Psychologists are trying to determine why otherwise rational individuals can make the leap from “prudent paranoia” to illogical conspiracy theories
According to a Public Policy Polling survey, around 12 million people in the US believe that interstellar lizards in people suits rule our country. We imported that particular belief from across the pond, where professional conspiracy theorist David Icke has long maintained that the Queen of England is a blood-drinking, shape-shifting alien.
Conspiracy theories in general are not necessary bad, according to psychologists who study them. “If we were all completely trusting, it would not be good for survival,” explains Rob Brotherton, an academic psychologist and author of Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories. “Sometimes people really don’t have our best interests in mind.”
But when people leap from thinking their boss is trying to undermine them to believing their boss might be a secret lizard person, they probably cross from what psychologists refer to as “prudent paranoia” into illogical territory.
And there are a lot of illogical ideas to pick from. Around 66 million Americans believe that aliens landed at Roswell, New Mexico; around 22 million people believe that the government faked the moon landing; and around 160 million believe that there is a conspiracy surrounding the assassination of former US president John F Kennedy.
While aliens and fake moon landings probably trigger eyerolls in many of us, defining what constitutes a conspiracy theory is difficult, Brotherton says. The government, for example, does sometimes conspire to do the unspeakable, such as the infamous 1930s Tuskegee study, initiated by the US government to examine untreated syphilis in African-American men. Researchers blocked research participants from receiving penicillin or exiting the experiment to get treatment. The study continued until a media report made it public. In this case, believing that the government was conspiring to keep people sick would have been completely accurate.
There are characteristics that help differentiate a conspiracy theory from prudent paranoia, Brotherton says. Conspiracy theories tend to depend on conspirators who are unduly evil, he explains, with genocide or world domination as a motive. Conspiracy theories also tend to assign an usually high level of competency to the conspirators, Brotherton adds, pointing out that when the government really does “shady stuff” it often isn’t able to keep it secret.
Chances are, we all know someone who believes some version of a conspiracy theory, which is why psychologists have been trying to understand what makes someone jump from logically questioning the world to looking for signs of lizard teeth in public figures. Research has shown that feelings of powerlessness and uncertainty are associated with a tendency to believe in conspiracies, says Karen Douglas, professor of social psychology at the University of Kent in the UK. Or as Joseph E Uscinski, associate professor of political science at the University of Miami and author of American Conspiracy Theories, puts it, “conspiracies are for losers”.
This is not a new story, but it is worth repeating. At the moment that bullets were being fired into JFK’s motorcade, a man can be seen standing on the side of the road near the car holding an open black umbrella. It was a sunny day (although it had rained the night before) and no one else in Dallas was holding an umbrella.
This is exactly the kind of detail that sets a fire under conspiracy theorists. It is a genuine anomaly – something that sticks out like a sore thumb.
The event also defies our intuition about probability. Even if one could accept that somewhere on the streets of Dallas that morning one man decided to hold an open umbrella for some strange reason, what are the odds that this one man would be essentially standing right next to the president’s car when the bullets began to fly?
Our evolved tendency for pattern recognition and looking for significance in events screams that this anomaly must have a compelling explanation, and since it is associated with the assassination of a president, it must be a sinister one.
When you delve into the details of any complex historical event, however, anomalies such as this are certain to surface. People are quirky individual beings with rich and complex histories and motivations. People do strange things for strange reasons. There is no way to account for all possible thought processes firing around in the brains of every person involved in an event.
Often the actions of others seem unfathomable to us. Our instinct is to try to explain the behavior of others as resulting from mostly internal forces. We tend to underestimate the influence of external factors. This is called the fundamental attribution error.
We also tend to assume that the actions of others are deliberate and planned, rather than random or accidental.
The common assumption underlying all of these various instincts is that there is a specific purpose to events, and especially the actions of others. We further instinctively fear that this purpose is sinister, or may be working against our own interests in some way. In this way, we all have a little conspiracy theorist inside us.
*Who Was the Umbrella Man?
What did the attorney general know, and when did he know it?
