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wundayatta's avatar

What psychological function do conspiracy theories serve?

Asked by wundayatta (58563points) October 6th, 2010

There are a lot of people who believe in various conspiracy theories, and many of them are upstanding members of their communities. People who don’t believe those theories might laugh and scoff and call the believers kooks, but people wouldn’t believe in them if it didn’t serve them in some way.

Why do people believe in conspiracy theories? What do they get out of it? What can you say about the meaning or function of these theories in believers lives?

If possible, reference to specific theories or categories of conspiracy theories would be nice.

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16 Answers

TexasDude's avatar

Since humans naturally want to assign and attribute meaning to things, we tend to feel good about attributing to conspiracy what can more easily be explained by incompetence, stupidity, coincidence, etc.

iamthemob's avatar

I was about to write something of a treatise – but I think it really breaks down to “Everyone likes to feel important.”

Rarebear's avatar

Awesome question! I’ve been listening to two years of skeptic podcasts and I still can’t figure out the answer to this one. Perhaps because it’s easier to believe in conspiracy theories than to believe in what evidence shows?

incendiary_dan's avatar

Denial as a defense mechanism. Perhaps projection.

I’ve long said that conspiracy theories differ from radical political analyses in that they both recognize that the state of affairs are not good and that the average person is somehow exploited, subjugated, or taken advantage of, but conspiracy theories remove the factors of society and economics from this understanding so that the believer doesn’t need to seriously examine their culture and their role in atrocities, and can ignore things like class, race, and gender privilege. Sometimes the externalization is so extreme that things are based on inter-dimensional aliens or somesuch.

Not that I’m saying inter-dimensional beings don’t exist, but if they do that’s no reason to blame our cruddy society’s problems on them.

iamthemob's avatar

@Rarebear

I don’t know how much you can generalize that – considering that a lot of conspiracy theories are pretty outlandish as opposed to explanations supported by evidence…it seems more often the “truth” would be easier to believe than the conspiracy.

wundayatta's avatar

@iamthemob Could you flesh that out a bit? How does a conspiracy make someone feel important? I would have thought just the opposite. That one would feel insignificant because the conspirators are too powerful.

@incendiary_dan Are you saying that a conspiracy theory allows the person to avoid responsibility for what happens in the world or in their society? Kind of, “it’s not my fault, and there’s nothing I can do about it?”

incendiary_dan's avatar

@wundayatta: Sort of. More of the idea of avoiding any perceived involvement, so that a person doesn’t have to evaluate how they’ve been inadvertently supporting something they don’t like like everyone in this culture does

I think it really comes down to not wanting to have the benefits of privilege threatened, especially as it relates to lifestyle and comforts.

iamthemob's avatar

@wundayatta

Absolutely – it needed it, you’re right:

I focused on the “fulfilling a need” aspect – it’s an interesting consideration. Other than it being potentially a mild form of paranoid schizophrenia where the paranoia is externalized to everyone including yourself, investing in a conspiracy theory can make one feel (1) smarter than everyone else, because they’ve been fooled by the lie; (2) more important than everyone else, because if something needs to be done with the information your in the game; and also (3) let you connect with people if you try to bring them over to your side.

It’s a way to construct a world where you’re more important than you actually are without having to actually do anything important yourself.

Trillian's avatar

It would seem to me that the only ones really qualified to answer this are those who believe in one. Speculating about what other people feel or why they do things is something that I’m not qualified to do. I could only imagine my own reasons in assigning motivations to the actions of others.

KhiaKarma's avatar

I know that I am likely to suspect conspiracy when I have a lack of trust in people to be forthcoming especially when it would protect their interests to cover something up.

I was thinking about the theory that the government planted the car bomb in Time Square to take the public’s attention off of the BP oil spill. Not saying I totally buy it, but I thought about it and discussed it with friends as plausible.

Rarebear's avatar

@iamthemob Well, for you and me, yes. I always find the arguments of conspiracy theorists fascinating—it’s usually a treasure trove of logical fallacies.

kevbo's avatar

I would buy this explanation, which states:

Melley proposes that conspiracy thinking arises from a combination of two factors, when someone: 1) holds strong individualist values and 2) lacks a sense of control. The first attribute refers to people who care deeply about an individual’s right to make their own choices and direct their own lives without interference or obligations to a larger system (like the government). But combine this with a sense of powerlessness in one’s own life, and you get what Melley calls agency panic, “intense anxiety about an apparent loss of autonomy” to outside forces or regulators.

