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Why do People Believe in Political Conspiracy Theories?

By Ilya Somin

Belief in political conspiracy theories is widespread on both sides of the political spectrum. Some 45% of Republicans believe that Obama is not a native-born citizen and (presumably) that the Democrats have gotten away with covering up that fact. Similarly, 35% of Democrats believe that George W. Bush knew about the 9/11 attack in advance, but let it happen anyway. About a quarter of all Americans, including 32% of Democrats and 18% of Republicans, believe that “the Jews” are to blame for the financial crisis of 2008.

Other widely-endorsed conspiracy theories include claims that the government is covering up evidence of alien landings on Earth, and that the AIDS virus was created in a government lab for the purpose of infecting blacks. In a recent interview with CNN, Professor Robert Blaskiewicz of the Georgia Institute of Technology tried to explain the prevalence of such beliefs

People are extremely social critters, and part of what makes that possible is the ability to perceive others as deliberately acting in the world, in other words to detect agency.

It’s extremely useful in building respectful communities. Sometimes that faculty doesn’t turn off when it should, and you associate “agency” with events and ideas that are unrelated.

When a responsible agent is not easily discernible, that sense that something is still deliberate endures, and you are left wondering, “Well, who caused it, then?” You fill in the blanks.

Conspiracy theories are a contemporary mythology, not unlike the Greek gods. Everything that happens has a reason, and the gods affect the course of human events through direct intervention.

The ill-defined “they,” whether referring to the U.N., CIA, international bankers, Jews or interdimensional shapeshifting reptilian space aliens living in the hollowed-out artificial moon (yeah, it’s a real one), really seem to me to be a secular version of religious mythology.

On the other side, when you are already convinced that agents are working to manipulate world events, people tend to seek out information that reinforces what they already believe.

It’s a tendency called confirmation bias, and it is a sort of perceptual filter for what you accept as evidence.

I have no doubt that these psychological tendencies play an important role in causing people to endorse political conspiracy theories. But they do not explain why people are so much more likely to endorse poorly supported conspiracy theories about politics than about events in their personal or professional lives. Here too, a ” a responsible agent” is not always “easily discernible.” It would surely be emotionally satisfying for many people if they could blame setbacks at work on a conspiracy by the Trilateral Commission or “reptilian space aliens.” It’s much less painful to believe that than to believe that the failure is largely our own fault. And once such a self-justifying thought occurs to us, “confirmation bias” would reinforce it. The same goes for failures in our personal lives.

Yet very few people actually blame personal and professional failures on shadowy conspiracies. Why not? Because deluding ourselves about such matters carries a heavy cost. If you believe that your failures at work are the fault of the Trilateral Commission, you might end up getting fired, or at least passed over for promotion. If you think that “the Jews” are the reason why you can’t get a date, you are probably dooming yourself to more lonely weekends. In each of these areas, our individual beliefs and actions make a real difference to the outcome. So people have strong incentives to seek out the truth rather than accept emotionally satisfying falsehoods. Obviously, some people still fall prey to ridiculous conspiracy theories in these fields, and few are willing to face the whole truth about all their flaws. But most people at least make a reasonable effort to assess their jobs and personal life rationally.

With politics, by contrast, the chance that any one individual vote will make a difference is miniscule. If you are deluded about Obama’s citizenship status or the causes of the financial crisis, it will not have any impact on policy. Nor will it harm you personally. As a result, people tend to be “rationally ignorant” about politics, and to do a poor job of evaluating the information they do learn. They don’t consciously embrace beliefs they know to be false. But they also don’t make much of an effort to critically evaluate the ideas they come across. If a conspiracy theory is emotionally satisfying and reinforces their preexisting prejudices, they are more than happy run with it. This is perfectly rational and understandable behavior for individual voters. Unfortunately, it can lead to unfortunate collective in so far as such beliefs influence election results and the content of public policy.

UPDATE: I previously wrote about the relationship between rational ignorance and belief in political conspiracy theories here.


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