Imagine that everything we think we understand about how the world works is, in fact, an elaborate hoax. Democracy is a sham designed to fool us into believing we are in control. That a small group of unknown, unaccountable elites is actually pulling the strings and pretty much deciding the course of history; everything from the world economy and the conduct of nations to the media and pop culture is under their complete control. Anyone who says otherwise has either been fooled by the conspiracy or is an agent of disinformation.
Conspiracy theories are now a firm feature of popular culture - the recent furore around Wiki-leaks provided compelling evidence for this. But the popularity of conspiracy theorising dates back to the shocking assassination of American President J.F.K. in broad daylight and in front of dozens of onlookers on November 22nd, 1963. Immediately, many people claimed that there was more than one gunman, and conspiracy theories arose implicating everyone from the CIA to the communists. More recently, films like Oliver Stone's JFK and T.V. shows like The X-Files brought conspiratorial themes further into the mainstream. The terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 have become perhaps the most widely debated events of the current generation. Many people doubt the ‘official' story, believing instead that the events were the result of a conspiracy.
So, what has psychological research told us about belief in conspiracy theories? Not much. Indeed, so far only a handful of studies have looked at the personality of conspiracy theory believers. This research has found that believers tend to be lacking in trust and higher in levels of anomie - the feeling that things are generally getting worse - when compared to people with low levels of conspiracy beliefs. However, these findings show correlation, not causation. On the one hand, it may indicate that people's conspiratorial beliefs are a result of their underlying lack of trust; people who see conspiracies behind everything are simply be projecting their own jaded view of the world onto events. Alternatively, lack of trust may follow from the perception of a conspiracy, reflecting a rational response to the reality of living in a world of conspiracy.
Thus much further investigation is needed to better understand the psychology behind belief in conspiracies. A problem with research into conspiracy beliefs is that there are no validated measure of general conspiracy beliefs. Our new test - designed with Robert Brotherton and Christopher French - was developed to produce this kind of measure. We are interested in the underlying structure of conspiracy beliefs. Conspiracy theories arise surrounding many different events and issues, from assassinations to suicides, terrorist attacks to wars, and scientific theories to medical treatments. Some people might believe in all kinds of conspiracy equally, and some may endorse particular kinds of conspiracy more than others.
So are you someone who sees conspiracies behind important world events? Or do you subscribe more to the ‘cock-up' theory? We are interested in what kind of conspiracies you think might be true. At the end of the test we will tell you how you compare with the general public, and give you more information on a few of the most popular conspiracy theories.
Acknowledgment: Thanks to Robert Brotherton for helping me prepare this article.