By Philip Shenon via POLITICO Magazine
What else did Bobby Kennedy know? Last year, the son and namesake of the late Attorney General Robert Kennedy revealed publicly that his father had considered the Warren Commission’s final report, which largely ruled out the possibility of a conspiracy in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, to be a “shoddy piece of craftsmanship.” Robert Jr. said his father suspected that the president had been killed in a conspiracy involving Cuba, the Mafia or even rogue agents of the CIA. Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a close friend of the Kennedy family, would disclose years later that he was told by Robert Kennedy in December 1963, a month after the president’s murder, that the former attorney general worried that the assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was “part of a larger plot, whether organized by Castro or by gangsters.” Schlesinger said that in 1966, two years after the Warren Commission report, Kennedy was still so suspicious about a conspiracy that he wondered aloud “how long he could continue to avoid comment on the report—it is evident that he believes it is was poor job.”
Newly disclosed documents from the commission, made public on the 50th anniversary of its final report, suggest that the panel missed a chance to get Robert Kennedy to acknowledge publicly what he would later confess to his closest family and friends: that he believed the commission had overlooked evidence that might have pointed to a conspiracy.
The documents show the commission was prepared to press Kennedy to offer his views, under oath, about the possibility that Oswald had not acted alone. An affidavit, in which Kennedy would have been required to raise his right hand and deny knowledge of a conspiracy under penalty of perjury, was prepared for his signature by the commission’s staff but was never used. Instead, the attorney general became the highest ranking government official, apart from President Lyndon Johnson, who was excused from giving sworn testimony or offering a sworn written statement to the commission.
Get out your tinfoil hats. We’re going to talk conspiracy theories.
In general, the peculiarities of how we discern the theories we believe from those we don’t. And, specifically, what those beliefs or disbeliefs say about us as individuals.
First, I’ll make the assumption that if you are reading a newspaper column, or at least recognize the names “Mulder” and “Scully,” you are familiar with conspiracy theories. They range from mainstream speculations many people believe, such as John F. Kennedy assassination theories, to fringe concepts that many people dismiss, such as the “chemtrail” theory that posits the government is delivering biological agents through the white clouds trailing high-flying jets.
FOR THE PURPOSES of this column, I’ll focus on theories purported to involve the U.S. government because those have the most widespread social, political and economic impacts. Films such as Men in Black and Independence Day would have no pop-culture currency if not for the widely held suspicion the government has possessed alien life forms and technology since 1947.
Conspiracy theories persist because – in addition to a constant spate of broken promises (Yucca Mountain, “Read my lips – no new taxes,” “You can keep your health insurance”) – the government flat-out lies to us.
The thunderous boom and sunlike glare that alarmed New Mexico residents in the early morning hours of July 16, 1945, was not the world’s first nuclear weapon. It was an explosion at a “remotely located ammunitions” depot. The second attack on the U.S.S. Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin on Aug. 4, 1964, the very attack that gave President Johnson the push to send troops to Vietnam? It never happened.
Yes, the truth is out there, but when it finally materializes (41 years, in the case of the Gulf of Tonkin incident) the public usually has forgotten, or no longer cares, about the lie.
Which leads us back to the whole point of this exercise: What makes us doubt the official party line in some instances and not others?
One might assume a person who believes in a JFK conspiracy theory should believe most, if not all, conspiracy theories. After all, couldn’t a government powerful enough to snuff out the leader of the free world in public view, and successfully cover it up for decades, be capable of doing anything?
But that’s not how we think. We base decisions on our overall level of trust in government – in a nameless, faceless bureaucratic sense – and our specific viewpoint on whoever happens to be in the Oval Office at the time. And I believe emotions shape those decisions as much as hard evidence.
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Probably the best known mystery surrounding Kennedy’s death is his missing brain. Not as well known are the mysterious deaths of many people connected to the assassination, eventually prompting the House Select Committee on Assassinations to look into possible foul play. After a cursory investigation, it found none.
Of course, a mysterious death may or may not involve foul play. Here are accounts of 10 people who witnessed Kennedy’s actual assassination, or had pertinent knowledge of one or more people involved, and who died “untimely”—at least in some estimations.
10 • Jack Ruby
We begin with Ruby, the only very famous entry, who murdered Lee Harvey Oswald on live TV just two days after Oswald had been arrested for killing Kennedy. When Kennedy was shot, Ruby was five blocks away from the Texas School Book Depository, distributing ads. He originally claimed to have shot Oswald in order to “redeem” Dallas and spare Jackie Kennedy the agony of a trial. But these motives—and everything else in Ruby’s life—remain shrouded in contradictions.
