right, we are quite likely to believe that global warming is a cynical fraud devised by tree-humping scientists and power mad socialists with an anti-American agenda.

 

Ordinary Paranoids

 

Conspiracy theory is the product of certain universal biases in human psychology.  The first bias is a tendency to over-detect pattern, especially when we are feeling scared or uncomfortable. In an article published in Science Magazine in 2008, psychologists Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky wondered if increasing feelings of  powerlessness or lack of control would make people more likely to see illusory patterns in information. The scientists made research subjects feel out of control by giving them maddeningly random feedback on a quiz, and they made them feel powerless by having them write about a situation where they felt, well, powerless. The subjects were then asked to examine a number of abstract patterns, some of which had recognizable images embedded in them and some of which did not. The “powerless” group was much more likely to find non-existent images in the abstract patterns than the control group. “Lacking control,” the researchers concluded, “leads to a visceral need for order, even imaginary order.”

 

With and without recognizable images

The researchers showed that this tendency applied not only to visual patterns, but patterns in narratives.  Research subjects read purposefully ambiguous narratives where various conspiracies may or may not have occurred.  Subjects made to feel powerless or out of control were more likely to see conspiracies in these ambiguous accounts.

 

A Silly Little Communist

Part of the attraction of conspiracy theory is simply the attraction of a good story.  Conspiracy theories fascinate us because they are such ripping good yarns. They offer vivid, lurid plots that translate with telling ease into wildly popular entertainment: novels like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and James Elroy’s “Underworld USA Trilogy”; films like JFK and the The Manchurian Candidate; television shows like 24 and The X-Files.

There are other biases that make far-fetched conspiracy theories so congenial to the human mind, including a reasoning bias that leads us to believe that a major event must have a major cause  (peons like James Earl Ray can’t kill a King) and a confirmation bias that powerfully innoculates conspiracy theories against disconfirming evidence.  But above all, conspiracy theory is a reflex of our need for meaningful experience. 

John F. Kennedy’s assassination, for example, has inspired many hundreds of books arguing that Lee Harvey Oswald was not a lone nut.  But the official account is compelling. For example, few people know that Oswald had already gone “lone nut” just a few weeks before he killed Kennedy.  Oswald hid outside the house of the anti-communist crusader Edwin A. Walker and took a pot shot at him through his window (he missed).

But most Americans credit the conspiracy theory partly because it offers not only a more gripping story, but a more comforting one. The idea that Oswald--“some silly little communist,”as Jackie Kennedy called him--changed the course of history by murdering the world’s most powerful and promising man is profoundly disturbing.  It makes Kennedy’s death so pointless, since he wasn’t even killed by a worthy adversary—like the Soviets, the mafia, or anti-Castro Cubans. No.  Kennedy had his brains blown out on a beautiful day in Dallas just because a worthless little man was desperate to make a name with his rifle.

Jonathan Gottschall is the author of The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human

 

Jonathan Gotschall, Ph.D., is an English professor at Washington and Jefferson College in Pennsylvania.

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