Conspiracy Theory

This may end up being a shorter post, but in the realm of free will and agency, ask yourself about conspiracy theorists. Not a particular theory—or maybe some safe target like flat earthers. I think one would be hard-pressed to say that these people choose to believe this. They are convinced for whatever reasons. In principle, people who tend to believe in conspiracies have other determining factors—not the sort of ‘determined’ as Determinism suggests, but still beyond their conscious choices. We can agree with them or mock them, but they’ve got a predisposition toward these beliefs.

Social psychologists often argue that beliefs in conspiracy theories are connected with broader social and intergroup conflicts where conspiracy theories are used to justify and maintain conflict or to attribute blame to an unjust social system (Crocker et al., 1999). Other research has sought to explain the appeal of conspiracy theories by focusing on personality characteristics of conspiracy theorists. Among other factors, a sense of powerlessness and anomie—an inability to affect change and feelings of insignificance within society—have been found to correlate positively with high levels of beliefs in conspiracy theories (Hamsher et al., 1968Whitson and Galinsky, 2008Bruder et al., 2013).

Patrick J. Leman* and Marco Cinnirella, Beliefs in conspiracy theories and the need for cognitive closure, Department of Psychology, Royal Holloway, University of London, London, UK

Of course, people truly guilty of the conspiracy being accused tend to push the notion that their accusers are nutters, and this redirect tends to work on those not prone to conspiracies. This is problematic relative to getting to the facts of the matter, but for our purposes, yet again agency has been subverted.

“When people feel threatened and out of control, it’s natural to want to feel more control and bring order to the randomness by resorting to conspiracy theories,” says John Cook, PhD, founder of the website Skeptical Science and co-author of “The Conspiracy Theory Handbook.”

The Psychology Behind Conspiracy Theories

This is pretty much the same cognitive deficit behind the blaming that agency serves as an unwitting proxy.

Americans are a particularly gullible lot, with some 80 per cent of them believing in at least one unsubstantiated conspiracy theory. Of course, it could prove that at least one of these becomes substantiated. In fact, perhaps it already has. I don’t know if the United States government is particularly mendacious or if that is a conspiracy belief in its own right.