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Thread: The psychology of conspiracy theories!

  1. #1 The psychology of conspiracy theories! 
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    Is anybody interested in the psychology of conspiracy theories? As an ex-conspiracy theorist, it was amazing to see all of the ridiculous things one can believe under the spell of conspiratorial belief systems. I believed in a 10th planet called Nibiru that contained an alien race and that the Sumerians were direct ancestors of those beings. I believed in the world grid theory, where all around the world there are spots of electromagnetic radiation that make any civilization living on those spots able to take advantage of this radiation to move huge blocks of rock to make things like the pyramids, Easter Island and many other large structures around the world. I believed in the Illuminati and that the Templar Knights moved to America after they were banished from Europe around the year 1000 CE (I think that's the right year).

    The psychology of conspiracy theories is a slowly growing field and I am interested in anything you guys may know about the subject. What makes these ideas so attractive? Psychological studies have shown that conspiracy theorists normally don't just subscribe to one conspiracy but rather believes in a web of them, like I used to.

    Michael Wood has shown in his study "What about Building 7?" that conspiracy theorists don't necessarily argue about their own personal opinions in what happened but rather are more willing to argue about the deception of the "official story". Then in another study by Michael Wood "Dead or Alive" showed a positive correlation in contradicting ideas with conspiracy theorists. Meaning that if one is readily going to accept a conspiracy theory on the death of Princess Diana, there was a positive correlation in thinking that she was murdered by the CIA, she was not actually dead, she was poisoned and many other contradicting conspiracies being held by one single person. This may show that conspiracy theorists tend to just want to dismiss the official story than actually having a strong opinion on what may have actually happened.

    Anyone interested in the work of Michael Wood, here are links to his studies and a youtube video where he speaks about his work:
    1. “What about building 7?” A social psychological study of online discussion of 9/11 conspiracy theories
    2. http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j...73612305,d.cGE
    3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6pZc9RPNWA0


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  3. #2  
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    Conspiracy theories are, I think, a manifestation of the human instinct to seek meaningful patterns. This prevades our lives. It is the facility that allows us to identify faces. It also prompts us to see constellations in the night sky. We are uncomfortable with random data and seek to organize it. Consider the popularity of detective stories, which are all about finding a hidden pattern. Also consider the importance of pattern finding to a primative hominid. One foot print means little but a line of them might indicate that there is a Lion at the waterhole.

    Fear is a major factor. There is a correlation with the degree to which a believer feels powerless and not in control of their own life or environment. You don't hear much about conspiracies to plant flowers in parks or provide safe childcare facilaties for working moms.


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  4. #3  
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    I think underlying a lot of conspiracy thinking is the human tendency to believe in agenticity, as Michael Shermer calls it. That is the believe that everything happens for a reason and somebody is responsible for it. I think it has a relationship to what Sealeaf is saying.

    Shermer's explanation.
    Michael Shermer Agenticity
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  5. #4  
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    Another related concept is ego centricity. When a small child asks "Why is the sky blue? " He is not looking for a scientific explanation. He is asking, "What does the blue sky have to do with me?" "Did I cause it to be blue?", "Can something I do change it's color?"
    I like the idea of agenticity.
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  6. #5  
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    Quote Originally Posted by Sealeaf View Post
    When a small child asks "Why is the sky blue? " He is not looking for a scientific explanation. He is asking, "What does the blue sky have to do with me?" "Did I cause it to be blue?", "Can something I do change it's color?"
    .

    Interesting thread. However I don't agree with your assertion; When I was very young and asked the question 'Why is the sky blue?', I actually wanted to know the scientific explanation. I realised that I was insignificant, and that it couldn't be anything to do with me.

    OB
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  7. #6  
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    Oddly enough it was a question I never really bothered asking as a child.
    The sky was blue because that was the way it was, sometimes. Sometimes it was gray instead.
    It was only when I was older and got curious about the properties of light that I started wondering about it.
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  8. #7  
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    Conspiracy theories -and also pseudoscience- seem to pander to one's ego as they create a feeling of being better informed than the "sheeple". And all that without paying the price of going through the hard work to actually learn anything.

    They are also protective of (the victim's) ignorance to be able to sound so compelling; that's why they become such very successful memes.
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  9. #8  
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    I think this last part is the result of not wanting to be told what to think.

