Conspiracy Theories and You
They’re in bed, in church, and in your ear.
Posted May 28, 2016
Psychologist Viren Swami finds that believers in conspiracies “are more likely to be cynical about the world in general and politics in particular. Conspiracy theories also seem to be more compelling to those with low self-worth, especially with regard to their sense of agency in the world at large. Conspiracy theories appear to be a way of reacting to uncertainty and powerlessness.” 
Defined this way, conspiracy theories are tools a believer uses to shore up self-esteem and calm anxieties. They’re stories that create an illusion of mastery in a whirling world. If you believe that airplane contrails in the sky are not frozen exhaust vapor but toxic “chemtrails” that “they” are spreading for some sinister purpose, you’re managing your anxiety about things (toxic clouds) even as you’re reassuring yourself that you know the inside story and therefore have a special heroic advantage.
The psychologist’s explanation is persuasive—as far as it goes. But he is also simplifying and taming the idea of conspiracy theories to fit his experiments. Or you might say that the apparatus is defining the subject. The research defines “conspiracy theories” as kooky stories that insecure folks use to “reassert feelings of having agency.” But this definition is too narrow, even a form of denial.
The trouble is, conspiracy is built into all of us. A Fairleigh Dickenson poll reports that 63% of registered American voters embrace at least one political conspiracy theory. A “plot” can be a sequence of events in a story, but also somebody’s malicious plan. We are constantly fabricating or “discovering” stories that seem to explain the world. Most wars, for example, originate in people’s belief that others are plotting to kill or enslave them. In Rwanda, vicious conspiracy stories and free machetes spurred Hutu to kill Tutsi neighbors, even relatives, as Nazis killed Jews. In the Vietnam War, Americans treated “Communism” as a conspiracy to enslave the world. After a war, we console ourselves by reciting strategic reasons for it. In this sense conspiracy stories are a major driving force of history.
Official conspiracy theories generate values such as heroism, sacrifice, and patriotism. And they can be profitable. Even as the Red Menace story triggered slaughter in Vietnam, it was creating jobs, pensions, and profits for the American military industry. Now conspiracy prospers as a theory about global Islamic terrorism. Officials theorized that the gaggle of fanatics in the September 11th attacks were a vast network that included Saddam Hussein, and that has created fabulously futile wars and an expensive, quasi-legal surveillance empire.
It takes denial to keep conspiracy theories alive. And sure enough, the New York Times article sums up the research this way: “Current scientific thinking suggests [conspiracy] beliefs are nothing more than an extreme form of cynicism, a turning away from politics and traditional media —which only perpetuates the problem.”
Did you spot the denial? Supposedly conspiracy thinking is merely cynical and kooky, and it draws believers away from responsible thinking about “politics and traditional media”: the official safeguards that are supposed to protect us. And why might people be cynical? Presumably because we mistrust others, and especially “politics and traditional media.” Specifically, cynics are wary of conspiracies to manipulate us. And why be suspicious? Well, partly because of a history of official muddles and betrayals, partly because “cynics” feel powerless, and partly because we’re vulnerable creatures and always a little paranoid.
Unlike instinctually hard-wired adult animals, we are hairless, childlike creatures with fingernails instead of claws, small teeth and jaws instead of fangs, and skin instead of a hard shell. We rely on information to find us a meal and give us a survival edge. And we compete for good information in markets, warfare, and headline news, not to mention in spy rings and industrial espionage.
Conspiracy theories are one sign of that competition for more information. “’If you know the truth and others don’t, that’s one way you can reassert feelings of having agency,’ says the psychologist Swami. It can be comforting to do your own research even if that research is flawed. It feels good to be the wise old goat in a flock of sheep.”
The idea of conspiracy is more engrained in us than you might think. Humans imagine that the world is suffused with intention. Randomness scares us. We’re disposed to blame misfortune on a scapegoat. Like the Book of Job, Greek myths imagine the gods cooking up schemes that spoil your day. In Christianity, devils are tireless plotters. When magic, prayer, ballots, or other technics fail to tame misfortune, conspiracy theories flourish. History shows suspicions trying to rid the world of “them” by burning books, witches, heretics, and infidels. Looking up at chemtrails, imagination today is consulting the heavens the way the ancients scanned the sky for supernatural portents.
