The Edmond Sun

Opinion

November 27, 2013

Conspiracy theories: Why we believe the unbelievable

LOS ANGELES — With the passing of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy last week, and the accompanying fusillade of documentaries purporting to prove there was a conspiracy behind it, we might expect (and hope) that cabalistic conjecturing will wane until the next big anniversary.

Don’t count on it. A poll this month found that 61 percent of Americans who responded still believe that JFK was the victim of a conspiracy, despite the fact that the preponderance of evidence points to Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone assassin.

Why do so many people refuse to accept this simple and obvious conclusion? The answer: psychology.

There are three psychological effects at work here, starting with “cognitive dissonance,” or the discomfort felt when holding two ideas that are not in harmony. We attempt to reduce the dissonance by altering one of the ideas to be in accord with the other. In this case, the two discordant ideas are (1) JFK as one of the most powerful people on Earth who was (2) killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, a lone loser, a nobody. Camelot brought down by a curmudgeon.

That doesn’t feel right. To balance the scale, conspiracy elements are stacked onto the Oswald side: the CIA, the FBI, the KGB, the Mafia, Fidel Castro, Lyndon Johnson and, in Oliver Stone’s telling in his film “JFK,” the military-industrial complex.

Cognitive dissonance was at work shortly after Princess Diana’s death, which was the result of drunk driving, speeding and no seat belt. But princesses are not supposed to die the way thousands of regular people die each year, so the British royal family, the British intelligence services and others had to be fingered as co-conspirators.

By contrast, there is no cognitive dissonance for the Holocaust — one of the worst crimes in history committed by one of the most criminal regimes in history.

A second psychological effect is the “monological belief system,” or “a unitary, closed-off worldview in which beliefs come together in a mutually supportive network,” in the words of University of Kent researchers Michael J. Wood, Karen M. Douglas and Robbie M. Sutton in a 2012 paper titled “Dead and Alive: Beliefs in Contradictory Conspiracy Theories.” A conspiracy theory, they wrote, is “a proposed plot by powerful people or organizations working together in secret to accomplish some (usually sinister) goal.” Once you believe that “one massive, sinister conspiracy could be successfully executed in near-perfect secrecy (it) suggests that many such plots are possible.”

With this cabalistic paradigm in place, conspiracies can become “the default explanation for any given event.” For example, the Kent researchers found that people who believe that Princess Diana was killed by MI6 were also more likely to believe that the moon landing was a hoax, that HIV was created in a laboratory as a biological weapon and that governments are hiding extraterrestrials. The effect is even more pronounced when the conspiracies contradict one another. People who believed that Diana faked her own death were “marginally more likely” to also believe that she was killed.

A third psychological effect is “confirmation bias,” or the tendency to look for and find confirming evidence for what you already believe and to ignore disconfirming evidence. Once you believe, say, that 9/11 was an inside job by the Bush administration, you focus on the handful of anomalies that fateful day and connect them into a seemingly meaningful pattern, while ignoring the massive evidence pointing to Al Qaeda. JFK conspiracy theorists ignore the massive evidence pointing to Oswald while seeking deep meaning in trivial matters, such as the man with the umbrella on the grassy knoll, or the puff of smoke behind the picket fence, or the odd noises echoing around Dealey Plaza. Each become pregnant with meaning when the mind goes in search of cabals.

Such conspiracy-mongering may seem harmless, but there’s a dark side. Another study this year by University of Kent researchers found that “exposure to information supporting conspiracy theories reduced participants’ intentions to engage in politics, relative to participants who were given information refuting conspiracy theories.” They attributed this effect to “feelings of political powerlessness.” What can any of us regular folks do if the world is run by a handful of secret societies (like the Illuminati) or families (such as the Rockefellers or Rothschilds) or operatives (think CIA or KGB) operating clandestinely to establish a new world order?

What happens in history matters, and where conspiracies are real — as in the case of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln — we should ferret them out. But when conspiracy-mongering leads to absurd conclusions and diverts our attention from real, pressing political issues and leads people to become politically apathetic, it can be a dangerous waste of time.

MICHAEL SHERMER is the publisher of Skeptic magazine, an adjunct professor at Chapman University and Claremont Graduate University and the author of “The Believing Brain.” He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times. The column was distributed by MCT Information Services.