    Quote Originally Posted by ReligionOfTheSemites View Post
    Michael Wood has shown in his study "What about Building 7?" that conspiracy theorists don't necessarily argue about their own personal opinions in what happened but rather are more willing to argue about the deception of the "official story". Then in another study by Michael Wood "Dead or Alive" showed a positive correlation in contradicting ideas with conspiracy theorists. Meaning that if one is readily going to accept a conspiracy theory on the death of Princess Diana, there was a positive correlation in thinking that she was murdered by the CIA, she was not actually dead, she was poisoned and many other contradicting conspiracies being held by one single person. This may show that conspiracy theorists tend to just want to dismiss the official story than actually having a strong opinion on what may have actually happened.
    On a small scale, "conspiracy theory" is often replaced by "conspiracy fact". A child who is molested by a parent who also happens to be a "pillar of the community" may grow up seeing first hand how easy it is for a person in power to get away with horrible atrocities merely by steering people's opinions toward the most plausible theory of events - or just the nearest at hand.

    If the child shows up at school with a bruise where their parent punched them, the parent tells a plausible story about the child falling on the stairs - a story which 9 times out of 10 would be true. Stuff like that.

    A person who grows up in that situation, grows up wishing that people would entertain alternative theories of events, because if people had been willing to do that during their childhood, they might not have had to endure so much abuse.

    A person with that attitude would want to follow every logical path when faced with an interesting puzzle like the death of Princess Diana. They would simultaneously give credence to the possibility of her being alive, or the CIA killing her, or ..... etc.... because in their experience, the most plausible answer is not always the correct one. It's nutty when you consider what might be driving it.
    Some clocks are only right twice a day, but they are still right when they are right.
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  10. #9 I'm a science lover and conspiracy junky. 
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    I'm a science lover and conspiracy junky so I've gotta respond here.

    When I was a kid, I was addicted to this book... I think it was called the Life Treasury of American Folklore. It had all kinds of folklore from pre 1950's. It turned me on to other books of the genre, which included as I recall 'men in black' (pre ufo form) and reptilians (also before they were extraterrestrial in origin.) What I loved about it was the possibility of the unknown substrata of life, with all these weird things and weird people. It didn't think of them as being true or false, but rather as having a probability, however low, of being true.

    I would be misrepresenting the conspiracy crowd for sure if I said they think of the stuff as foklore, but I think its true that they think of things in terms of having probabilities of being true, and even value tales low probability things, if there is a certain aesthetic quality there.

    Also you have to divide it up: there's a lot of 'conspiracy' content that is speculative inside-politics and world events stuff, and a fair amount of it turns out to be true in time (Like Snowden revelations) and much is probably true but we won't know. Then there's the far out stuff, the Nibiru stuff and reptilian stuff, which really falls more into the category of folklore.

    I think the key to the psychology for me is enjoying speculative things which have a probability or possibility of being true, without being able to know if they are true or not. Its a trait different from scientists, who I imagine would like to have things more bolted down.
    Last edited by TridentBlue; August 27th, 2014 at 11:28 PM. Reason: HTML entities not escaped for some reason
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  11. #10  
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    I agree with Sealeaf about people's brains being wired to look for and see patterns, even when events are random, and also with jgoti, about some having the need to feel like they have special insight, unliked the duped masses. Conspiracy theorists also have this tendency to see life as a moral narrative, a fight between good and evil forces, instead of individuals acting out of self interest, or even irrationally. or with benevolent but misguided intentions. What amazes me most about many conspiracy theories is the faith theorists have that all the people involved can cooperate so well, so efficiently, and keep a secret.
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  12. #11  
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    Quote Originally Posted by DianeG View Post
    What amazes me most about many conspiracy theories is the faith theorists have that all the people involved can cooperate so well, so efficiently, and keep a secret.
    Yeah. The size of the "inner circle" of people who know all the secrets and don't divulge them - that seems to be the dividing line between plausible and implausible conspiracy theories.

    Al Qaeda is a conspiracy fact, but the secrets are divided up and metered out to their operatives in a way where only a few people at the top really know what is going on. The Mafia is a conspiracy fact that takes this even one step further, because there is no one boss at the top. Instead there are separate factions that often go to war with one another.
    Some clocks are only right twice a day, but they are still right when they are right.
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  13. #12  
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    I notice most conspiracy theories rely heavily on logical fallacies. It is one of the reasons I find them interesting.

    One of the most common is the argument from ignorance fallacy.
    Argument from ignorance - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
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  14. #13  
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    That's a really well informed post, and its exactly how things work. You can have similar situations in business, where one business engineers a situation where a bunch of other businesses appear to be collaborating against a target (competition) business, but actually, they are going off some other incentive structure the first business engineered, without any awareness that its all about taking out the competition of the first business.
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  15. #14  
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    I've noticed among most conspiracy theorists, and I definitely can't say all because of what Semites said, is that they are very close minded and have flawed logic. They seem to stumble across a book that gives an explanation for something, such as how transistors were reverse engineered from spacecraft that crashed at Roswell, right next to Bell Labs, and how that because the nobel prize was awarded to people from bell labs, that therefore gives credence to the spacecraft story. I don't need to explain why that is terrible logic, and why the evidence they use to support their claims is not reliable (in this case, eye-witness testimony by the guy who wrote the book). No matter how much you argue with their logic, they just seem set on believing what they believe. In most cases, I don't even bother engaging with them any more, because I just seem to be wasting time.
    I can never know I'm right, but I can know that I'm wrong.
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  16. #15  
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    And, of course, nobody names FACTS


    closed minded!?