This pretty much sums up my response to my realizations about 9/11, which happened 7 or 8 years after the fact. One of the drivers was the idea that the government, which promises/baits us with individual liberty and meritocracy, will kill its own (civilian) citizens to further an agenda.

Further, it’s kind of like stepping through the looking glass. You realize that reality is really weird, can reflect many different perceptions, and is mainly comprised of a preponderance of belief. I am just as derisive of “incompetence theorists” who armchair quarterback political events as if they’re the only human on the planet with common sense as is any self-righteous smarty who goes around lambasting the tinfoil hat crowd.

Jeruba's avatar

I attended a theater group’s first play under new management and was shocked at the childishness of the performance. I remarked to another fan of the old troupe that it looked to me like they were trying to imitate the style of a Saturday morning cartoon in the way they’d staged it. He said drily, “I think you’re giving them too much credit.” Where I saw a deliberate plan or design, he believed it was nothing but incompetence and absence of taste.

I think some people see conspiracies because a nefarious plan seems like a better and, somehow, humanly more acceptable explanation for the unfolding of hostile acts than sheer bumbling ignorance, stupidity, and chance.

This is not to say that conspiracies and plots don’t exist but only to suggest that if people see them where they don’t exist (which is the premise of your question), perhaps they are ascribing too much intelligent intentionality to ordinary everyday evil.

ucme's avatar

Suspense, pure & simple. An attractive alternative to the often banal reality of well documented incidents, for some.

zophu's avatar

To believe in a conspiracy theory that has little or no actual evidence is foolish, but to consider multiple possibilities (even when there’s an established conventional opinion) is a fundamental part of skepticism. This “skeptics” culture that’s developed online seems strange to me. Evidence is used for eliminating possibilities, not determining the one that should be considered. Conventional science is supposed to use the best assumptions, so it looks for the one world view. For individuals, even for scientists, this isn’t the case. It’s the individual’s burden to consider all of the possibilities, and question the conventions.

Secrets have been proven to exist, lies have been proven to exist, omitted/planted evidence has been proven to exist. It is just as irrational to believe in an official story where there was both incentive and ability to distort truth than it is to believe in an articulate conspiracy theory that lacks definitive evidence. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go by what we have, but we should always question what we have the means to question.

Beyond that, people who obsess over global conspiracy theories use them as blueprints for alternative worlds, justified by their crusade for truth, giving their life meaning and trivializing all the things that they can’t handle in the more conventional world views.

The world would be a better place if people worked with the evidence they had, not to decipher the great scientific one-truth or create alternate realities based on disturbing uncertainties, but to appreciate multiple possibilities and give each one due credence (no matter how disturbing) until they have each been eliminated. People would demand more access to the nature of things, and not have to rely as much on middle men for confirmation.

The more legitimate a conspiracy theory is, the less likely people will hear about it. The more informed and influential a person is, the less likely they are to blow the whistle, and the less likely they’ll be able to. It is up to the majority to be skeptical of the available evidence and demand more, (and work for more,) as a principle. It’s utterly heart-breaking, this sense of mine that tells me we’ve all given up, and those of us who haven’t (who have actual potential) stand out like beacons to be plucked away from our nicely reported reality. Not so much a conspiracy theory as it is just a sense. But it’s probably a sense that drives people to depend upon belief of conspiracy theories.

But my grief isn’t with the world not knowing the truth, it’s with it’s general apathy concerning exploration. People will always find what they need to to believe their world is okay and they can be comfortable not really fighting for anything in particular; it just depends on how skeptical they are and in what ways they are skeptical. Can you stop at the bible? Maybe you need some healing crystals? Some high-brow prejudice? Conspiracy theories? Official reports given significance primarily because they are ignored by these people? Or any of these things supplemented with money, sense of importance, fellowship and routine pleasure?

At least conspiracy theorists are generally driven by their ideas of a better worlds instead of better houses; and are terrified of the end of the world instead of low social status. They make more sense to me than the average person, even if they may behave differently only because they have less to lose.

mattbrowne's avatar

Thrill to end boredom.

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