1
Text Only
Opinion
  • Is English getting dissed?

    Is the English language being massacred by the young, the linguistically untidy and anyone who uses the Internet? Absolutely.
    Is that anything new? Hardly.
    Many words and expressions in common parlance today would have raised the hackles of language scolds in the not-so-distant past. For evidence, let’s look at some examples from recent newspaper articles.

    July 31, 2014

  • 'Too big to fail' equals 'too eager to borrow'

    Four years ago this month, President Barack Obama signed the Dodd-Frank Act into law, promising that the 848-page financial law would “put a stop to taxpayer bailouts once and for all,” he said. But recently, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren told a Detroit crowd that “the biggest banks are even bigger than they were when they got too big to fail in 2008.”
    Who’s right?

    July 30, 2014

  • Sheltons travel for better life for family

    Some time around 1865 a mixed-race African American couple, William and Mary Shelton, made their way from Mississippi to east Texas. Nothing is known for certain of their origins in he Magnolia state, or the circumstances under which they began their new lives in Texas.

    July 29, 2014

  • Film critic Turan produces book

    Kenneth Turan, who is the film critic for National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition,” has written a book “Not to be Missed, Fifty-Four Favorites from a Life Time of Film.” His list of movies span the gamut from the beginnings of filmmaking through the present day.
    There are some surprising omissions on his list. While he includes two films, “A Touch of Evil” and Chimes at Midnight” made by Orson Welles, and one, “The Third Man,” that Welles starred in but did not direct. He did not however, include “Citizen Kane,” that was the first movie Welles made, that is  often cited by both film critics and historians as a favorite film.

    July 28, 2014

  • Logan County’s disputed zone

    Watchers of “Star Trek” may recall the episode from the original series entitled, “Day of the Dove.” In this episode, Captain Kirk and his crew are forced by a series of circumstances into a confrontation with the Klingons. The conflict eventually resolves after Kirk realizes that the circumstances have been intentionally designed by an alien force which feeds off negative emotions, especially fear and anger. Kirk and his crew communicate this fact to the Klingons and the conflict subsides. No longer feeding upon confrontation, the alien force is weakened and successfully driven away.

    July 28, 2014

  • Russell leads in Sun poll

    Polling results of an unscientific poll at www.edmondsun.com show that Steve Russell, GOP candidate for the 5th District congressional seat, is in the lead with 57 percent of the vote ahead of the Aug. 26 runoff election. Thirty readers participated in the online poll.

    July 28, 2014

  • Healthier and Wealthier? Not in Oklahoma

    Increased copays, decreased coverage, diminished health care access, reduced provider budgets and increased frustration are all the outcomes of the Legislature’s 2014 health care funding decisions. Unlike some years in the past when a languishing state economy forced legislators into making cuts, the undesirable outcomes this year could easily have been avoided.

    July 26, 2014

  • Medicaid reform a necessity

    Historically, education spending by the state of Oklahoma has been the largest budget item. This is no longer the case. In recent years, the state of Oklahoma spends more on Medicaid (operated by the Oklahoma Health Care Authority) than common education and higher education combined, according to the state’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report.

    July 25, 2014

  • Remembering lessons from 1974

    This week marks the 40th anniversary of an important milestone in America’s constitutional history. On July 24, 1974, the Supreme Court voted 8-0 to order the Nixon White House to turn over audiotapes that would prove the president and his close aides were guilty of criminal violations. This ruling established with crystal clarity that the executive branch could not hide behind the shield of executive privilege to protect itself from the consequences of illegal behavior. It was a triumph for the continued vitality of our constitutional form of government.

    July 25, 2014

  • RedBlueAmerica: Is parenting being criminalized in America?

    Debra Harrell was arrested recently after the McDonald’s employee let her daughter spend the day playing in a nearby park while she worked her shift. The South Carolina woman says her daughter had a cell phone in case of danger, and critics say that children once were given the independence to spend a few unsupervised hours in a park.
    Is it a crime to parent “free-range” kids? Does Harrell deserve her problems? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, debate the issue.

    July 24, 2014

Poll

The runoff race for the 5th District congressional seat is set for Aug. 26. If the voting were today, which candidate would you support?

Al McAffrey
Tom Guild
Undecided
     View Results