    Now I had a big laugh!!!!
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  17. #16  
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    it's probably multifactorial.

    Other then the purely psychological reasons, they are also neurological.

    Too much dopamine in the brain, makes people paranoid, they tend to take there imagination for the truth. At high levels, they become psychotic, at more moderate levels, they just have some conspiracy theories. Paranoia is on the continuum between psychosis and normal.

    An other candidate is narcissism. They see them selves as been more capable then anybody else. It's a power trip.

    Some times, conspiracy theories turn up to be true. Why people don't see them then? People are wired to be conformist. The brain releases dopamine when you are/do like the overwhelming majority around you. The brain, doesn't do anything smarter then that. This is why a true conspiracy could work, even at the face of facts.
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    I have a friend whose been posting stuff about the Illuminati on facebook. I asked him, do you seriously believe this stuff, or are you just goofing around? And he really does believe it. I'm baffled, because he seems like an intelligent and reasonable person. If you're not familiar with this conspiracy theory, it's the idea that there's this secret society going back hundreds of years that controls everything, and it somehow involves Queen Elisabeth, Jewish bankers, Freemasons, Thomas Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Bush and Cheney, Obama, Tom Hanks, Celine Dion, Sponge Bob Square Pants, Madonna - the list goes on and on. Their goal is world domination. I truly cannot do justice to just how bizarrely complicated this theory is, including things like the Jewish Bankers let Hitler kill 6 million people to throw everybody of track.
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  19. #18  
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    Quote Originally Posted by DianeG View Post
    , and it somehow involves Queen Elisabeth, Jewish bankers, Freemasons, Thomas Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Bush and Cheney, Obama, Tom Hanks, Celine Dion, Sponge Bob Square Pants, Madonna - the list goes on and on.
    Not true. We threw Tom out years ago. I mean Evan Almighty! Really?
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  20. #19  
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    Quote Originally Posted by Quantum immortal View Post
    it's probably multifactorial.

    Other then the purely psychological reasons, they are also neurological.

    Too much dopamine in the brain, makes people paranoid, they tend to take there imagination for the truth. At high levels, they become psychotic, at more moderate levels, they just have some conspiracy theories. Paranoia is on the continuum between psychosis and normal.

    An other candidate is narcissism. They see them selves as been more capable then anybody else. It's a power trip.

    Some times, conspiracy theories turn up to be true. Why people don't see them then? People are wired to be conformist. The brain releases dopamine when you are/do like the overwhelming majority around you. The brain, doesn't do anything smarter then that. This is why a true conspiracy could work, even at the face of facts.
    I have recently read a bit about the dopamine idea in Michael Shermer's The Believing Brain. It's a very interesting point!
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  21. #20  
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    Quote Originally Posted by DianeG View Post
    I have a friend whose been posting stuff about the Illuminati on facebook. I asked him, do you seriously believe this stuff, or are you just goofing around? And he really does believe it. I'm baffled, because he seems like an intelligent and reasonable person. If you're not familiar with this conspiracy theory, it's the idea that there's this secret society going back hundreds of years that controls everything, and it somehow involves Queen Elisabeth, Jewish bankers, Freemasons, Thomas Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Bush and Cheney, Obama, Tom Hanks, Celine Dion, Sponge Bob Square Pants, Madonna - the list goes on and on. Their goal is world domination. I truly cannot do justice to just how bizarrely complicated this theory is, including things like the Jewish Bankers let Hitler kill 6 million people to throw everybody of track.

    The Illuminati is a conspiracy theory that is an excellent example for showing the effects of pareidolia, paranoia and the ability of people to construct elaborate pieces of fiction. Think about it. An ancient, secret organisation that is so powerful it has branches everywhere, but at the same time it is unable to stop people from posting YouTube videos, podcasts and Facebook posters about them.
    "The only safe rule is to dispute only with those of your acquaintance of whom you know that they possess sufficient intelligence and self-respect not to advance absurdities; to appeal to reason and not to authority, and to listen to reason and yield to it; and, finally, to be willing to accept reason even from an opponent, and to be just enough to bear being proved to be in the wrong."

    ~ Arthur Schopenhauer, The Art of Being Right: 38 Ways to Win an Argument (1831), Stratagem XXXVIII.
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  22. #21  
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    That's a theory that I've long thought, that conspiracy theories are a result of our tendency to detect agency. Conspiracy theories feature events being the result of the decisions of the conspiracies' masterminds rather than the collective effect of a lot of small-scale decisions.
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