Ruby himself later claimed that his first attorney had told him to testify to the above motives, while Vegas mobster Johnny Roselli claimed Ruby had been assigned to silence Oswald. In 1965, well after his conviction, Ruby had this to say about the murder: “Everything pertaining to what’s happening has never come to the surface. The world will never know the true facts of what occurred, my motives. The people who had so much to gain, and had such an ulterior motive for putting me in the position I’m in, will never let the true facts come above board to the world.”
On 3 January, 1967, Ruby died of a pulmonary embolism, a complication of lung cancer. Before his death, he had gone on record claiming that he had been visited by a man who injected him with what he was told were antibiotics for a chronic cold, but which he believed were really cancer cells. He had just been granted a new trial on the grounds that his first trial in Dallas could not have been fairly heard. Shortly before he passed away, Ruby told a psychiatrist that the assassination was a coup d’etat and that he knew who was responsible for Kennedy’s murder.
9 • James Richard Worrell Jr.
Worrell was one of the very best eyewitnesses to Kennedy’s assassination, providing unusually detailed answers to the usual questions about that day (his entire testimony before Congress is available here). In 1963, Worrell was a 20-year-old high school student living in Dallas with his mother and sister. When Kennedy arrived, Worrell decided to skip school in order to see the President, leaving home early in the morning and hitchhiking to Love Field. Finding he was too late to get a good view there, he left for Dealey Plaza and waited four or five feet in front of the Book Depository, on the sidewalk at the corner of Elm and Houston.
He watched as the motorcade came down Houston Street, and turned past him onto Elm. Then Worrell testified that he heard “four shots.” He looked up after the first, which he realized was too loud to be a firecracker, and saw a rifle barrel protruding from the 5th or 6th-floor corner window of the building. He looked back to Kennedy’s vehicle, heard the second shot, and saw the President slump over. He looked back up and saw the third shot’s muzzle flash, then began running in a panic around the Depository and onto Houston Street, where he heard a fourth shot. Stopping to catch his breath, he turned in time to see a man run from the rear exit of the Depository and later gave a basic description of Oswald’s height, build, and dress.
Three years later, on 6 November, 1966, Worrell was riding his motorcycle along Gus Thomasson Street in Dallas, along with a passenger named Lee Hudgins, when he apparently lost control of the vehicle, jumped the median curb, and overturned in the opposite lane. Worrell’s head, without a helmet, struck the curb, and Hudgins was flung in front of a car. Both died at the hospital.
8 • Thomas Hale Boggs Sr.
Boggs was perhaps the most high profile person connected to the assassination to die under mysterious circumstances. A longtime Louisiana Congressman, he was House Majority Whip when Kennedy was killed and became House Majority Leader in 1971. In 1963, he was appointed to the President’s Commission on the Assassination, nicknamed the Warren Commission after its chairman, Chief Justice Earl Warren. The Commission ultimately concluded that Oswald acted alone, but three of its members disagreed—Boggs and Senators Richard Russell and Sherman Cooper. Russell, who died of natural causes in 1971, publicly stated his “lingering dissatisfaction” with the investigation, while Boggs accused FBI director J. Edgar Hoover of “lying his eyes out” during the hearings.
Boggs was a strong critic of the single bullet theory. According to this theory, Oswald fired three shots, the second of which struck Kennedy in the upper back, passed through his throat and continued into Texas Governor John Connally’s back. The bullet then exited Connally’s chest, smashed through his wrist, and stopped in his left thigh, creating a total of seven wounds in two people. Some critics have claimed this would have required the bullet to somehow rise in mid-flight between the two men, but Connally had actually been sitting in a specially added “jump seat” few inches lower than Kennedy, which would have made it possible for the bullet to cause the seven wounds.
The fact of Connally’s seat height was not known at the time, but Boggs also strongly opposed the theory that Oswald acted alone, and that Ruby acted alone in killing Oswald. As House Majority Whip, then Leader, his words carried great weight.
On 16 October, 1972, Boggs was flying from Anchorage to Juneau with Alaskan Congressman Nick Begich and two others. They never arrived. The cause of the crash has never been discovered, nor has the wreckage of the plane, nor the bodies of the dead. Many civil aircraft of the time did not have emergency transmitters that would broadcast their locations upon crashing (such transmitters were made mandatory as a direct result of the incident). The four men were declared dead early the next year.