As infants, we depend totally on parents who signal one another in gestures and gibberish. For a frustrated child, the adult world is a conspiracy, a code that eventually the infant cracks as language. The anxious tyke grows up learning to use interpretation and suspicion constructively. But it’s a delicate process. Early on, the child learns the old proverb that Two’s company, three’s a crowd, and hears the two whispering together.
If the competition for life-giving information is intense, denial has to be strenuous too. When governments keep everybody under surveillance, as Edward Snowden demonstrates, it’s easier to believe that “big government” blew up the World Trade Center. When your government has history’s biggest military, surrounded by secrecy, it may seem logical that the Sandy Hook school rampage was a trick so “they can take away our guns”—that is, take away our “feelings of having agency.”
And then there are disguised uses of conspiracy theory that blend into everyday sloppy thinking and go unseen. Men and women often grumble about each other as if the opposite sex is conspiring to be difficult. The complaint that “blacks want handouts from the government” can imply that all of “those people” are the same, and that they collaborate—conspire—to bleed hardworking responsible taxpayers like you.
It’s a chewy paradox that conspiracy theories can thrive when there’s too much or too little information available. In the age of the Internet and social media, information is as shifty as it is prolific. And in one way or another, virtually all public information these days is conditioned by advertising techniques. Every child knows that ads mix truth and lies. As you grow up, you inoculate yourself with skepticism. You know marketing researchers are whispering to each other about what motivates you.
The manipulative character of advertising invites opposition. You take pride in not being fooled; its heroic not to be gulled. Oppositional pride also emerges when information floods the brain. Google promises control over the flood, but like other technology, its mighty algorithm has limitations. It doesn’t create solutions; it searches for what already exists. Education that “teaches for the test” also favors shrink-wrapped answers rather than problem-solving. It too can be a sort of search engine. Likewise, STEM courses (Science, Tech, etc.) produce useful but specialized analysis. The deep model is industrial, perfecting machine processes to achieve more production faster.
The attraction to machine processes and algorithms is understandable, but ambivalent. The factory model makes for push-button culture in which life is a decision tree, with vending machine instructions to Make Your Selection Now. Growing up, you have choices, but pre-selected choices. Correct choices are supposed to lead to consumer utopia.  But conspiracy theory is sensitive to such intimations of universal control. In films such as The Matrix or The Truman Show, conspiratorial government insidiously tyrannizes individuals, producing alienation and derealization.
As in a dream, conspiracy theories about “them” or “big government” distort reality, but a theory may have a core of truth. In effect, such theories are anxiety dreams of the anxious human animal, mixing public and personal concerns.
Even the James Yeagers have something to tell us about us. Yeager, you recall, was CEO of a firearms training outfit in Tennessee. In January 2013, after the Sandy Hook school rampage, Yeager threw a tantrum on YouTube, panting “I’m gonna start killing people” if President Obama used his executive powers to tighten gun controls.
Okay, the man has his own demons. But consider the warp in American culture that he boldfaced: the equation of self with firearms; the reflex threat display; the cabal of supporters from the NRA to the gun-toting south. In his use of media to command global attention and his vow to kill, Yeager was acting out a virtual rampage killing, a sorry indication of the copycat murders that have since followed. And after confiscating his weapons permit, the state of Tennessee returned it: like the civilian inability to stop America’s endless futile wars, a vivid demonstration of the nation’s reluctance to intervene when guns hold the floor. 
Theories and stories wear out. Scapegoats and enemies wear out. So we’re always scanning the horizon for a fresh “them.” One way to see who we are and where we’re going, then, is to study who’s whispering now.
1. Maggie Koerth-Baker, “Why Rational People Buy Into Conspiracy Theories,” NY Times, May 21, 2013.
2. This is a concept worth exploring. For details, see “Ambivalence and the Decision Tree: two deep models shaping your behavior whether you know it or not” https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/swim-in-denial/201208/ambivalence-a...
3. See “A License for Concealed Motives.” https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/swim-in-denial/201603/license-conce...
For a more about losing control as a cultural style with rewards, see The Psychology of Abandon (Leveller's Press), now also available as an ebook: https://www.amazon.com/Psychology-Abandon-Berserk-American-Culture-ebook...