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”.
Claims that the Moon landing was faked or that lizard people are taking over the world might seem harmless and even humorous, but philosopher Patrick Stokes argues that every conspiracy theory comes with a moral cost.
Earlier this year, the world marked the 30th anniversary of the Challenger space shuttle disaster and the loss of all seven crew. With the public captivated by the story of Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space, some 17 per cent of the entire American population watched in horror as Challenger exploded live on television.
Except it didn’t really happen. The tragedy was faked. At least six of the astronauts are alive and well and hiding in plain sight. Why, they’re even still using their real names, or variations thereof. Sharon Christa McAuliffe is now Sharon A. McAuliffe, an adjunct professor of law at Syracuse University. The public has been duped by a massive conspiracy for three decades, one finally exposed thanks to intrepid amateur sleuths scouring the internet for clues.
These claims are, needless to say, utter hogwash; the evidence offered is not merely flimsy, but laughable. (At least two of the people alleged to be Challenger survivors are actually siblings of Challenger crewmembers). And what sort of conspirators would fake their own deaths in front of millions of viewers but then keep their real names?
Even so, it’s yet another illustration of the pervasiveness of conspiracy theory as a social practice—and the widespread desire to believe in them. If you think this all sounds like some fringe belief that nobody could buy into, consider this: for this theory to hold, NASA would have had to somehow keep a conspiracy involving thousands of people secret for three decades. Yet upwards of 6 per cent of Americans believe that NASA pulled off the far greater feat of faking the moon landings.